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Meeting Planning Services on Campus

By Selena Fragassi


With all the talk of One-Stop Shops, these three universities have taken their services even further by creating comprehensive event management programs that do all the planning for the planner.

Imagine for a second that you didn’t have to do your job. No, seriously. Imagine if, after simply selecting your venue, someone else would “take it from there.” They would create a unique website for your conference, design all the tools for registration, collect all the payments and data, track financials, coordinate the details of food and beverage and A/V services, execute room setup, plan activities and spouse programs, book travel itineraries, update and manage social media accounts, and even print out all the official programs.

You’re not dreaming. That, in fact, has become the reality that many meeting and event planners have found working with colleges and universities that have started to carve out comprehensive conference management packages.

“For us it’s so easy, and it saves the planner a lot of time,” admits Julia Clarke, business development manager at University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada, which has evolved their full-service conference management program over a period of seven to eight years to become a dedicated division within the conference services department. They offer all the components listed above through optional and flexible meeting planning packages, which are starting to become popular. Clarke recently outlined the program in a well-received speech at the CUCCOA conference for colleagues that are starting to buy into the idea.

“For us, it started when we saw the need, specifically with our internal customers on campus, to help to run a conference, whether that be basic logistical planning or offering full registration services and website creation,” she continues. “It evolved from there. Our job is now so much more than just booking rooms.”

Instead, Clarke and her staff “take an event from start to finish,” with each person honing in on a specialty to ensure everything is streamlined and given the utmost attention. “We build a committee around each conference. One person manages travel, one person creates the registration site, and normally myself or our senior director does the logistical planning,” she says, explaining the inherent benefit. “We are always in the loop, so we can anticipate and ideally prevent challenges that might come up rather than someone coming in and planning it all on their own. We fully understand the entire meeting process, and how it flows.”

That came as a huge benefit to Jodi Goguen who works for the Student Recruitment Office at UNB and says she has yet to find the complete “start-to-finish” services off-site that she does on campus through Clarke and her team.

“Michelle, Julia, and the conference service team handle absolutely everything and anything that you need—they see everything as an opportunity where I often saw challenges or road blocks,” she says. “They saved us not only time but also money since they have excellent relationships with vendors both on and off campus. They also always have unique and innovative ideas that we could never think of; there has never been one issue or hurdle that they didn’t have a plan for.”

That’s an important selling point, says Megan Akatu, director of sales and marketing for the Morris Inn & Notre Dame Conference Center at the Indiana-based university. “We find that planners like to work with other planners. That way, they have ample time to discuss their event and review all details. The creative juices start flowing, and the next thing you know [there’s] a custom menu and a beautiful room.”

To help, the Notre Dame Conference Center has its very own Events Team at its disposal, one of the oldest official meeting planning departments at a university—it’s been around for 35 years. It’s comprised of a director of events, four event specialists, two wedding specialists, and two registration coordinators that automatically work with clients when a meeting or event is booked to iron out logistics, housing, and décor. Complete registration services—including website creation, payment processing, badges, and follow-ups—are also available at an additional tier.

After the event specialists determine menus, A/V needs, and timing for events, they enter the information into an exclusive event management system, EBMS, that helps them coordinate with the kitchen and banquet staff. The Event Team also controls overnight accommodations and works with the Office of Housing on the client’s behalf to secure blocks at the adjacent Morris Inn or dormitories for larger summer conferences. “We have individual rooms and keys assigned and have developed a sign-in/sign-out [system] with the residence hall managers so that they know where everyone is and can keep the meeting planner informed should anyone fall ill.”

One of the ways Duke University, located in North Carolina, has set itself apart is through its wide-ranging registration services. “We have had varying degrees of registration services for at least 15 years, and we are continually growing that business on campus,” says Jim Hodges, associate director of University Center activities and events.

At Duke, the conference and events services office is part of the student union, which is a unique model. “So we are the logistical support for any programs on campus, whether they are conferences, departmental meetings, or student events.” Their operations have also transformed over the years, from a paper and snail mail operation to a more convenient process Hodges equates to shopping on “You put what you want in your ‘cart,’ provide a credit card, and you’re done. …Most of the work is done on our end to get the website correct for the client, which means they really need to map out their site and have that planning done before they meet with us,” he continues, “But once it’s solidified, including all the different price points, price breaks, and however they need to set it up, all the attendee has to do is pay, they get a confirmation, and they are good to go.”

His department uses the same software for website development to process meeting room requests and summer accommodations, which further simplifies the facilitation of a meeting or event. The University Center staff has also started offering abstract management services much to the delight of academic meeting planners.

Having such streamlined procedures has been a godsend, says Hodges. “Twenty years ago, faculty and external planners oftentimes had an assistant, but they are few and far between now. So having these assisted services has increased the business coming to the conference and events office, and the revenue generation,” he says. Though the registration services are optional, he estimates that, in just in the first half of the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the department has fulfilled more than 4,000 space requests, worked with 75 unique conferences and, received 11,000 registrations totaling $1.2 million in fees. They also plan on doubling their staff by the end of the year to help with the growth.

Having the event management programs at the Notre Dame Conference Center is a bonus for Akatu as well. “We do find the dedication of an event specialist does improve client loyalty. Our clients have long-term relationships with the event specialists and know that they will work hard to coordinate all of the details of their event,” she says.

So, too, at University of New Brunswick. “We get a lot of people who keep coming back to book with us,” says Clarke noting that about 70-80% of internal clients use the event management programs for large conferences (of 80+ people) in some way since theirs is an a la carte service.

While the universities interviewed don’t necessarily have event management programs, Hodges notes that “one of my assistant managers did come to us through the event industry and another was an undergrad at Duke who worked with the Union, so there is a lot of experience in our team.”

At the Notre Dame Conference Center, several of the staff “have been with us for over 25 years and have a vast knowledge of our clients and how to navigate the campus to provide a single point of contact,” says Akatu. The other half have come from former corporate meeting planning positions. “Because of the varying backgrounds, we engage in a great deal of training. Every one participates in Guest Service training because we want all clients to be treated as if they are VIPs.”

Clarke is also working towards her CMP designation and the UNB department is part of professional organizations such as PCMA and MPI, which they use for continued training opportunities.

That has helped extend the branches of the conference management program even further, she says, to now working with meetings and events that are not even held on their campus that still need help managing programs—that includes this year’s Canada Wide Science Fair held off-site in Montreal. “It’s a whole spin off, essentially we have people working as meeting planners within our conference services.”

At Notre Dame Conference Center, event specialists have also started working and developing relationships with local decorators. “Together we can walk the client through linen and floral selections, as well as uplighting and other decor elements and actually have samples in the office for them,” says Akatu, explaining the decision to expand with external talent. “We want everyone working with us to say that this was the best experience they ever had.”

Get Connected

Duke University
Durham, NC
(919) 660.1708

University of New Brunswick
Fredericton, NB
(506) 458.7298

University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, IN
(574) 631.2004