There are more than 30,000 meeting planners in the United States, and all of them are looking for a deal. These days, they are likely to find it in some pretty unusual places, like university ballrooms, conference rooms, theaters, and museums. Universities rent unused space to maximize facility usage, for example, booking dorm rooms and meeting spaces for summer sports camps, business conferences, and even weddings.
Since the economic downturn, entities as diverse as government agencies, youth groups, local firms, and national corporations have changed the way they do business. But despite the shift to convening electronically via teleconferences and webinars, event planners and the business community still recognize the value of bringing people together face to face. So event planners are stretching their budgets by finding new, different, and less expensive venues. Their challenge is to find the right meeting place -- one that has the location, staff, service, and space to host events but is not as expensive as a traditional hotel or convention venue.
UNLV has the right places at the right time. "We call them 'unique sites,'" says Curtis Love, associate professor in the department of Tourism and Convention Administration. "We have everything on campus you need for meetings: classrooms that are built for education (as opposed to multipurpose space in hotels), computer labs, A/V equipment, theaters, sleeping rooms, dining commons, food courts, and even gourmet kitchens," he notes.
Hotel college alumna Michele Nichols, '83, is a pioneer in this segment of the meeting and event market. She's the founder of the company called Unique Venues, which got its start in 1986. "We're the matchmaker for both the professional planner booking space for thousands and the one-time planner putting together a wedding (family reunion or gathering for their church or club). We match the facilities to the needs," says Nichols.
Locations register with Unique Venues and pay an annual marketing membership fee. Facilities are easy to find on the company's website and are included in the industry's Bible, Unique Venues' Annual Planner's Guide, which goes out to 30,000 professional meeting planners. "We also go to trade shows where we present our venues to 4,000 planners face to face, and every month, our website logs more than 20,000 searches," says Nichols. UNLV's Student Union facilities have been affiliated with Unique Venues since 1990. "Meeting planners are very interested in Las Vegas, and UNLV is our only campus option in the city. The university conference space and its 1,800 beds are very important to us."
UNLV is blessed with a number of unique venues that have caught the eyes of event planners locally and nationally, including the Stan Fulton Building, operated by the Harrah Hotel College; Student Union and Event Services, which rents space in the Student Union, the Recreation and Wellness Center, residence halls, and campus green spaces; Tam Alumni Center, with its Grand Hall and smaller meeting rooms; the Thomas & Mack Center, Cox Pavilion, and Sam Boyd Stadium, which have smaller, more flexible spaces in the arenas; the Marjorie Barrick Museum's exhibition hall and smaller spaces; and the Performing Arts Center's halls and theaters. While rental activity varies by locale, most report an increase in bookings, revenue, or both.
A recent article in USA Today identified a national trend of businesses contracting with more nontraditional venues. Nichols' experience confirms this trend. She has seen a 101 percent increase in sales leads in the last year. At UNLV, Elaine Richards, assistant director for scheduling and conferences, agrees that more businesses are looking for less expensive locations. "People are interested in booking events in the student affairs facilities, and it's obvious that folks are trying to reduce costs." Her clients have consolidated multiday sleepover camps and conferences to one-day sessions, requested one large room that could be reconfigured for breakout sessions, and ordered buffets rather than plated meals.
The same is true over at the Thomas & Mack, Cox Pavilion, and Sam Boyd Stadium. "We see a lot more local companies booking our facilities. They may want to hold employee events without the perceived distractions and higher prices in a hotel-casino complex," says Cheryl Sgovio, director of catering and convention sales. "We also can book with shorter notice than large operations. Our smaller venues can be more flexible than ones that do a lot of convention business. If we're booked, we'll refer business to other campus facilities. Best of all, we're also less expensive," says Sgovio.
Calculating the savings from reserving space in a traditional venue compared with a university facility is difficult because hotel and convention rates can vary depending on the number of rooms blocked or the amount of food and beverage services contracted. Still, campus experts estimate expenses are anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent lower than costs at a major strip hotel and closer to 10 percent or 15 percent less than small, off-strip properties.
One of the biggest draws for booking a business conference at UNLV is the credibility it lends to an event. Clients like the serious, purposeful tone set by hosting a meeting in an educational environment. Entities like Xerox, the Clark County School District, and KLAS-TV have all held business meetings at TMC's facilities. And UNLV can also benefit from the recognition that comes from staging such prestigious events as a presidential debate, political rallies, and national energy conferences.
"University venues are ultra affordable. And people really enjoy being on a college campus. Some haven't stepped on a campus for years. It's nostalgic and refreshing, and the student recruitment factor is incredible," says Nichols, whose company got its start helping market university spaces before expanding to include mansions, museums, and even racetracks.
