Meet Smart on a College Campus

By: Jeff Waddle

Head back to college for your meeting, where updated venues with state-of-the-art technology and renowned instructors await your group. Choosing a campus to host a meeting in the Southeast can mean deep discounts, too.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time in the Southeast that the region hosts amazing places combining majestic natural beauty, historic charm, impressive architecture, and first-class meeting facilities. But what may be surprising is that numerous university campuses throughout the Southeast offer this attractive package along with great rates and a host of value-added amenities.

Hosting an event on a Southern college campus can be an interesting alternative to the standard hotel or resort conference, especially for those on tighter budgets. If you haven't been back to campus in recent years, you'll find that housing has been upgraded substantially to accommodate a generation of students that demands more creature comforts. If going back to school sounds appealing, here's how to make the grade with your group.

A Vibrant Academic Environment

An institution of higher education is a natural choice for an event focused on learning opportunities, but the benefits of a campus meeting can extend beyond the classroom. "A college campus is truly unique because it's an academic setting and has a different type of feel from a traditional hotel or conference center," says Matt Pack, director of conference services at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Pack explains that because guests stay overnight in dorm rooms without televisions at Wake Forest, they often spend time socializing in the many common areas on campus. "It's a great opportunity to train during the day and then truly get to know your colleagues in an intimate setting, whereas in a hotel, you usually escape back to your room," says Pack.

"A college campus is truly unique because it's an academic setting and has a different type of feel from a traditional hotel or conference center."—Matt Pack

Wake Forest, like most Southern universities, hosts meetings year-round but offers overnight accommodations in its dorms only during summer months, generally late May to early August. Pack says the university has hosted groups that filled almost 30,000 bed nights last summer, including meetings of up to 1,400 people.

"They're going to feel like they're in a retreat-type setting when they come to USC," says Kate Shelton, director, conference and event services at the University of South Carolina. "They're going to have a pretty personalized experience where they've got beautiful places to walk and network with one another outside of a hotel setting. USC's campus is within walking distance of the dining and entertainment options in downtown Columbia. Shelton adds that because continuing education is part of her department's function at USC, it can issue continuing education units for groups meeting on campus.

"People like coming to a university because you've got a wonderful, youthful environment to hold a meeting; it's always vibrant and there's always something going on," says Elizabeth Sorenson, assistant director of conferencing and special events at the University of South Florida, which is located only seven miles from downtown Tampa. USF has a 50,000-square-foot conference center that's less than two years old, but the campus offers plenty of amenities outside of the meeting rooms. Sorenson says that in addition to offering opportunities to attend sporting events, concerts, and other on-campus programs, her office can arrange teambuilding exercises for visiting groups at the university's recreation center, which has a ropes course, basketball, volleyball courts, and more.

Access to Wisdom and Talent

"There are lots of advantages to meeting on college campuses, including the fact that a lot of campus settings are just beautiful and they remind folks who are attending of their college days," says Deborah Blom, executive director of the Association of Collegiate Conference & Event Directors-International (ACCED-I), which has approximately 1,400 university event members who represent more than 600 educational institutions. "Also, groups can have access to the professors and other experts on campus."

Sal Nuzzo, chief of staff for the Florida State University Alumni Association, says Tallahassee-based Florida State University actively works to match university staff with visiting groups for educational programs. "We have two Nobel laureates on our faculty right now, as well as a large number of faculty who are nationally or internationally recognized in their fields, so providing access to them has been a real help. We have a number of nonprofit groups that want to engage the faculty, administration, or even student body, and we provide ready access," says Nuzzo of FSU, which features a five-year-old alumni center with a ballroom that can seat 275 people.

Emily Berniard, event coordinator at the Lod and Carole Cook Conference Center and Hotel located on the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, says LSU matches university-affiliated experts with groups meeting onsite. "Whenever guest speakers or lecturers come to LSU, they tend to stay here at the hotel," she says of the 128-room Cook Hotel, adjacent to the Cook Conference Center, and its 14,000 square feet of function space. "So, since we house guest speakers all the time right here on campus, it's convenient for us to match them up with visiting groups."

"It's really hard to plan conferences around football season, because football is another religion in the South, and things tend to go crazy around home football games."—Emily Berniard

Pack says that not only does he work to match Wake Forest's faculty with visiting groups for programming, he also taps university resources for entertainment. "One of the things we're blessed with is the arts, so we try to team our different musicians on campus with some of our professional groups for social events and entertainment," he says.

"It's very reasonable entertainment, so you're not going to have to spend a lot of money for first-class musical entertainment or other performances," says Blom of matching performance-arts students with visiting groups. "It's also gives the students a great experience."

Surprising Accommodations at Attractive Rates

While staying overnight on a university campus may not be right for every group, there's no denying it can be budget friendly. Whether it's a campus near a downtown state capital or a small Southern town, tangible savings do exist. And the facilities might be a pleasant surprise.

