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Campus meeting venues get serious look from planners

Courtesy Harre Union

Serious times call for serious meetings, and a could be driving more conference business to college campuses.

“Because of the times we are in and the economy, these corporations, associations and organizations are looking for a more serious venue,” said Vicki Galindo, who is busy marketing a new hotel and conference center that opens in July at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “When you have a hotel conference center associated with a university, it is easy to sell clients on the fact it is a good learning environment.”

A recent story in USA Today explored the growing interest in college meeting facilities. Even before the national newspaper tackled the topic, Bill Lindner, who oversees Florida State University’s newly opened conference center, realized facilities like his are “well positioned for the market. As the USA Today article said, we are becoming the default location for a lot of people for a lot of reasons.”

Here’s a look at the new facilities available on the campuses of Florida State, George Mason and Valparaiso universities.

Turnbull Conference Center
Florida State University
Florida State University’s new Turnbull Conference Center in Tallahassee is more than a bigger, better physical meeting space that replaced a worn-out building that was out of step architecturally with the rest of the FSU campus.

Courtesy Turnbull Conference Center

The 47,000-square-foot, two-story structure, which opened last fall, is about “communication beyond the physical space,” said Lindner, director of academic and professional program services.

Packed with technological features — “We are closing in on $2 million in technology infrastructure on this building,” Lindner said — the center allows conferences to extend their impact far beyond its four walls through options such as web casting and video conferencing.
The Turnbull center is “extending the reach of the university,” said Lindner.

For example, sessions from a scientific conference can be broadcast over the Web for those who couldn’t attend. Because the sessions will be stored at the FSU center, users can access sessions at their convenience.

Leaders of large companies or state agencies can come to the center and have their message broadcast to thousands of employees across the state, the country or the world.

The center’s 30-foot-by-10-foot video wall makes for astounding video presentations. “The view of it is so dramatic, it almost knocks you out of the room,” said Lindner. “We’ve been told by vendors, and we think, too, that we have the largest video wall in the country — at least, I haven’t seen one larger at a conference center yet.”

The center opened last fall, three years after the original Turnbull center was torn down on the same site.

The new building is 7,000 square feet larger but makes much better use of its space. It has nine breakout spaces, essential for academic meetings; a 500-person auditorium and a dining hall that will seat nearly 500 when paired with an adjacent private dining room.

Another big improvement is the attached parking garage with 890 spaces, a leap from the 86 parking spaces previously dedicated to the center.

About half of the business in the new facility has been campus-related, with the remainder about equally divided among nonprofits, associations (There are 87 associations in Tallahassee.) and government groups. (The state capital is a 10-minute walk from the center.)

The center is also in demand for more after-hours and weekend events than it was in the past.
The Turnbull Center’s first quarter indicates that it is a much-needed facility. First-quarter gross revenuesat the new center equalled the old center’s revenues for its entire final year of operation.

There’s a good chance business will continue to grow, as meeting and event planners visit to better understand the facility’s possibilities.

“I do at least two tours a week for people who want to come in and get their head around it,” said Lindner. “People are starting to put their foot into the water. Eventually, I think they are going to jump into it big.”

(850) 644-7566

Mason Inn Conference Center and Hotel
George Mason University
Virginia’s largest four-year university will add a new dimension to its Fairfax campus when it opens a hotel and conference center July 22.

George Mason University, 18 miles from Washington, is putting the finishing touches on a 148-room hotel in a wooded corner of its campus.

The Mason Inn Conference Center and Hotel will have 20,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor meeting space. The property is owned by the university and managed by Aramark.

“Right now 60 percent of the business is coming from the university, however this hotel is being marketed to the outside community as well,” said Galindo, director of sales and marketing.

Business has been booked into 2011, with the most distant a seven-day program for accounting professionals scheduled by the Institute for Professionals in Taxation.

The conference center includes a large, divisible ballroom, a small ballroom, five large meeting rooms and five small meeting rooms, all on one level. The facility has received provisional certification from the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC).

The typical meeting will be 25 to 75 people, but the hotel and conference center is booking larger groups, using overflow rooms in hotels a few miles away. The hotel’s shuttle service will transport conferees to other hotels and around campus.

Galindo expects the hotel to attract a mix of clients — a number of corporations have offices nearby and of course, given the school’s proximity to Washington, government and association business are naturals.

In the summer, the university’s sports camps and athletic events will come into play. The hotel will also be home to students who are attending the university’s weekend MBA program.
George Mason’s school colors, green and gold, worked well in an interior design that used the hotel’s wooded setting as inspiration.

Designers also turned to the university’s namesake George Mason, a patriot and Founding Father, for ideas. For example, swirls in hallway carpeting are script from Mason’s love letters to his wife. As soon as brides-to-be hear that story, “they usually book [the hotel] for the wedding,” said Galindo.

Galindo sees opportunities to combine the hotel’s conference space with other George Mason facilities, such as its Center for the Arts, and the RAC (Recreation and Athletic Complex), both across the street from the hotel.

There will be no battle for parking, as the complex has a 200-space parking lot of its own, and no confused drives around campus, as the hotel has direct access off Route 123.

“The hotel and conference center were built on the southwest corner of campus so it was easy to create its own entrance and exit,” said Galindo.

(703) 993-6055

Harre Union

Valparaiso University
The largest building project in the history of Valparaiso University has opened up possibilities for meeting and event planners.

The $74 million Harre Union, completed in January 2009, is four times the size of the previous student union that served the campus of 4,000 in Valparaiso, Ind.

Considered the campus community center, the union includes a 7,500-square-foot divisible ballroom that is being marketed to noncampus groups.

The ballroom’s size, as well as a revised campus policy that allows alcohol to be served at functions there, has created interest in the facility, according to Larry Mosher, director of the Harre Union.

“Our nonuniversity business has increased tremendously,” said Mosher. “People in the area are recognizing that we are a full-service facility. A lot of groups that would never have looked at us before now look at us.”

In addition to the ballroom, about seven other venues in the union can be used as breakout spaces. A second-floor terrace and a patio provide outdoor options.

The union is also a short walk from the university’s Chapel of the Resurrection and its new library.
Limestone and wood dominate the design, and the abundant windows afford views of the campus.
The union’s design has received recognition from an organization that evaluates architecture on college campuses and from the local chamber of commerce.

Mosher hopes to build multi-day conferences and training programs by working with a private hotel within walking distance that could provide housing during the school year.

(219) 464.5007