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College Road Trip: NCAA's Big 10

By Selena Fragassi


As everyone heads back to school this fall, so does Unique Venues magazine. We take a homecoming tour of some of the Big 10 Conference schools that are at the top of their game for meetings and events with award-winning dining, on-site hotels and conference centers, revamped student unions and even some new stadium features for groups. Game on!

University of Nebraska–Lincoln (Lincoln, NE)
Not only is Memorial Stadium one of the most prominent turfs for game day, but UNL’s on-site meeting and event spaces are also a draw for big crowds. “We can fit more than 5,000 people into one of our facilities easily,” says Jacquie Hirschman-Eller, conference services manager. “Planners like the fact that we have large spaces for them, too.”

That certainly is the case with organizers of an annual Thespian Festival that hosts up to 4,200 for one week with activities in the university’s Lied Center, “a state-of-the-art performing arts center that is rather unusual because it has large breakout rooms attached to it,” says Hirschman-Eller. (2 ‘as well as’ in one sentence?)There’s also an arena-sized community center that seats 8,000 with an in-the-round layout as well as smaller spaces in traditional classrooms as well as venues on the new Innovation Campus, which has an auditorium for 400 people.

Bookings are for summer months only and provide overnight accommodations with an option for hotel-style guest housing. Because everything is centrally located right on campus—which is easily accessible in the heart of the Midwest—it’s attractive to academic camps and youth and religious groups who enjoy all the sports the Big 10 university has to offer, including an enormous Rec Center with 14 basketball courts, 3 squash courts and a rock climbing wall that costs just $5 per person per week. Says Hirschman-Eller, “There’s always an adventure.”

University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)
Posing for photos on the trademark ‘M’ logo in the middle of Michigan Stadium or playing a round of hoops in the university’s Crisler Arena are just two of the unforgettable activities that can be organized by U of M’s Conference & Event Services staff. “What we bring to the table is really more historic,” admits Director Mary Bartlett. In addition to the iconic sports facilities that date back to the 1800s, where guests can rent out VIP lounges, “We also have beautiful historic [student] unions combined with high-tech modern buildings and features,” she says.

One of the unions, Michigan League, was just voted one of the 50 most beautiful campus wedding venues by College Ranker and another, the Michigan Union, is a 100-year-old classic venue for professional meetings where JFK once gave a speech. Here, the largest ballrooms can host up to 400 for a seated dinner. History also comes alive in the on-site Museum of Natural History, just one of 12 museums on campus that can provide a unique setting for up to 125 guests. “Lately we’ve really been touting a ‘Night At The Museum’ theme with scavenger hunts,” says Bartlett.

Most venues and the on-site hotel in the Michigan League are year-round operations while residential halls (with up to 10,000 beds) are available in the summer only, and Bartlett says her staff provides full-service to arrange them. “Because we are so large it can be convoluted to navigate the entire university so we connect all the dots.”

University of Illinois Conferences and Special Events (Champaign, IL)
It’s not just the sports teams that are competitive at U of I. The campus also touts award-winning dining with more than a page of accolades from just the past few years, says Krystal Grace, assistant director of conferences and special events. “Dining services has changed so much over the last decade. We now have a registered dietitian who works full-time with students, so we have that available, and we encourage groups to eat with us during the year to see what we offer.” Group meal passes can be arranged, says Grace, who also notes that the surrounding Champaign-Urbana area has one of the highest per capita of restaurants in the country. “There really is more than corn in Illinois,” she jokes.

In fact, the catering department plays a large role in facilitating events in the meeting rooms at the Fighting Illini’s Memorial Stadium or the nearby I-Hotel, a new property with guest housing, conference rooms and even a Starbucks inside. Grace’s team focuses on the number of summer-only spaces available in residential and dining halls, which are a-plenty for groups as small as 25 (and?) up to 1,350. If you have a group larger than that, “we can set up a satellite location with a live feed,” says Grace. She points out facility examples such as the Student Dining and Residential Programs Building opened in 2010 with 100,000 square feet of dining and meeting space and the Illini Union (with attached hotel) that has bowling, billiards and gaming systems for the off-season, too.

University of Maryland, College Park (College Park, MD)
As of July 1, 2014, The University of Maryland is the newest addition to the Big 10 Conference, and the campus is making its presence known in a ‘big’ way. “It’s created some opportunities for us,” admits Tom Flynn, associate director of conference and visitor services. The former basketball arena, Cole Field House, will now be the football practice facility. It’s currently undergoing renovations “and we’re waiting to see the plans for how that facility might be able to be used in the future,” says Flynn. Even more exciting is a brand-new, luxury, four-diamond hotel and conference center that will be unveiled by late 2016 that will be the first of its kind on campus (or should it say…that …hotel and conference center, the first of its kind, that will be unveiled…just seems like too many ‘that will’ in one sentence. With 296 guest rooms, 43,000 square feet of conference space and a number of restaurants open year-round, “it’s really going to change Route 1 around campus,” says Flynn.

Currently the Student Union operates as a conference center and can host up to 1,000 in the grand ballroom. There’s also an Alumni Center with a ballroom that opens up to a private garden and Flynn points out other rentable spaces including a performing arts center and athletic facilities including the high capacity Byrd Stadium and Xfinity Center where football and basketball are respectively played. “No matter what a planner needs we can find a space for them,” says Flynn who recommends a Visitor’s Guide that the school has developed to give the lay of the land in College Park, which is close to Baltimore, Washington, D.C and Annapolis. “It’s an exciting place to be right now.”

University of Minnesota Conference and Event Services (Minneapolis, MN)
The game is always on at the University of Minnesota. In addition to its Golden Gophers home matchups, U of MN also hosted the Vikings this past summer and looks forward to being the future site of the Superbowl and NCAA’s Final Four competition. However, because the university spans over three distinct campuses (one in St. Paul and the other two on opposite sides of the Mississippi River), “it never feels congested when we have a lot of people on-site,” says Cari Fealy, director of conference and event services. “We have a lot to offer.”

That includes not one but two conference centers, sleeping quarters for 7,000 and additional spaces for as small as 5 and (as many as 50,000?) up to 50,000 people, the latter at TFC Bank Stadium, which is the newest football stadium in the Big 10 Conference built in 2007 with two premium spaces for rent. “They’re very unique,” says Fealy noting the DQ Clubroom can host up to 800 guests. “They overlook both the field and the downtown skyline and have big fireplaces, bars and flat screen TVs.”

Another unique option is the university’s arboretum, located in Chaska, Minnesota. Though it’s off-site, Fealy’s team can coordinate coach buses for special banquets set against acres of landscaping and wildlife. “We look at every single event as very unique and a (unique and stand-alone? ‘a’?) stand-alone event. It’s never, ‘Oh, this is just another meeting.’”

Get Connected

University of Illinois Conferences and Special Events
Champaign, IL
(217) 333.1766

University of Maryland, College Park
College Park, MD
(301) 314.7884

University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI
(734) 764-2000

University of Minnesota Conference and Event Services
Minneapolis, MN
(612) 625.9090

University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, NE
(402) 472.7133