The Benefits of an On-Campus Event

By: Jeff Waddle

A high-tech, fashion-forward, center-of-it-all meeting location can be a campus as well as a convention center. Colleges in the West are sprucing up facilities and stressing what makes them special. (Titled "Back in Session" in the print edition.)

The West has some of the nation's most spectacular destinations for meetings, and the region's college and university campuses are one reason why. Campuses in the West offer a focused learning environment, location, natural beauty, and top-notch facilities that make them an enticing alternative to the typical downtown hotel or suburban resort. Combine those features with attractive rates and a host of value-added amenities, and going back to school could be a smart move for your group.

For example, it may expand your pool of speakers. Organizations pay thousands to have world-renowned professors and other university-affiliated experts travel to their meetings. But if you have a campus conference, the speaker you need may be within walking distance.

"We have a Nobel Prize-winning physicist [and other experts] that could talk to a group, and they're not going to charge you $50,000 since they're faculty members on our campus," says Perry Hacker, director of hospitality and conference services at the University of Utah, which has 35,000 square feet of meeting space two miles outside of downtown Salt Lake City. If groups know what type of speaker they're seeking, staff can go directly to university department heads to find the best match.

"We're pretty tied into the university, and it's not always just a speaker we can arrange," Hacker says. "We can do facilities tours if it makes sense for a specific-type group. Also, one of our departments is Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, and they have experiential learning professors that can conduct great team-building activities for groups on our two ropes courses."

"Our goal first and foremost is to showcase [Oregon State University] faculty, so any time we can include them as a speaker or in an event, we do," says Donna Williams, assistant director of conference services at OSU, which offers 80,000 square feet of meeting space in two dedicated conference centers. Like Utah, OSU frequently gives campus tours so groups can see firsthand what's happening in campus research laboratories and classrooms. For instance, OSU's wine institute can bring faculty to discuss wine or lead winery tours; microbrewers took part in the Northwest Brewers Conference last fall.

"You get a different feel on a college campus because it's a great learning environment, and people feel like they want to learn something here," says Jennifer Zimmerman, conference and events specialist at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to access to faculty for programming, Zimmerman says that—depending on the timing—groups can take advantage of a steady lineup of prestigious visiting speakers, such as Jane Goodall, Queen Noor of Jordan, and the Dalai Lama.

"An advantage to being on our campus is you have access to all the other events going on here, whether it's sports or cultural events," says Shannon Brilz, assistant director of conference and event services at the University of Montana in Missoula, which maintains a faculty speaker's bureau and has a dedicated conference center with 37,000 square feet of event space in its student union. Among the facilities are three art museums, the university's Native American Center, a state arboretum that abuts Mount Sentinel, and the Clark Fork River, which attracts fly fishers.

So Long Cinder Block

Dan Gette, director of conference services for the University of Colorado, Boulder, says that in addition to a wide variety of learning facilities that are typical of modern, high-tech universities, many college campuses now offer a new style of housing that's a far cry from the traditional dorms of yesteryear.

"Some college campuses have moved to the point where they actually have hotels on campus," says Gette, president of the Association of Collegiate Conference & Event Directors-International (ACCED-I), which has more than 1,500 members who plan events on college campuses.

While groups can choose budget-focused, dormitory-style dining options, many college campuses are offering increasingly upscale food service.

"College campuses are starting to specialize in the area of food service and catering," Gette says. "I think a lot of event planners perceive a college campus to be more of a [purveyor of] traditional residence hall food, and that's not the case because they can provide that high-end catering as well."

Hacker says the University of Utah offers a 180-room, on-campus hotel year-round as well as modern residence-hall accommodations in summer months. "We can offer 1,800 all-suite accommodations that were built for the 2002 Winter Olympics, so they're apartment style with linen service, nice furniture, and other amenities," he says.

The university's status as a state agency helps reduce costs as well. "We also get great deals on services like transportation," he says. "Our food costs are a lot less expensive than a typical hotel because we've got 20 caterers to choose from…. Our AV also is significantly cheaper, and we've got a whole campus technology department behind us to make whatever they need happen."

"One huge advantage is that we don't have a service charge on everything we do, like AV," says OSU's Williams.

The university also offers visiting groups an on-campus hotel as well as dorm rooms with rates roughly half of those of hotels in the surrounding area. "If I go to a full-service downtown hotel in Portland and host an event, there's a 23 to 24 percent gratuity on everything, and that's not typical in a university setting," Williams says.

Meeting planners can find similar deals at St. John's College in Santa Fe, says Jennifer Brookes, the school's director of conference and office services. "Where [nearby hotels] may cost $150 to $200 per night, our rates are $60 to $90 and include meals," she says. Last June, St. John's opened its Winiarski Student Center, which includes a seminar building and three dorms, each with 15 beds available to visiting groups in the summer.

"We call them 'enhanced' [dorms] because they are still single dorm rooms, but they're really nicely designed with a lot of aesthetic touches like big windows with great views, engraved vigas, and a common room with a fireplace," Brookes says. "What a lot of groups like about our campus is that it's contained, and since we're about two miles from downtown, guests stay together, they go to meals together, and they have more of an opportunity to really get to know one another."

UCLA, whose 400-acre campus is centrally located in Los Angeles, also has new facilities for guests. Its Courtside Collection conference accommodations opened this past summer with 100 hotel-quality rooms, a 24-hour desk, and exercise facilities. More is coming: In 2016, the university is scheduled to open a $152 million conference center with 25,000 square feet of meeting space and 250 guest rooms.

One-Stop Service

Because major universities can be complex bureaucracies, Gette advises planners to seek colleges that offer a one-stop service. ACCED-I's website lists colleges and universities that have been certified by the association as a one-stop operation.

One-stop service "gives the client one person to deal with the entire time, so it's one contact, one contract, one bill," he says. "The person at the institution will work through the bureaucracy of how to deal with the parking, the meeting rooms, the AV people, the residence halls for your sleeping rooms, and they'll negotiate that all for the client so they don't have to get five different bills from five different areas of the university."

"We almost act as an in-house DMC [destination management company] to help groups get the most out of their experience with us," says Utah's Hacker, who adds that all of his professional staff are certified meeting professionals. "People sometimes tend to think if they're on a campus, they're not going to get served and have a clean, comfortable, five-star service environment, and that's not true."

Both Gette and Hacker encourage site visits before making a decision.

"A site visit can really change the environment because some of our rooms are pretty unique," says Gette. "Be open-minded and explore the options at the university. Flexibility can be an advantage on college campuses because their resources are greater, there's a lot of opportunities there, and universities are naturally tech savvy."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Email: [email protected]