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College Cred: Campuses Give Meetings University Appeal

By Selena Fragassi


College and university campuses are the venue of choice for savvy planners looking to get extra credit for hosting memorable meetings and events

If you think back to some of the best times of your life, chances are more than a few of them include those good old college days. Unlike any other time in life, the collegiate years are a chance to abundantly explore, network and learn, with vast discoveries made of self and community. If that sounds familiar, it’s because those goals have no doubt carried over into your daily life as a planner through your numerous attempts to create memorable events that allow attendees to also explore, network and learn—so what better than a college campus for a perfect choice of venue?

Of course using campuses as a hosting ground for conferences, fundraising events, educational seminars and company meetings is nothing new—it’s just getting more advantageous to do so.

“The entire feel of a university is conducive to learning and opens people up to being more receptive to new ideas because it reminds them of their college or high school days when they were learning for a living,” says Dan Gette, director of conference services at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Gette is also president of the Association of Collegiate Conferences & Event Directors-International (ACCED-I), a professional organization that is 1,500 members strong. It was founded in 1980 to promote professional development and networking for collegiate conference and events programs.

“The biggest reason you attend a conference is for an educational purpose, so to have that focus in your location gives attendees a confirmation that this is a positive environment to be in,” Gette asserts, noting that for the planner, the benefits are “numerous resources available on a college campus; it acts like a one-stop shop.”

on-campus privileges

In fact, universities are primed to unitarily deliver the most important (and often the most laborious) parts of a meeting, including procuring state-of-the-art technology, catering, professional speakers, student volunteers, even accommodations and entertainment.

“You never have to leave campus!” Shannon Brilz, conference and event planning manager at the University of Montana, points to all the different facilites she has both large and small that are able to accommodate varying sizes of groups, from classrooms and ballrooms to theatres and even stadiums for the biggest events. The university’s Canning Club and the brand-new Native American Heritage Center are also some of the unique options “where you can change the feel of your setting and create a different environment for a meeting and a reception without having to leave the grounds.”

For Dezarai Brubaker, director of conference services at Colorado State University, that’s a particularly important facet for the number of youth groups that routinely hold sessions on her site. “We really try to pitch that we are a contained campus. We are centered in one city block so there’s no major streets through the site, which makes our facilities ideal for youth groups or groups that have to do a lot of walking.”

Because campuses like the University of Montana and Colorado State are blanketed by nature, it also allows planners to choose from a variety of teambuilding activities at their back door. “We are right in the foothills so we have lots of hiking, camping, biking and white water rafting options,” notes Brubaker. “We are able to assist planners in creating that full experience.”

Buildings (and location) are just one advantage—services are another self-contained bonus that universities are able to promote and enhance.

“Planners only need to work with us, and we will coordinate all the services they need on campus from catering to room setup to media and parking—whatever they need to have for their event, we can take care of for them,” says Andrew Vigue, assistant director of events and conferences at Boston University, whose reputation of service has even wooed Hollywood film crews (see sidebar).

food for thought

“It is so useful to have a campus be the one source for A/V and catering,” notes planner Vivian Walker of the all-in-one mentality. Walker is with the Canadian-based Autism Community Training (ACT) and has often booked her certification seminars at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. “SFU in particular has amazing cuisine—they contract it out and use two of the city’s best event caterers. Plus, they handle all the liason with the companies as well as the billing, so it makes it much simpler for us.”

Brilz notes that on the University of Montana campus there are a “ton of food options; we can offer an all-you-can-eat buffet that is vegetarian and vegan friendly or in-house catering for more formal dinners. We also have food courts, so depending on if you want to provide food service or have the guests pay for themselves, there are lots of options.”

At Indiana’s Ball State University, that campus offers everything from Starbucks and Jamba Juice to a personal chef. “Guests can order our chef’s choice of the day and he’ll cook it right before them on one of our Mongolian grills in the private dining areas,” says director of conference services Rita Stewart. On her campus, residence halls (which double as hotel style accommodations in the summer) have been redesigned to offer kitchens as well as snack and drink markets that replace antiquated vending machines.

state-of-the-art services

Beyond catering, for Stewart, one of the biggest advantages campuses provide is top-of-the-line technology services. “All of our classrooms are smart rooms with the most modern technology available,” she says, pointing to the state-of-the-art health and wellness center that opened on campus recently.

Perry Hacker, director of the University Guest House & Conference Center at the University of Utah, in fact can claim that his campus has “one of the highest definition projectors in the state.” Another beneficial service Hacker offers is digital recording of meetings and free WIFI to all guests. “All of our meeting rooms have full A/V and video technology. We can record sound and video and offer satellite services,” he says. As well, “all of our sound and video is the newest technology and we are constantly refreshing it,” which is probably why the University of Utah’s 35,000-square-foot conference center is booked almost daily for businesses like AT&T Authorized Retailers and College Works.

Because colleges and universities are a source of academia for currently enrolled students, campuses have the benefit of being ahead of the game with technological advancements, like having wireless options and plug-ins and ports at every seat in an auditorium or classroom—something you simply can’t find in a non-educational venue.