But there are some challenges to booking space at a university, including decentralized services, no-frills accommodations in the residence halls (where are the flat-screen TVs and the mints on the pillows?), multiple contacts, and additional paperwork. The most common drawback cited about booking events at UNLV is parking, especially since Las Vegas visitors are spoiled by the free parking offered at major Las Vegas hotels. Lots of paperwork and special campus regulations can also be tricky to navigate, but UNLV venues are continually looking for ways to ease these concerns. Clients are willing to work with these constraints because of the affordability, technology, and quality of UNLV staff and campus facilities.
While reserving space at UNLV saves businesses money, it's also a revenue generator for UNLV and Las Vegas. "The revenues that off-campus guests generate allow us to offer those services to the UNLV campus free of charge or at a highly discounted rate," says Richards, who notes that registered student groups and UNLV departments can book Student Union meeting space at little or no cost. According to Deborah Blom, executive director for the Association of Collegiate Conferences and Events Directors- International, "Campus-based conference and event activity produces economic benefits that extend far beyond the offices charged with producing or coordinating those activities." Her association's 2010 Campus-Based Economic Impact Study indicates that an event held on campus will, on average, generate additional revenue for the local economy estimated at $137.50 per participant.
Some off-campus customers, especially local ones, like doing business at UNLV because it also helps the university financially, says Frank Vitucci, director of sales and marketing for the Hotel College Catering, which operates out of the Stan Fulton Building. "It feels like a win-win. Our customers like that they are having their event in the country's largest school laboratory for food and beverage," says Vitucci. The fact that students provide the services at the Stan Fulton Building, directed by catering professionals, makes this unique venue even more special.
"We hosted our 'Institute for Sales and Marketing' conference for 72 collegiate conference professionals at the Stan Fulton Building," says Nichols of Unique Venues. "Some extra pressure came with that -- hosting your peers. Curtis Love gave the keynote, and several faculty addressed the group. It was a great fit for our group ... very professional, higher end than a lot of places, yet affordable. And the food was terrific," she adds.
Hotel alumni board member Christopher Smith, who was married at the Stan Fulton Building, agrees. "We shopped several places, in and out of the state, before choosing it. Ultimately, it offered the best location and best price value, and most importantly, we felt that the staff took care of us right from the beginning. We never felt like a number."
Event planners have gotten more creative in their search for the perfect location at a reasonable price. With the combination of venues, services, and staff on campus, UNLV is more than meeting expectations.
Campus Venues Available for Rent
The Marjorie Barrick Museum, located in the center of campus, rents its auditorium, lobby, and the exhibit hall, which can accommodate up to 500 people. Its patio and Xeric garden area are also available for small receptions and events in an unusual outdoor setting.
Performing Arts Center facilities (Artemus Ham Concert Hall, lobby, and Green Room; the Judy Bayley Theatre and lobby; and the Black Box Theatre) are heavily booked with university; school district; and professional dance, music, and theater performances. The Performing Arts Center rents primarily to arts groups and private schools when space is available.
The Stan Fulton Building, the home of Hotel College Catering, has a vast array of meeting space, including a large hall, smaller reception and conference rooms, and its own bar and bistro. Located on the northwest corner of campus at Flamingo and Swenson, some of its meeting spaces have great views of the Las Vegas Strip. The building is equipped with a full restaurant kitchen and offers everything from light refreshments to gourmet meals. A professional catering staff and chef John Gremo supervise student interns, who have helped the Stan Fulton Building earn a reputation for a creative menu and attentive service. Student Union & Events Services offers a wide range of event space in the Student Union (ballroom, meeting rooms, theater), the Wellness and Recreation Center, and campus green space (amphitheaters) and also provides conference and individual lodging in residence halls. ARAMARK, UNLV's contracted food service provider, offers a full range of catering options. The staff handles event coordination, including audiovisual, registration, and security requests.
Thomas & Mack, Cox Pavilion, and Sam Boyd Stadium are not only the homes of UNLV's men's and women's basketball teams and football squad, but they are also successful events venues, hosting everything from the National Finals Rodeo to rock concerts, monster truck rallies, ice shows, and more. What many people do not realize, however, is that these venues are also equipped with several smaller meeting spaces perfect for conferences or special events. These facilities' professional catering and event staff can arrange meetings for 40 people to 40,000. According to Venues Today, the Thomas & Mack Center is ranked eighth internationally and fourth nationally for venues with 15,001 seats or more, evidence of the quality of its services.
Tam Alumni Center is a well-known locale for campus and alumni receptions. Members of the public can also rent its main meeting rooms (the Marietta Tiberti Grand Hall and the William Trent Lounge) as well as additional smaller spaces. Alumni Relations staff help off-campus clients coordinate events.
Visit the Campus Venues page for more information on reserving space.