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The cat’s meow

Courtesy Conference Center and Inn at Clemson University

First-time visitors to the Conference Center and Inn at Clemson University (CCICU) are usually taken aback by its appearance.

Approaching roads wind across the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and through Clemson, a sleepy South Carolina college town. Suddenly, a modern resort pops into view, set on a wide lake and bordered by emerald golf fairways and lush gardens.

“Even if they’ve looked at our website, many people still think that because we’re on a college campus, we might be a refurbished dorm,” said Penny Hall, marketing and special programs manager. “You can see the surprise on their faces when they step into the reception area.”

Conference center opened in 1995
Built in the 1990s, the conference complex includes the Madren Conference Center, the James F. Martin Inn and the Walker golf course. Private gifts and state capital improvement funds built the 58,000-square-foot, $9 million conference center in 1995. The golf course followed, then the inn.

“Back in the early ’90s, people said to me, ‘No one is going to leave the main campus to come all the way out here to the southern part,’” said Jeff Martin, the center’s executive director. “Now 60 percent of our business is university-related, and what I hear is ‘What did we ever do without this place?’”

Eight to 10 events are held there each day, overseen by a staff of 120, including operations and tech staff who wear highly visible Clemson orange polo shirts.

The Madren Center is the state’s lone member of the International Association of Conference Centers; its 17,000 square feet of meeting space includes a 5,660-square-foot grand ballroom, an executive boardroom for 26, four meeting rooms, three training rooms and a tiered auditorium with 107 eight-hour chairs. Two seminar rooms seat 36 and 40, respectively. In each, half moons of tables and chairs, two rows per side, face one another. According to Martin, both are heavily used because their table arrangement “forces people to talk to each other.”

Given its lakeside setting and South Carolina’s temperate climate, it makes sense that the center would make use of the outdoors. The 10,000-square-foot Owen Pavilion, a popular seasonal wedding location, is covered but open to the air, with a view of 5,600-acre Lake Hartwell and several holes of the golf course. Groups can have barbecues there, catered in-house.

Groups enjoy outdoor venues

Four patios make it easy for attendees to get outside. One is in a garden, with a pergola and a lake view. A Clemson grad funded another outside the restaurant and bar so he could watch golfers miss puts on the 18th hole. Jazz soothes the soul there every Thursday.

The center’s restaurant, Seasons by the Lake, underwent a $475,000 renovation in the spring and now serves a lunch buffet weekdays and a Sunday brunch with emphasis on regional fare such as crab cakes and shrimp and grits.

The dining room and patio seat about 125; a private dining room seats 12. Joe’s Place, the attached lounge, shares extensive lake and golf-course views and serves a lighter menu.

A nearby dock allows boaters to park and visit the restaurant and bar; groups can also take an evening cruise and have dinner catered by Seasons.

“Essentially, we’re a resort setting with university prices,” said Martin. “Our brand is the university. We keep everything up to hotel standards with continuous improvement programs. Five percent of our gross goes back into the facility.”

Among the center’s next projects is 43 golf villas, to be built in the next few years.
Although special group rates are often available in summer and early winter, CCICU has no off-season. Two or more weddings are held there each weekend; university and corporate meetings keep the facility busy Monday through Friday.

The only caveat: No inn rooms are available during home football games. Although meeting attendees can nab high-altitude tickets in the stadium, all overnight rooms are reserved for Clemson donors whose gifts fund the school’s scholarships.

In addition to 62 guest rooms, the four-story inn has 27 suites. Two are deluxe. One is a hospitality suite for small meetings and dinners; the other offers a lake view, a wet bar and a whirlpool tub.

Other amenities include free wireless Internet access, an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, a jogging trail and a staff that treats guests like family.

Home grown leads to high standards
“The fact that it’s owned by a university, and not by a franchise, gives the inn a homey feel,” said Sharon Franks, the inn’s general manager. “We essentially have no staff turnover. Only one manager has left in 15 years. The fact that we care about our employees translates into customer service. I hear from guests all the time that staff members always go out of their way to help. And that translates into repeat business.”

Martin is passionate about customer service, and he often speaks on the topic to meetings groups and various on-campus departments. Also available as speakers are retired professors in the university’s Emeritus College.

In addition to golf (see sidebar, p. 13), the center partners with the university-run Outdoor Lab, a wooded outdoor classroom five miles away that provides group initiatives, high- and low-ropes courses and a climbing wall.

“Our facility is very relaxing,” said Martin. “As people begin to relax, their creativity increases. Walls are broken down, masks are taken off, and ideas begin to emerge.”

Because the conference center is in a college town, there is plenty to do. The inn’s staff can help arrange an itinerary.

During the school year, Clemson sports are a draw. Concerts, musicals and plays reign at the school’s Brooks Center for the Performing Arts; artworks attract at the Lee Gallery.

Itineraries take in antiques, autos

Adjacent to the Walker Course, the 295-acre South Carolina Botanical Garden has a discovery center, miles of trails and the Bob Campbell Geology Museum, with virtual and actual tours.

Clemson’s cutting-edge International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville and the BMW Zentrum Museum in Spartanburg offer tours.

Shoppers like the antique stores in Pendleton; outdoor types opt for  white-water rafting in the Nantahala Gorge and pontoon rides on Lake Hartwell.

Visitors can always knock around the university campus, crowned by Fort Hill Plantation, former home of U.S. Sen. John C. Calhoun.

In 1893, Clemson began in the 14-room National Historic Landmark as a military institute with 446 male students. Since then, the school has become an 18,000-student campus with a palpable sense of tradition.

The trademarked tiger paw symbol, which evolved from a 1969 imprint of a Bengal tiger’s footprint at the Chicago’s Museum of Natural History, is a part of that legacy, as is Bowman Field, where William “Refrigerator” Perry played in college.

Before home football games, each player touches a rock that was found by the Class of 1919 in Death Valley and then runs into the stadium, now nicknamed “Death Valley.” Brent Musberger of ABC Sports called that tradition “the most exciting 25 seconds in college football.”

Chances are good that a meeting attendee will leave CCICU relaxed and ingrained with a bit of the Clemson Tiger tradition.