Each spring, many residence halls on college and university campuses across the country transform from nine-month college student housing operations to three-month summer guest and conference housing facilities. Colleges and universities attract an assortment of groups each summer from youth athletic programs to adult conferences. Residence halls offer suitable, affordable lodging for large groups to come together around a common purpose. Regardless of the housing operation, most colleges and universities will make attempts to utilize available space during the summer to accommodate these types of groups for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, this enterprise converts unused space into a revenue generating stream. However, it is important for a Senior Housing Officer to consider both the positive and negative implications in justifying operating summer conference housing. This article will examine the benefits of conference housing practices but will also illuminate some caveats to be cognizant of and offer conclusions to those seeking to enter into this endeavor.
Arguments for Summer Conference Housing
For most housing operations, the prospect of establishing summer conference housing presents too many positive arguments for one to not try to grow its summer conference program. However, there can be individuals/decisions-makers on campus that may not readily recognize the benefits of a summer conference program. The arguments articulated below should help rally those folks to become some of a department’s greatest allies.
Revenue Generation. The most obvious benefit of summer conference housing is that it provides increased revenue generation opportunities for the housing department and concurrently for other offices across campus that offer services and products to summer guests. Many departments utilize this revenue to subsidize academic-year student housing rates. Dr. Rich Payne, Director of Residence Life at Northern Arizona University commented, “Conferences routinely provide an important source of revenue to help offset the cost of housing to our academic-year students.” One will typically set the rate structures of summer operations between 20 and 35 percent higher per day than 9 month structured rates. Structured to address the short term occupancy and numerous room turn-overs, housing operations continue to provide a product significantly less expensive then hotels or resort facilities. Therefore, groups that are generally good occupants create a larger net revenue stream for Housing while groups that cause greater vandalism, building wear, and/or greater cleaning needs reduce the net income for the department.
Twelve Month Employment. Another benefit of summer conference housing is the ability to ensure year-round employment for permanent (non-student) housing staff. Often on smaller campuses, housing staff may only be employed for nine or ten month contracts as a result of limited work during the summer. If housing operations can foster year-round business such as summer conference groups or summer school programs, they would likely find a greater need to maintain employment for 12-month contracts. According to Dr. Grant Sherwood, former NACAS President, “Summer conference operations are a wonderful way to keep critical operational staffs (custodial, maintenance and dining) at full employment. This helps with both staff recruitment and retention. “While some like the ten-month contract, for many it creates a financial hardship and ultimately makes it difficult to retain these staff long-term if they can find comparable 12-month employment. Departments with an increase in turn-over as a result of shorter contracts may end up spending more on staff recruitment and training in order to fulfill their annual staffing needs. This argument would lend itself to increased long-term savings.
Student Employment. A related benefit of permanent staff employment described above is that summer conference housing typically relies heavily on student employees for many functions of the operation. Many students prefer to stay at the university during the summer for a variety of reasons but are sometimes limited to their employment opportunities. Conferencing offers students a summer employment opportunity and in some instances leadership experience dependent upon the conference operations structure. Lynn Smith, Coordinator for Conference Service Programs at the University of Arizona, indicated, “the opportunity for our 45 student employees to garner great job experience during their summer employment.” Beyond opportunities for managerial and resume building experience, summer conference housing employment also helps provide financial support for students. For students who choose to take summer school this type of employment provides a level of flexibility and fiscal support that they are looking for.
University Mission. Most summer conference programs are tied to university faculty or staff whether it be a football camp coordinated by the athletics department or an academic conference organized by a faculty member. Through a faculty members’ service to their professional organizations or to the community, facilitating a conference event can be part of the tenure-track process. For coaching staffs, sports camps can be critical to building strong athletic programs and promoting community involvement on campus. They also offer athletic programs additional revenues. Simply put, summer conferences can be seen as mission-driven programs that provide a valuable service to the campus and community as a whole.
Recruitment Strategy. One of the most overlooked benefits of a summer conference program is its ability to help recruit prospective students to the institution and more specifically to live in residence halls. Dr. Rich Payne at Northern Arizona University shared, “Conferences offer a unique opportunity to showcase the university to middle school and high school students who are forming opinions about their future college choice. What better way to introduce them to your campus than to have them experience it first-hand during the beautiful summer months.” Many institutions have found that campus visits are the most significant factor in converting student interest to actual student enrollment at an institution. Summer conferences offers many opportunities to bring youth groups to campus to create favorable impressions about the institution and to offer some insight as to the type of institution it is. Dr. Rita Moser at Florida State University sees the summer conference business as a golden opportunity to recruit the next generation of college students.
Conference programs that work collaboratively on campus can gain tremendous recruiting advantages. “Summer conferences are a wonderful way to expose potential students to your campus particularly when you coordinate youth conferences with your admissions recruitment program,” according to Dr. Grant Sherwood. Through these partnerships, conference programs can help to bring middle school and high school students who might otherwise not be familiar with the institution. A collaborative approach therefore helps to strengthen the message to each prospective student. By seeing summer youth groups as potential students, housing programs can begin to sell the notion of living on-campus. Some institutions understand this critical time so well that they program for the prospective students.
Arguments against Summer Conference Housing
While there are a number of reasons that support summer conference programs, there are some drawbacks that one should consider in how to best approach a successful summer conference program.
Facilities Wear and Tear. Depending on the frequency of turnover, number of groups, and occupancy over the course of a summer, a single room can be occupied by literally dozens of different lodgers. During this time of rapid transition, rooms can become more easily damaged. Also, due to occupancy and lack of down time, opportunities to address deferred maintenance concerns may be missed. Further, because of their short-term stay and less commitment to the campus, some summer participants may not be as conscientious about the building and may treat it more carelessly than students living there nine months out of the year. Housing staff can address these facility concerns though deliberate maintenance strategy and policy design. It is critical that housing officials develop strategic plans for facility usage so that staff can address deferred maintenance in a timely and regular fashion. One suggestion is to rotate buildings for closure every three to five summers so that significant maintenance work can be completed. In setting conference policies, it’s advisable that contracts and policies for use articulate clearly responsibility for damages then following up with room condition forms and appropriate billing/penalties to groups who abuse the space. By billing for damages after each group, issues can be addressed in a timely fashion and without other groups subsidizing the damage costs in increased rates. This strategy also helps to leave buildings in the best condition possible for the groups that follow.
Turn-arounds and Timing. Most summer conference operations last less than three months before college students return to campus. In preparing for the summer guests and then again for the fall students, housing operations usually experience short turn-arounds to adequately prepare buildings in order to maximize business operations. These short turn-arounds may foster some resentment among facilities and cleaning staff. It is critical that housing staff members understand the role that summer conference operations play for the department and the university as a whole. It is through clearly articulating goals and vision for the operation that encourages this essential buy-in and will strengthen morale during these busy times. Often, housing officials will need to either hire temporary help and/or ask for staff to work overtime to get facilities turned for the summer conference operation or fall residency. By communicating with staff one can help to maintain positive attitudes for all in a department.
In weighing the advantages and disadvantages of a summer conference operation, one will find that in most cases summer conferences can be a wholly positive experience and foster many positive attributes for your department and entire campus. It is critical to be able to articulate and describe the positive as well as potential drawbacks to operating a summer conference program. By understanding what one gains and what one has to overcome, one can build a strong conference operation that helps to strengthen the housing operation and the university or college.
Submitted by Ray Gasser, Director of University Housing, University of Idaho