"We feel like we can offer the same amenities as a downtown city hotel except that it's going to be a less-expensive alternative," says Eric Wininger, assistant director of conferences and special events at Virginia Tech University, located about 40 miles from Roanoke in Blacksburg. Wininger says he has about 6,000 beds available in summer months on campus, ranging from $23 to $46 per night. (The cost is largely dependent on whether rooms have air conditioning.) Meals are $24.70 per day for all-you-can-eat buffets. "Everything on campus is walkable, so you can park your car and walk the whole time you're here," he says. "We're also only about a 10-minute walk to downtown's shops and restaurants."

"On average, our rooms are around $35 per person per night, and if you want housing and three meals per day, it's about $70 per person," says the University of South Florida's Sorenson of the apartment-style residence halls on its campus, which have individual bedrooms but share a common kitchen and living area. "In meeting-room rental, we are more than 50 percent of a discount compared to your average hotel that would have the same amount of meeting space, and our rates don't change throughout the year, even in Florida's peak season." Audiovisual equipment and high-tech rooms are included at no extra charge in the university's Marshall Student Center, which offers a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, 700-seat theater, WiFi, and 26 breakout rooms, rivaling dedicated conference facilities nearby.

H.G. Stovall, assistant director of conferences at Vanderbilt University, says that while the university doesn't publish room rates, an overnight stay with three meals is "approximately 50 to 60 percent of the cost of a typical Nashville hotel room." Vandy's 330-acre campus has a 9,000-square-foot ballroom and is only a few minutes from Music City attractions.

ACCED-I's Blom emphasizes that in addition to "smart" classrooms and other learning facilities typical of modern, tech-savvy universities, many campuses now offer a new style of housing that's a far cry from the traditional dormitory of yesteryear. "Many colleges have moved to what I call upscale housing as students coming to campus are expecting more of a home experience," she says. "So, there are now a variety of housing options on campus, from traditional residence halls to more apartment-like housing to individual, suite-style rooms. But, for some people there is still a perception of, 'Oh, when I went to school, it was the traditional residence hall and no, I don't want to stay there.' They don't realize that many campuses now offer attractive alternatives."

"We're not a hotel, and our facilities, especially in our residence halls, are apartment style with private rooms and private bathrooms, but it's not as luxurious as staying at the Graylyn Conference Center down the road," says Pack of Wake Forest's overnight accommodations. "It's truly whatever the event planner is looking for."

Of course, universities like Louisiana State University, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Georgia have top-notch, on-campus hotels comparable to those in any city. And many Southern universities in the heart of urban environments are near numerous hotels, like USF, which has more than 600 hotel rooms within a quarter mile of its campus. "We partner with a lot of the hotels when our students occupy the residence halls," says USF's Sorenson.

One-Stop Shopping

ACCED-I's Blom stresses that because major universities can be large and complex bureaucracies, planners considering a meeting on campus should seek out colleges that offer a one-stop service. "Some campuses are just so decentralized and because of politics, they're not at a point of changing to a centralized operation," she says of the frustration of dealing with multiple university offices accustomed to serving the needs of students, not meeting planners. "[A one-stop shop] certainly simplifies a planner's work, so if they need to arrange parking or use of the recreation center, for example, the conference and events office will make the arrangements for them."

Blom says her association's website, www.acced-i.org, has a list of ACCED-I certified one-stop operation universities. "There are a lot of good one-stop shops that haven't been certified yet as well," she adds.

Nancy Kockott, director of finance and university conferences at Tulane University in the uptown historic district of New Orleans, says that just because it's summer on campus, planners should not assume there will be ample space for their groups anytime they ask.

"Contact us ahead of time so you can be guaranteed to get the meeting space you need," she says. "Some groups contact me in March or April for that summer and with all the groups we have coming in, a lot of the meeting space can be taken up by then." Kockott suggests a nine-to-12-month lead time to book summer events at Tulane, which can house up to 3,000 people dorm style and offers an 1,800-seat auditorium and a newly renovated student union with a ballroom that can accommodate 700 people.

"Football Is Another Religion"

Finally, if you're planning an event on a college campus in the South, pay close attention to your host university's home football schedule. "It's really hard to plan conferences around football season, because football is another religion in the South, and things tend to go crazy around home football games," says LSU's Berniard.

In addition to on-campus facilities, hotel rooms are often snatched up for football game weekends several months in advance, so early planning is key for fall meetings. Like many Southeastern universities, USC's Shelton says, "Football is part of our culture in South Carolina, and while you still can do programs, attendance may not be as favorable as on a bye or away week."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer and editor of ASAE & The Center's Meetings & Expositions newsletter. Email: [email protected]