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People of Interest: Unique Venues People of the Year

By Selena Fragassi


This year is a special one for Unique Venues. We are celebrating our 30th anniversary, which we could not have done without the support and collaboration of our earliest members. They were pioneers with us and stuck it out through recessions, uncertain times, and even as we moved from representing just campuses to more market segments.

Our list begins with Cathy Grieve, the executive director of conference and event services at the University of Denver who has been in the industry for 42 years and was our very first client. Without her reaching to ask how the university could get their name in the marketplace, we might not be here. We ask her, and our other early partners to reflect back and tell us: “What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry or your venue over the past 30 years?”

University of Denver

Thirty years ago, we struggled to have nontraditional events recognized as integral and valuable components of the university culture. Traditional events like commencements, convocations, athletics, and award ceremonies have always been recognized as important. However, over the years, high profile events such as the 2012 presidential debate, international conferences, and community outreach programs have all become imbedded within the mission. These events have increased exponentially and have been woven into the culture of the university. Now, Conference and Event Services manages a robust summer conference season, providing housing, dining, and event services to over 4,000 guests each season.

-Cathy Grieve, PhD, Executive Director, Conference and Event Services // (303) 871.4333

UMass Amherst Conference Services

In the early years, our biggest challenge was being able to work “outside the box” for groups that were not the traditional conference. So the biggest change we have noticed is the ability to be more flexible with the types of business we book, as well as being able to offer more competitive pricing when the need arises by working closely with our on-campus partners like Dining Services, which was just ranked #1 Best Campus Food in the Nation by the Princeton Review.

-Jennylyn Fontaine, Director of Sales // (413) 577.8100

University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education, Hotel and Conference Center

Thirty years ago women were an obvious minority of the executives attending conferences. As well, events in general were longer, and educational content often utilized the resources of the university. Conference “homework assignments” meant that providing desks in hotel rooms for writing was important since there were no laptops or smart devices yet. Today, our mission continues as a facility for adult education, but we have adapted our business model to meet the needs of the many organizations that now create their own educational content. In addition to continuing to provide programs, we also offer our facility to the public to engage in this mission.

-Elizabeth J. Hovell, JD, CGMP, Department Head, Sales and Event Coordination Division // (706) 542.1044

Trinity University

Certainly the entire evolution of technology has had an incredible impact on the venues and the industry as a whole when print materials were primary and contact was done via telephone and or fax. What is now called “networking” was even a challenge because the technology was just not there. Thirty years ago, it was also a challenge to "sell" conference office operations to one's administration. Now, a meeting planner can go to a venue’s website and get the information they need to begin the decision-making process.

-Ann Knoebel, Former Assistant Vice President // (210) 999.7601

Purdue University

Online registration is by far the biggest and best change the industry has seen. The transition to digital technology and on demand services through mobile apps has been a positive change in general. But the ability for attendees to register online, from anywhere that is convenient to them, and also get instant confirmation has been the real difference maker. Not only does it allow for drastic reductions in pre-event accounts receivable, but as event producers, we are able to begin the customer experience long before they arrive on-site, which sets the stage for the rest of the event. It also allows for better control of space usage, transportation needs, and food and beverage to eliminate waste and keep costs down—all in real time.

-Nick Bonora, Director, Purdue Conferences // (765) 496.6632

University of Nebraska, Lincoln

I feel like planners used to think that holding an event on a college campus meant they had to make a sacrifice, perhaps in quality of sleeping accommodations, meeting spaces, catering, or A/V equipment. Today, however, colleges and universities rival, or surpass, traditional meeting venues in all of these areas while still being budget-friendly and providing outstanding service. I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made.

-Tony Rathgeber, Assistant Director for Conference Services // (402) 472.5063

The College of William and Mary

One of the biggest changes is that on-campus conferences, camps, and events have grown from fledgling program offices into full-service meeting planning departments. We’ve emerged as an asset to colleges and universities and become part of a multi-million dollar industry. When we were first starting out, we were a small independent office that really only did events in the summer working around construction and other projects. Now we are an integral part of the planning process for the campus and hold events year-round. Conference planning is a much more collaborative experience now, which benefits the campus as well as our many guests.

Mariellynn D. Maurer, CCEP, Director of Conference Services // (757) 221.4084

California State University, Northridge

Conference schedules 20-30 years ago were primarily filled with internal campus groups or external athletic/cheerleading camps. Over the years we have added many professional organizations and international groups. Our level of service has changed significantly as well. We used to have a crew of students turn over units in between conference groups, and our idea of providing amenities was to put room keys on keychains. Now, we provide linens, professionally cleaned units, access to coffee shops and convenience stores on-site, and state-of-the-art meeting spaces to provide comfortable facilities for our clients.

-Claire Davis, Associate Director of Administrative Services // (818) 677.7046


When I started in collegiate conferencing, the majority of communication was still done through fax machines, mail, and phone calls. Today, fax machines have been replaced by pictures taken with an iPhone. Contracts are still handled via e-mail, but they are just as often photographed and sent via iPhone. So, communications have become a lot easier and cheaper. In addition, there is a never-ending number of summer teen programs that are trying to reach every possible niche in experiential education while the tour business has dried up. Teens want more exotic or unique experiences because they have become more sophisticated.

-Jason Walley, Director of Sales at UCLA Conference Services & UCLA Catering // (888) 825.5305

University of Washington

Twenty years ago, conference housing assignments at our university were planned and scheduled on huge, handwritten paper charts that filled whole walls from floor to ceiling. Changes could be a nightmare, entailing the messy erasing of penciled-in entries and manually moving assignments. As technology has become ubiquitous at all levels of our business, and subsequently streamlined our processes, it has raised the productivity of our operations by allowing our staff to provide more services and information more quickly and accurately to more clients. The leveraging of technology has helped grow our business at a rate inconceivable in the analog era: We are better at what we do, and we do more of it.

-Leonard O’Connor, General Manager, Conference Services // (206) 543.7636

Hofstra University

Not long ago, planners only needed mailers, print ads and brochures to market their venue. Today, it’s important to add a social media component, including a Facebook page, Instagram, Flickr, and other online outlets for marketing and promotion. Many planners miss the old way of doing business and actually handing someone a sales kit, but keeping up with the times and maintaining an online presence is a more efficient way of networking and promotion—potential clients can easily see our spaces on our website from anywhere in the country and around the world. This opens up our venue for more opportunities. At the same time, however, for the new generation of planners it’s important to remember that a phone call or a face-to-face interaction with a customer helps to build stronger and long-lasting business relationships.

-Jessie Garcia, Associate Director of Event Management // (516) 463.5066

Oregon State University

In 1979, OSU opened The LaSells Stewart Center, a conference and performing arts center, based on the vision of a group of alumni. The first year of business, the center hosted maybe 50 events, but over time we built the business and showed its value on campus. In 2002, Conference Services was born out of the need for faculty and staff to host regional, national, and international conferences, events, and symposia. It’s amazing to think that from the idea of alumni wanting to have a performing arts center, we now have two venues and a headquarter hotel each hosting more than 150,000 people through our doors.

-Donna Williams, Associate Director, Conference Services // (541) 737.9820