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Camping out on campus

Hosting a conference on a university or college campus may be considered the corporate equivalent of a backpackers’ youth hostel.
Laurentian U
Laurentian University offers cheap summer accommodations for budget-conscious corporate gatherings.

Hosting a conference on a university or college campus may be considered the corporate equivalent of a backpackers’ youth hostel.

But for budget conscious companies and not-for-profits unable to spend thousands for a seminar or annual meeting, educational institutions
are a practical alternative.

At Sudbury’s Laurentian University, if delegates don’t mind reliving their youth, the price can’t be beat at $40 per head to bunk down for the night in their shiny new West Residence.

The scenery isn’t too bad either. Sailboats and kayakers whisk by on Lake Ramsey, there’s interconnected hiking and bike trails at a nearby conservation area, and Science North is just minutes down the road.

During the school year, Laurentian packs in about 1,000 students in four residences ranging from four-person suites equipped with kitchens, to high-rise single student apartments, to the more traditional dormitory accommodations.

As most business owners know, operating costs go on year-round, whether a building is used or not.

So when the last exam is finished in early May and the final student clears out, Andre Laurin and his conference coordination staff are busy cleaning up and preparing for the first event for what can be described as the university’s shoulder season.

From mid-May to mid-August, Laurentian hosts thousands of summer visitors including government ministries, service organizations, industry groups, elementary school field trips and visiting athletes attending sporting events.

In mid-July, Laurin was expecting to fill 400 beds for a weekend soccer tournament.

If summer conference traffic is a lucrative side business, Laurin would rather not say.

“ pays for itself,” with revenues re-invested back into building upkeep and renovations.

Repeat business and word-of-mouth usually keeps campus staff busy during the summer, says Laurin.

Laurentian is part of the Canadian University and College Conference Organizers Association (CUCCOA). The 75-member national organization is dedicated to growing the conference and trade show business at educational institutions.

Today’s modern campus lodgings range from rather upscale suites to the more spartan dormitory digs of yesteryear, says Melanie Harvey. CUCCOA’s Ontario and Quebec Regional Director, who’s also conference manager at the University of Western Ontario in London.

Besides having high-tech capabilities on par with any conference centre, campus-hosted conferences have much to offer. Most schools have state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment and fully-wired classrooms. There’s modern recreational facilities, huge auditoriums and some schools have self-operated food services or can arrange contract catering at reasonable prices.

“In our residence, they can plug in a laptop in their bedroom,” says Harvey. “There’s a gym inside the residence, it’s fully wheelchair accessible elevators and there’s complementary parking. We can put together a package that’s quite attractive.”

Many university and college grounds are usually picturesque and full of history, making delegates more eager to learn.

And hosting conferences can be a great re-cruiting tool for future students.

Harvey says the types of conference business they advise members to pursue are usually groups that need a large number of beds with an equally large gathering space. Big groups like the Ministry of Attorney General will rotate its summer school among various Ontario campuses.

Universities can be flexible offering packages for banquets, welcoming receptions and organizers can arrange off-campus shuttle service or a golf outing.

Harvey says the schools can also build conference websites for online registration and reservations.

“We’ve got to be savvy and up to date with the times.”

Last year, Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University posted one of their better years, generating $980,000 from summer conferences and walk-ins.

“It’s bare bones service but it’s a clean, safe and healthy,” says David Hare, Lakehead’s residence and conference service manager.

“It’s an inexpensive way to travel across Canada.”

Lakehead can easily accommodate a small conventions or groups of under 1,000. “Last year, we handled 800 people from the United Church for 10 days,” says Hare.

Some of the summer business they host includes police training seminars, forest firefighters, cultural festivals, sports championships, student exchanges and religious groups. In some cases, their facilities are booked three and four years in advance.

They also serve as a stopping point for cross-country charity cyclists and are a designated government evacuation centre for remote communities.

A 200-person conference runs about $50-per night for room and board. A four-bedroom townhouse for up to eight people is $275-per week.

Contract caterers are capable of providing everything from bag lunches to banquets.

“We can do everything from barbecues to an upscale dinner serving bison, caribou and trout with northwestern Ontario dinner fare.”

In meeting venues, Lakehead’s largest is an indoor soccer facility, which can be converted into an auditorium. Other fully-wired lecture rooms seat more than 300.

Though Hare assigns an individual host to each group, he advises prospective clients up front, they are not a hotel.

“My philosophy is if you’re up-front in telling them what you can and cannot do, usually everyone is happy. I very seldom have a bad experience with our clients.”

Lakehead’s cross-town neighbour, Confederation College, doesn’t actively market themselves, says facility services director Ron Vopni, but they won’t refuse anybody wanting overnight lodgings at their 229-bed residence.

The 176-acre campus is popular as a rally point for not-for-profit groups such as the Christian Motorcycle Association. Last year was the first time Confederation allowed outside groups to camp on the grounds.

Sibley Hall residence staffer Thomas Russell says they mostly cater mainly to “camp” business such as student leadership programs and have hosted the International Forum on Tai Chi. Mostly, they function as a hostel from May 15 to August 15. Summer traffic is sporadic ranging from 10 to 50 overnight

“We accommodate whoever walks in the door,” says Russell. “We won’t turn any event away.” Accommodation packages range between $20 and $35 per night.

Because of their reliance on community sponsorships, Russell says the college is careful about marketing themselves so as not to upset local hoteliers.

“We definitely makes ends meet with our summer business,” says Russell, “but the other half is we walk a very fine line.”

Lakehead’s Hare doesn’t view the school as competing with hotels. They vigorously market their lodgings and meeting spaces in various convention and tourism publications.

“What the university pays in lieu of taxes is quite a contribution to the city,” says Hare. “We provide an alternative accommodation.”

Some of their 40,000 annual visitors come from remote northern communities for
shopping and hospital visits. Many of them wouldn’t stay overnight in Thunder Bay if not for the university. He estimates each visitor
spends a minimum of $100 in the city.

Hare says, they thought was that they were competing with local hotels until one made a bid for Lakehead’s laundry service contract.

Since residences are considered “ancillary operations,” they receive no government loans or grants for upkeep other than what they can generate through student rates and summer conference business.

Harvey says, “all conference officers work very hard to build up good relationships with the community, hotels and conference centres. We educate them on how universities and colleges can help the city increase its inventory of beds during the summer, means they can go after larger events.

It’s also a mutually beneficial relationship, since faculty-generated conferences or the September influx of students means area hotels are usually filled.

“We play up the positives of having the university as a partner,” says Harvey.