The following post was written by Thomas P. Cole, C.H.A., M.Ed., General Manager, The Arden Shisler Center for Education and Economic Development. Tom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about Arden Shsiler can be found at: www.shislercenter.com
In the world of conference centers, those located on university campuses, or operated by a university, have some unique challenges that are not always faced by open-market or corporate centers. Among university centers, there are significant differences. Some are residential, others are day centers; some are on the campus, others are located off-campus; some are managed by the university, others hire a management company to run things; some are for-profit, others are subsidized as a service of the university; some restrict usage to certain groups, others welcome the community. But they all have one thing in common – they are one small part of a larger organization that can either be supportive or restrictive.
At a recent forum of university conference centers, four major topics were discussed.
1. Who is the customer? Because the facility is part of a university, the mission of the university will generally establish who the potential customer will be and may place some restrictions on how the facility is used. Some university centers focus exclusively on the education experience, and serve only the campus and business communities for “serious” meetings, while others reach out to the community at large and welcome weddings, reunions and other social events as well. When the economy tanked last year, many centers had to review where the business was actually coming from, and re-think their strategies.
2. Security issues: Ever since the tragedy at Virginia Tech, colleges and universities have been implementing comprehensive security and emergency plans. While all conference centers should have a plan for emergencies, being part of the university plan usually means that the university center is one of the focal points of emergency planning for the entire campus. Because the conference center often becomes the headquarters for communications and information, all employees must be well versed in these plans as they help to coordinate all campus activity during an emergency.
Those centers located on campus may also have additional security considerations than off-campus facilities or private sector operations, by having to coordinate local police and fire response with the campus police in the case of an emergency.
3. Internal vs external clientele pricing: Some centers charge the same price for all external clients. Others use some sort of sliding scale to determine pricing, giving certain discounts to .edu. .org and .gov groups, which would also cover most non-profit organizations.
Pricing for internal groups can sometimes be an issue, since many tenured faculty members frequently view the conference space as an entitlement to be used by them at little or no charge. Some policy should be established by university administration so that the conference center management doesn’t have to get in the middle of pricing disputes with faculty and university staff.
4. University restrictions on negotiating / marketing / budgeting: Depending on the university policies, some restrictions may apply. Some university centers have fixed pricing that cannot be altered without permission from administration. Others are free to negotiate prices and features provided in order to make the sale. The speed of reaction to a customer issue and the flexibility in operations so common to the private sector center may be impaired by the glacier-like speed of university decision making.
Some centers can market openly and advertise aggressively. With others, the marketing plan seems to be to tell one person at a time, and swear them to secrecy – there are no dollars allocated for marketing beyond a website and (maybe) a pre-opening brochure.
In fact, the entire budgeting process can be strange. In some schools, the conference center budget falls under the Administrative Offices of the university. In others it is under the School of Business, Student Activities and even the Athletic Department. For universities without a Hospitality Program, the placement of the conference center on the budget can be entirely serendipitous. Assuming that there are profits from the operation, do they go back to the conference center, or do they end up in the general funds? When equipment is required, is the purchasing procedure straight forward, or convoluted, depending on approval from university officials who clearly do not understand how a conference center operates?
While open-market and corporate centers are generally overseen by people who have a basic understanding of the hospitality business, the oversight for a university center is usually an academic, albeit in an administration position, whose main concerns are research and keeping up with the latest developments in their field of specialty.
To them, the conference center is a nice amenity to the campus, but clearly not high on the list of priorities so long as it operates efficiently and doesn’t take up to much of their time.
University conference centers play a key role in the meetings industry. In fact, almost one-third of the members of the International Association of Conference Centers – the standard bearer for the industry – are university centers. While their primary focus is meetings and conferences, their ultimate goals – financial as well as utilization – may be quite different from open-market or corporate centers.