From Ivy League institutions to liberal arts colleges with only a few hundred students, colleges provide fantastic, and often unexpected, options for meeting planners.

“Since 2009 when the economy tanked, we’ve seen a 162-percent increase in RFPs coming to colleges and universities,” says Chuck Salem, president of Unique Venues, a leading resource for planners looking to book campus events. He is confident these trends will continue in 2013 and beyond, as planners look to plan more responsibly and affordably.

“These changes aren’t temporary,” he adds. “Policies were rewritten and the campus meetings are sticking. Plus, colleges offer a product parallel to traditional hospitality venues while providing a more comprehensive experience.”

“At the College of William & Mary groups can host meetings in classrooms where Thomas Jefferson lectured,” Salem offers as an example, “You can’t get that at a hotel, and it’s by far more affordable on a college campus.”

Even the New York Times covered the leap in popularity of school venues among corporate groups in a September article, which pointed out that the benefits from these partnerships go both ways, allowing schools to add a new source of income and bolstering their image outside the academic community.

“Meeting on a college campus provides an opportunity to expose the corporate world to the educational side of things, and it can be a more economic venue choice,” says Dan Gette, president of the Association of Collegiate Conference and Events Directors – International, “In the next year, I think that college and university venues will continue to prosper and become more popular, and that the schools will continue to get more flexible in how they work with and support conferences and events.”

No longer just cramped dorms and bland classrooms, universities throughout the country, from the Kent State University Hotel and Conference Center, slated to open in Ohio this spring, to the planned $152 million Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference and Guest Center at the University of California Los Angeles, offer state-of-the-art conference centers surrounded by facilities and activities around on and around campus. No matter what your meeting is majoring in, there is a campus venue that will work for your group.

Environmental Conservation

Sitting on more than 1,500 acres in central Illinois, Allerton Park & Retreat Center “is the place to be if you have work that needs to be done and don’t want a lot of distractions,” says Matthew Smith, sales and marketing coordinator for the property. Donated to the University of Illinois by Robert Allerton, the only child of a wealthy Chicago cattle trader, the park is a tranquil nature retreat, with overnight accommodations in the mansion and outlying buildings.

Smith encourages groups build time into their schedule to explore the grounds, from the formal gardens to 14 miles of hiking trails.

 “Unlike other large conference centers in central Illinois,” he says “we try to only book one group at a time, to allow them full use of the mansion and grounds.”

The expansive property shelters old-growth forests, endangered and threatened native species and is encompasses one of the largest continuous natural forests in the state.

This year, they are launching First Friday music concerts in the old dairy barn, which Smith says has surprisingly great acoustics and is another venue option for large gatherings.

Viticulture

Ten minutes from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the historic Evergreen Estate offers stately event spaces and unique wine tasting opportunities.  Built in the 19th century, the facility is now a teaching museum and event venue operated by Johns Hopkins University. Within Evergreen Estate, the Wine Cellar at Homewood Museum can accommodate groups of up to 50.

Homewood offers a special group tours that allows attendees to taste Madeira, a unique fortified wine produced on Portugal’s Madeira Islands. The drink was very popular amongst Maryland elite during the 19th century, including Charles Carroll, the wealthy Maryland farmer and signatory of the Declaration of Independence who built the 140-acre estate.

Food Science

Located in the heart of California’s central valley, the town of Davis is home to one of the nation’s largest and best farmers markets. Foodie groups will love the accessibility of fresh produce and the top-notch meeting facilities available at the University of California, Davis. At the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science, which has a 3,500-square foot sensory theater, visitors can watch and learn about every step of wine production. The university is also home to the August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory, a LEED Platinum-certified winery and brewery that offer tastings.

Also on campus, the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts offers spaces for performances, banquets and meetings.

Physical Education

As planners and suppliers alike are placing more emphasis on health initiatives, fitness facilities have become a more important consideration in site selection, and college campuses should not be overlooked.

“One thing that sets campus venues apart from traditional ones is the access to often amazing recreation and fitness centers,” says Jennifer Oshiro, sales and marketing director for Student Union and Event Services at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Hotels will usually have a small facility with a handful of cardio machines.  At UNLV, guests have access to the 184,000-square-footStudent Recreation & Wellness Center which includes more than 200 cardio machines, hundreds of weight machines and free weights, a 25-meter swimming pool, fitness classes and six basketball courts.”

While perhaps not a planner’s first priority, a dazzling fitness center is a great amenity to offer groups and can be worked into all sorts of active icebreakers and team-building programs

“We once had a corporate group have a dodgeball tournament and then an awards ceremony complete with participation trophies,” Oshiro says. “It was quite a sight to see a group of middle-aged men whipping foam dodgeballs at each other.”

Another detail that makes the UNLV campus distinctive is its status as a registered arboretum. While most of the dry Las Vegas region is subject to strict watering restrictions, the campus has tons of plant life growing across its 330 acres and a dedicated landscaping team to keep it looking beautiful.

Art

The historic art museums at Harvard University are getting spruced up. In addition to being utilized by students and faculty for lectures and symposia, Adolphus Busch Hall and Garden is often rented out by public groups for events and parties. Nearby on Quincy Street, the building that formerly housed the Fogg and Busch-Reisinger museums is undergoing a major renovation that is projected for completion in fall 2014. An addition and distinctive glass rooftop structure will add exhibit space unite all three museums, while maintaining their distinct identities. Once the project is complete, the lower level will offer a 300-seat auditorium and classrooms that will be available for after-hours programming.

The Fogg museum is the oldest of the trio, renowned for its collection of Western paintings, sculpture and decorative arts. Busch-Reisinger is dedicated to the study of art from German-speaking countries of central and northern Europe.  The Arthur M. Sackler Museum opened in 1985 and houses Harvard’s collections of Asian, Islamic and Indian art.  

History

At Georgian College’s Barrie Campus, a growing academic institution in Ontario, an Aboriginal Pow Wow event is held inMarch, an annual celebration honoring the culture and encouraging education and inclusiveness. Organized by students from the Aboriginal Resource Center, the Pow Wow showcases aboriginal dancers, singers and drummers performing traditional songs and dances.

“The traditional Pow Wow is a remarkable celebration of the great culture and traditions handed down from generation to generation,” says Sara Tuck, conference coordinator at Georgian College. “The event is open to the public and often our corporate clients take advantage of this amazing experience.”

The Barrie Campus has group venues available year-round, including 700-seat lecture halls, boardrooms and 20,000 square feet of exhibit space.

Extracurricular Activities

Another added benefit of meeting in a college town: affordable and charismatic local watering holes. For example, a block beyond the academic rigors of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill campus sits The Crunkleton, a bar mixing up classic cocktails and warm event spaces. Holding up to 125 people comfortably, The Crunkleton’s attentive bartenders work their magic with more than 400 spirits from around the globe, serving punches from the late 1700s with a focus on gin, bourbon and scotch.

“Our space has nice, dark oak furniture and amber lighting that makes everybody look good,” says owner Gary Crunkleton. “We do a lot of special events, and whether they’re related to birthday parties or corporate recruiting, we seem to be a great place to make it happen.”