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Conferencing goes old school

Gripple Inc employees toured the University of Alabama stadium when they met at the school’s conference center.
By Elise Balsamo, courtesy Gripple Inc.

Last winter, Tim Caton, CEO of Chicago-based Gripple Inc., faced what looked like a lose-lose situation. His semiannual sales meeting had to begin on Jan. 7, 2013, the day Alabama’s Crimson Tide and Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish would vie for the national college football championship in Miami.

“I knew I would take guff,” Caton said. “Everyone on my sales team is a huge college football fan.”

He toyed with meeting in Miami, but the hotels were filled. On a whim, he called the University of Alabama’s Paul W. Bryant Conference Center staff in Tuscaloosa for help. They turned a lose-lose into a win-win.

“People arrived [in Tuscaloosa] the night of the game,” Caton said. “A huge TV screen was set up for us and the best barbecue I’ve ever had. It was like our own private tailgate party.”

The next day, after meetings, the group toured the Paul “Bear” Bryant football museum. The following day, there was a tour of the Crimson Tide’s stadium.

“People at the conference center were fantastic,” Caton said. “We came away thinking it was the best sales meeting we ever had.”

As Caton discovered, the colorful reputations and traditions found at colleges and universities can enliven meetings.

And, because colleges are focused on learning, their conference centers also tend to be affordable, budget-conscious, technologically well-equipped, flexible and resource rich.
And then there are their students.

“There is something about being around students that keeps people young,” said Jennifer Anderson, assistant director of the Bryant Conference Center. “It’s refreshing. People see where they once were — and where they are now.”

Paul W. Bryant Conference Center

University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Built 25 years ago as a university lecture hall, the Bryant Conference Center has become a “people’s conference center” for western Alabama, according to Anderson.

The center’s 30,000 square feet of meeting space on two floors includes a 10,000-square-foot auditorium used for career fairs and trade shows, two tiered conference rooms for 48, two boardrooms for 20, and 10 breakout rooms.

Anderson said officials hope to expand the center by 20,000 square feet, but the project is in the planning stages.

Two preferred caterers can provide food, or planners can hire their own. Center technicians can provide audiovisual equipment, or planners can bring their own. “We are flexible and service-oriented,” Anderson said. Wireless Internet access and parking are free.

The adjacent Hotel Capstone recently renovated  its 150 guest rooms. In addition to 8,300 square feet of meeting and event space, the hotel has a restaurant and a bar.

The conference center’s clients include many nonprofits and sports groups from western Alabama and the Southeast. “Since we are in the Bible Belt, many of our groups have a religious bent,” Anderson said.