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The Time of Your Life: 8 Colleges and Universities Provide one-of-a-kind Experiences

By Selena Fragassi


Experiences—they are what make life exciting, worthwhile, and, most of all, memorable. In the past few years there has been a cultural shift with more and more people buying into the idea that gifting experiences is more important than gifting physical goods. Instead of jewelry and watches, there are vacations and resorts and spas. Instead of the latest Bluetooth speakers, there are front row concert tickets. This shift has also been seen in the reward-based mechanisms for the meetings and incentives industry, and, in general, in the itinerary building of everyday meetings and events.

In a recent story in Smart Meetings in 2018, reporters found several key findings when it comes to experiential marketing. Namely, that “80 percent of attendees report that live demonstrations and free samples significantly help define their purchasing decision,” and it’s expected that “there will be allocation of up to 50 percent of a marketing budget toward experiential [experiences] over the next three to five years.”

Furthermore, Smart Meetings summarizes, “As experts in creating memorable experiences, planners are in the perfect position to benefit from connecting audiences with messaging in meaningful ways. More experience-focused marketing dollars equals more events that need planning.” So increasing experiential learning into your next agenda is actually a win-win that could be driving your bottom line.

While experiential marketing doesn’t come cheap, the good news is that many non-traditional venues like colleges and universities have built-in options for special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Here are eight of our favorite experiences found on a campus.

Discover the Redwoods at Humboldt State University

Located five hours north of San Francisco and near the Pacific Ocean coastline, Humboldt State University in Arcata, California (recently named one of 2018’s “Best Places to Visit” by is known for its stunning natural environment, including an award-winning forest of ancient coastal redwoods that are so scenic the landscape has been used as a backdrop in big budget films including “Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” and the upcoming feature film, “A Wrinkle in Time.”

The various redwood foliage includes some of the world’s tallest trees, known as Sequoia sempervirens, that only grow along a narrow strip of the Pacific Northwest (from central and northern California to southern Oregon) and “moon trees,” which are called so because their seeds orbited the moon in the Apollo 14 lunar module. The university even has a world-renowned redwoods expert, Steve Sillett, who has been featured in National Geographic.

Several of the residence halls that offer overnight accommodations for conference groups have views of the lush forest and there are trails that provide scenic walking paths. Groups may also arrange partial and full-day excursions (with picnics!) through HSU Center Activities.

Humboldt State University
(707) 826.3451

Walk on the Field at Notre Dame University

Have your own “Rudy” movie experience running down the field at Notre Dame University in Notre Dame, Indiana—the same grounds where football greats like Joe Montana and Joe Theismann once led some of their greatest college career plays. Notre Dame Experiences can help make the magic happen with the option of several group packages that provide a dream come true for sports lovers. Coordinate a “Dinner on the 50-Yard Line,” offering a full prix fixe dinner menu for up to 10 people including tables, chairs, linens, and centerpieces along with limited use of the videoboard and a keepsake photo.

The “Sports Lovers Experience” provides a 90-minute block for flag football, dodgeball, kickball, yoga, or any other activity in one of the most iconic venues in sports, and there are also private, guided tours available with stories of the landmark stadium and photo opportunities with the famous “Play Like a Champion” sign. Most packages include stadium lights (when necessary), security and guest service personnel, and parking for guests.

Notre Dame University
(574) 631.1400

Challenge the Group to a Ropes Course at the University of Vermont

If you really want your group to stretch during meeting breaks, coordinate activities at the university’s scenic Adventure Ropes Course. Hosted in a private, wooded area on the Burlington, Vermont campus, it includes a low challenge course with physical and mental challenges that the group works on together to solve, and a high challenge course built 40 feet above the ground that encourages safe risk taking activities to highlight trust and build support within teams.

Both options are led by facilitators that are expertly trained in organizational development and group processes and can help lead any group in bringing out participants’ leadership skills. The course is specifically designed to encourage mingling, bonding, discussion, and reflection, and to address a myriad of focal points, all of which have great effect when coming back to conference learning sessions and long after teams return home. Facilitators can also come to conference or breakout rooms for “ground level” team-building activities (or when weather turns bad). When the mission is complete, enjoy a victory meal from UVM Dining Services or have the conference services team coordinate a ball pit for some extra carefree fun.

