Conference Call: Colleges and Universities Are Becoming Key Players in the Hospitality Industry

Article excerpt

AN INCREASING NUMBER OF HIGHER ED INstitutions are becoming bona fide hospitality experts, building and operating multimillion-dollar conference enters and hotels on or near their campuses. In lieu of the no-frills, classroom-style meeting rooms of the past, they've taken a cue from the private sector and implemented high-end amenities, more technology, and better customer service into their centers.

While the earliest centers were built in the 1950s, the concept is just as popular today, according to Gerald Schmidt, director of organizational services at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. He says the 12 Kellogg Centers that exist at colleges and universities across the country have seen tremendous success. There are now about 200 IHEs that operate on-campus conference centers and more than 1,800 offering some level of conference services, according to Unique Venues, a marketing firm that serves the higher ed community. "There will always be a need to provide continuing education activity and to give people an opportunity to upgrade their skills through conferences, workshops, and social meetings," Schmidt says.

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IHEs have proven to be very marketable as conference and meeting venues, with the ability to appeal to two distinct constituencies: people affiliated with the institution (i.e., alumni) and people with no ties to the institution who require conference services (i.e., the corporate community).

It's easier to sell to the first target group, says Ron Naples, owner of Maple Mountain Hospitality, a hospitality consulting firm. "They already have a familiarity with the campus and are supportive of and often invested in the institution's brand," he says. Alumni, in particular, make excellent cheerleaders. "They love the idea of coming back to campus because they get special treatment and bragging rights." The other group is attracted to the energy of college students and the nurturing learning environment that an academic venue can provide, he says. "[Conference centers are] a natural fit. When it comes to education and learning, we all look to universities and colleges," Naples says.

Competing for Dollars and Guests

Recruiting guests can be tough in a crowded marketplace, though. In addition to competing with neighboring institutions that offer conference services, IHEs have to contend with conference centers in the for-profit world. To set themselves apart, many institutions are bringing in conference services industry professionals and hiring designers and architects who specialize in thinking outside the box.

In many cases, these centers represent the newest, most high-tech buildings on a college campus, serving as a source of pride and a visible recruitment tool for the college community. Many are equipped with state-of-the-art technology, ergonomically correct furniture, "green" design elements, and multiuse spaces that, for example, can easily transform from lecture halls into wedding reception areas. Some are quite luxurious, offering upscale hotel rooms, golf courses, pools, tennis courts, and movie theaters.

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These centers offer a great bottom-line benefit to the college and university community. They can generate auxiliary revenue for the institution; provide additional and often much-needed space, remedying the ongoing need for groups to go off campus to hold meetings; and attract the external community to their campuses, building new and enhancing existing town-gown relationships.

Planning Strategies

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There are a few key points to consider when planning conference center facilities. Before breaking ground, campus leaders must ask themselves two critical questions about the facilities, says Debra Lein, a vice president at Sodexho Conferencing, the management company that runs the inn and conference center at DePauw University (Ind.). …