For planner Jennifer Bruss of Washington, New Jersey-based Standards Solutions, that is particularly helpful since her company entails educational consulting. Having booked her seminars and conferences at such campuses as Villanova, Rutgers, Penn State and Montclair State University, Bruss finds the A/V resources to be far and above what she is used to in a traditional hotel or tradeshow facility.

“There are so many great features on a campus like built-in projectors, built-in screens and electronic systems that let you manage lighting, blinds and the projection. You can plug your laptop right in without worries of cords, wires and A/V carts,” she says, noting the cost reduction of such a program. “You can then eliminate rental fees from your presentation because the services on campuses are already built-in unlike a tradeshow type facility where you have a blank slate and have to add everything to it.” She continues, “Another great benefit is you don’t have to carry equipment. Presenters don’t have to do much more than learn how to use a screen and they are off and running.”

acknowledging the student body

Colleges and universities also have presenters at your disposal. Says Gette, “There’s built-in speakers on a college campus, such as professors and doctoral students, so planners can tap into professionals of a given field easily without having to do much research.” In fact, Brilz has a speaker office at the University of Montana to help facilitate the connection.

An additional network to utilize at a college or university is the student body who are ripe for volunteering and manning events. Hacker says there is a “great number of young and enthusiastic staff members” at the University of Utah “who are eager to learn and assist in the front of the house and learn more about the hospitality and tourism options in their university area.”

Katrina Tu, a planner with the Vancouver Economic Commission, hosted a conference last January that called for student volunteers who helped assist in every area of her event. It’s a win-win for the students, too, she says. “It helped them gain experience in the subject matter. When they weren’t assigned to help, the students could attend the conference and get exposure; plus they got in for free by volunteering their time.”

Kay Wilson, the director of Younts Conference Center and Summer Programs at South Carolina-based Furman University, has also used the school’s music students for a number of weddings that are attracted to the onsite chapel. “Because of our music department, we can provide a band if the bride and groom needs it.”

Regarding entertainment, campuses are also fully scheduled with a variety of arts and culture programs that groups can attend. “There’s so much going on from sporting events to guest lectures and plays,” notes Brilz. A bonus: “You don’t have to rent a bus to take a group to the theatre for the evening,” seconds Stewart. “You can just walk down the hall.”

overnight accommodations

But by far one of the greatest features of a campus is the access to affordable and convenient accommodations for overnight stays. “Renting our dorms only costs $19/night, so it’s pretty economical,” says Brilz. Adds Vigue of Boston University, “Our room rates are some of the best in the city.” And if you are thinking, ‘dorm rooms, really?’ … think again.

“We spend a lot of time making sure all the spaces are freshly remodeled and not designed to look like a regular campus,” says Hacker of the accommodations at the University of Utah. “We do have residence halls but all are suite style because they were built for the Olympics; they are spacious with more amenities.”

While the University of Montana can only offer accommodations in the summer when students are on break (one of the downfalls of campus timing), Brilz does note the partnerships she’s helped establish with hotels. “There are several properties within walking distance that are great at providing university rates and shuttle services.”

And as more and more colleges and universities see the growing impact they have on the hospitality industry, according to Gette, the trend is moving towards campuses breaking ground on their own hotels for year-round sleeping quarters.

He says, “More schools are looking at having hotels on campus to support the mission of hosting meetings and events on a year-round basis. It’s a way to get additional revenue and I think a trend we will continue to see growing.”

true campus colors

Although universities and colleges are not without their challenges (timing being one of the most essential), many campus-based event departments work diligently to circumvent the issues.

Planner Lea Carpenter, of Vancouver-based Lea Carpenter Events, cautions that colleges often have “an inability to secure venue spaces early, so you won’t be able to confirm rooms until the school knows their fall or spring class schedules.” Walker has been faced with this problem as well, especially when Canada’s desirable MBA programs get priority for meeting spaces.

Yet Vigue asserts that while “it is more difficult during the school year because of classes and university events, wherever we can fit something in, we try to do so.” And Carpenter does find that hosting evening events on campus is much more flexible. At Furman University, Wilson says there is an advantage when it comes to timing, as she is able to offer groups greater timeblocks than a hotel would be able to provide.

Another challenge Carpenter finds is that campuses can be too spread out. “If you host in a large university space, it can be difficult for participants not familiar with the venue to find it,” she says, but to resolve that issue, she recommends more signage and directional support for incoming guests.

For her, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. “Campuses are fantastic because they are less expensive and flexible, and most importantly, provide an environment around dialogue and sharing information, so it gives my events credibility,” she says. “For events I don’t host on a campus, I spend a lot of time trying to replicate that environment.”

Because of reasoning like Carpenter’s, the future of hosting meetings and events on a campus is bright, says Hacker. “The future holds a lot for our industry. More universities are looking at building hotels and conference centers for that reason,” he says, “because they see the value as an industry of promoting the space and being on a campus. It’s growing with the economy being the way it is and with people looking for alternatives. Universities are prime in picking up that market.”