University of Vermont
(802) 656.3875

Bowl at Vanderbilt University

Be a real kingpin at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tennessee where your group can participate in a bowling tournament without ever leaving campus. The Vanderbilt Recreation and Wellness Center facility has a regulation-specific bowling alley with four Brunswick-branded lanes. The rental fee for groups is just $100/hour and includes free shoe rentals plus a family-friendly environment for those attendees that bring children along or for youth or sports camps.

An attached lounge offers further recreational activities including billiards, table tennis, and several large screen TVs to catch the big game in a sports-centric environment, plus a Smoothie King counter to grab a filling snack. This area also includes a climbing wall for further physical activities that can invigorate groups during meeting breaks or after sessions have wrapped.

Vanderbilt University
(615) 343.0371

Live Like a Pioneer at Humber Institute Of Technology

Humber Institute of Technology takes full advantage of the 250-acre Humber Arboretum on-site by coordinating activities that tap into our primal abilities for survival. The interactive Ecological Corporate Team-Building program, in coordination with the campus’ LEED Gold-Certified Centre for Urban Ecology (one of the greenest buildings in the greater Toronto, Ontario area), has a variety of options that help with leadership and character building as well as teamwork improvement.

Some of the options include shelter building (collecting natural materials and building a sturdy structure), themed scavenger hunts that traverse through the arboretum’s various ecosystems, raft races (finding materials to build a raft and seeing how well it fares down the Humber River), and dam building. Each activity will encourage useful personal skills such as communication, cooperation, and planning.

Humber Institute Of Technology
(416) 675.6622

Pick Your Protest at Portland State University

On any given day of the week there may be a protest or demonstration happening on the campus of Portland State University. The Associated Students of Portland State University (ASPSU) encourage participatory democracy and activism on campus and help lead peaceful organizing for a number of purposes, whether it be political or environmental in nature, for women’s rights, or for cultural celebrations such as a Holy Indian Festival and Pow-Wow, Bastille Day, and more.

The campus in Portland, Oregon recorded the largest protest in 1970 though the Women’s March in January 2017 also accounted for up to 100,000 participants (with hotels in the area completely sold out). In 2016, student groups also marched to protest an increase in tuition. Groups and visitors are always welcome to take part. The on-site University Place Hotel & Conference Center is also promoted as a safe haven for anyone, with accompanying signage that visibly promotes that all are welcome and respected.

Portland State University
(503) 725.4334

Tour the Botanic Gardens at Olds College

Olds College in Alberta offers an all-season experience with the on-site Botanic Gardens and Constructed Wetlands that span a total of 25 acres. In spring be treated to flowering trees and shrubs, early blooming perennials and spring bulbs, and the sound of flowing water. And in summer, find beautiful displays of annuals (up to 12,000 planted each season) in beds and containers strategically placed throughout the gardens. Further highlights include a tour of 20 collections, including the Rose Garden, Perennial Border, and Monocot Bed, plus a variety of aquatics, an herb garden, and walking trails. Groups can also participate in learning sessions and build their own flower arrangements.

The Gardens also have two public gazebos, an amphitheater, and event area. The Gazebo on the top of Celebration Hill provides the best vantage point to see the garden in its entirety. The Constructed Wetlands have 19 ponds and a comprehensive pathway system that link up attractions including Pheasants Forever Central Parkland, Fescue Meadow, Crabapple Allée, Four Seasons Commons, Heritage Barn, and Woodland Walk. Group event blocks are available for affordable rates with the option to rent tents, chairs and tables, and portable sound systems at any of these outdoor venues.

Olds College
(403) 556.8330

Take a Civil War Walking Tour at Gettysburg College

If the walls could talk at Gettysburg College, they’d tell tales of one of the greatest series of battles in this country’s history. The campus (and overall town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania) is one of the sites of infamous moments during the Civil War and promotes this history through tours that provide learning opportunities. This includes the option for a self-guided walking tour, living history tour (with guides, sometimes college faculty, that dress as historic figures), and candlelit walking tours for nighttime adventures.

Some of the stopping points include Pennsylvania Hall, which was used as a field hospital during and after the Civil War, and sites of various battles that took place in what once used to be meadows and fields and are currently populated with various educational buildings.

Gettysburg College
(717) 337.6924