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Cambrian, Laurentian court business crowd

Across the province, business professionals are heading back to school in droves, but not to hit the books. Instead, they’re looking at colleges and universities to meet their needs when organizing conferences and business meetings.
College Accommodations
The summer residence program at Laurentian University in Sudbury is extensive and welcomes businesses, organizations and sports clubs to utilize the school's classrooms, meeting rooms and athletic facilities during the off-season when students aren't using them.

Across the province, business professionals are heading back to school in droves, but not to hit the books. Instead, they’re looking at colleges and universities to meet their needs when organizing conferences and business meetings.

It’s a trend that’s taken hold in Sudbury — the education capital of the North — where two of its three post-secondary educational institutions have plenty of space and actively court businesses looking for alternatives to hotels and convention centres.

Cambrian College got into the game last year, when it hosted the 2010 Ontario Summer Games. A portion of its 600 beds in residence are retained by students throughout the summer months, but the remainder are left unused, even though the cost to operate them stays the same.

By opening up the residences to outside users, Cambrian has found a new niche that makes use of its facilities year-round and generates some additional revenue.

“We treat them the same as hotel guests,” explained Darlene Palmer, director of ancillary services. “Their rooms are made up for them in the morning, they have the muffins and coffee and juice, the complimentary breakfast in the morning, and we have a lot of people take advantage of it.”

The school is now actively pursuing this end of the business, and last year contracted out the management of the residences to Campus Living Centres, a Toronto-based firm that owns or operates 10,000 beds at campuses across Ontario. Cambrian retains ownership of the residences but leaves the management end to the firm, which includes summer business.

Prices are competitive, even though Ministry of Education guidelines prevent price gouging, but the advantages of using Cambrian over a conference centre are twofold.

In addition to accommodations and food services, the college makes its classrooms and meeting rooms available throughout the year, for meetings and workshops. As an added bonus, the college’s eDome, a high-tech production studio that offers various multi-media communications and production options, can be rented for those who want to cut down on travel.

It has been used for everything from hosting webinars to broadcasting weddings for out-of-town guests to undergoing job interviews. A cameraman can be assigned to film the event, which can either be broadcast live, or recorded onto DVD, which is then made available to the client.

“When you look at companies covering the cost of travel and accommodation, for you to rent the eDome from us for $500 for the morning, it certainly saves on all of that expense,” Palmer said.

Value for money is a primary reason why more clients are looking to Laurentian University to host their events. Julie Ceming, the school’s manager of confer­ence and event services, said clients see Laurentian as a cost-effective, one-stop shop for accommodation, foodservices and extra-curricular activities.

“It’s an alternative for people whose budgets are not what they were 10 or 15 years ago where they could book anywhere and go anywhere,” she said. “Everybody’s a little more budget conscious in terms of planning for any large event.”

Laurentian’s summer residence program has grown exponentially since Ceming took over its operation three years ago. Revamped athletic facilities have made the school particularly attractive to sporting clubs, with the 2010 Ontario Summer Games, the Ontario Hockey Federation and the 2011 Canadian Francophone Games amongst its recent clients.

Last fall, the school welcomed the Maintenance Engineering/Mine Operators conference and trade show, which made use of three dining halls, an outdoor facility to house large mining equipment, a trade show venue, lecture rooms, an auditorium to seat 654, and the technology to go with it.

“It becomes a package for these groups so that when they come on campus and do a site assessment, we review what their needs are based on past events,” Ceming said.

One of Laurentian’s big selling points is its unique campus setting and surroundings. When the work day is done, participants can walk the nature trails, use the athletic facilities or even book a session at the planetarium.

Laurentian also facilitates off-campus trips and activities, whether it’s attending a festival, taking a boat cruise on Lake Ramsey, or eating at a local restaurant, and Ceming said staff are familiarized with the city’s events and amenities so they are ready to answer clients' questions.

“All places provide the same venue,” she said. “It’s the additional key pieces that provide added value to sell somebody to come here: the lakes, the nature trails. Anything above and beyond what a regular conference facility can provide will be a catch for somebody to provide an innovative experience.”

Helping to sell that experience is a membership in the Canadian University and College Conference Organizers Association, members of which gather yearly to discuss how to tap into new markets.

Laurentian teams up with Cambrian to present the City of Greater Sudbury at provincial conferences, and does the same with Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Nipissing University in North Bay on a national scale. That collaboration helps to sell the North as an attractive option to clients who might otherwise keep their business south.

Both Cambrian and Laurentian plan to expand their summer residence services. Laurentian is starting to take advantage of facilities like the Living With Lakes Centre, where scientists are flocking to conduct their research, while Cambrian is considering setting up the eDome to broadcast lec­ture series from around the province.

Palmer and Ceming said that while the revenue generated from the summer residence business is important, of more significance is the impression of the facilities left on visitors after their stay.

“Having people from across the province come onto the campus and visit the campus who would otherwise never come to Laurentian…definitely helps the university and our image and getting the word out about Laurentian and what we have to offer,” Ceming said.

“We’re always bringing more and more people from outside onto the campus,” Palmer said. “The more people we can have come to the campus, the more people think it’s a good place for their kid, niece, or grandson to attend college.”