by Tom Isler | December 01, 2006

Villanova Conference Center


Not your typical schoolhouse:
The luxurious Villanova
Conference Center in Radnor, Pa.

Maybe it’s nostalgia or just tight budgets, but many groups happily forego the amenities of full-service hotels and conference centers to sleep in dorms and meet in university classrooms. “As it becomes harder to negotiate some amenities and room rates that were easier to get a couple of years ago, other options become more attractive,” notes Deborah Blom, executive director of the Fort Collins, Colo.-based Association of Collegiate Conference and Events Directors-International.

Meeting on campus, however, isn’t just for penny-pinchers, nor does it necessitate compromising on service or quality. The university conference centers at the head of their class, so to speak, are indistinguishable from the best corporate conference centers anywhere else in the country, with overnight accommodations to match, according to Tom Bolman, executive vice president of the St. Louis-based International Association of Conference Centers.

“I don’t know a real discernible difference between university conference centers and other types of centers,” Bolman admits, regarding the top echelon of campus facilities. In fact, university facilities comprise between one-quarter and one-third of IACC’s membership, he estimates.

Of course, the quality and scope of university conference centers can vary dramatically, and the best can be as expensive to book as any corporate conference center. They can be run as for-profit or nonprofit ventures, managed by university personnel or by a third-party hospitality management company.

Planners have the ability to mix and match accommodations, perhaps booking classrooms as daytime meeting rooms and nearby hotel rooms for overnight stays, to avoid shared bathrooms or dorm rooms at some schools.

“Universities tend to have everything a meeting could possibly need,” Bolman says, referring to facilities such as gyms, computer or science labs, or performance spaces that groups can use, not to mention professors who might agree to appear as guest speakers. Schools are generally willing to allow the client to customize packages, he adds.

Following are six university conference centers that reputedly are among the best the country has to offer, with dedicated meeting facilities and on-site (non-dorm) overnight guest rooms.


Brainy boardroom:
MIT’s Endicott House
in Dedham, Mass.

MIT Endicott House at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dedham, Mass.
(781) 326-5151

Southwest of MIT’s Cambridge campus, the MIT Endicott House, built in the style of a French manor, was gifted to the university more than 50 years ago. Set on a secluded 25-acre estate designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the mansion with its executive conference center exists within the atmosphere of a rural retreat yet still is convenient to Boston’s urban attractions.

The mansion includes 13 individually decorated guest rooms to allow guests to live for a night “as if one of the Endicotts,” says general manager Mike Fitzgerald. An additional 24 guest rooms, in a distinctly modern style, are available in an adjacent building.

The IACC-certified facility, which features an extensive collection of antiques, paintings and artifacts, primarily caters to boards of directors and executive groups -- clients who expect the kind of services available
at four-star hotels, Fitzgerald says.

The mansion has eight meeting rooms that total 7,800 square feet, which can be outfitted with the latest A/V equipment. The technology isn’t built in, because it “contradicts the nostalgic sense of the house,” Fitzgerald notes.

Fitzgerald is particularly proud of his 48-person staff, all MIT employees, several of whom have worked at the mansion for more than 20 years. The facility has never been contracted to a management company, because MIT wanted to “maintain that personal touch and have employees committed and dedicated and loyal to the MIT mission,” Fitzgerald says. That mission, he explains, is nothing short of excellence.