In December, the investor research and credit rating group Moody’s released its 2018 Outlook for Higher Education. Inside was a somewhat ominous prediction for the year ahead in higher education:
“We are revising our outlook for the higher education sector to negative from stable. The annual change in aggregate operating revenue for four-year colleges and universities will soften to about 3.5% and will not keep pace with expense growth, which we expect to be almost 4.0%. A growing number of universities will have even weaker revenue growth.”
Translation: Public universities will need to diversify their revenue streams to outpace increasing growth in operating expenses and inflation.
But while universities race to bring in new money in the year ahead, one service that already exists at most universities is poised to make big gains — all thanks to a very different industry.
Meanwhile in the world of meetings and events…
Just two months after Moody’s research on the state of higher education, the Events Industry Council released its much awaited report on the economic significance of meetings. The release represented the most comprehensive analysis of meetings sector spending to date, and sang a very different song in terms of growth:
- The number of meetings increased 5.4% since 2009, but a pickup in attendance per meeting lifted the total number of participants by 22.7%.
- Meetings direct spending is growing, expanding 23% since 2009.
Thanks to this rampant growth, the meetings industry creates a $325 billion dollar a year pie in direct spending alone. Within that pie is the opportunity for university events to grab a much larger slice and offset impending declines in traditional revenue streams.
So how can schools capitalize on meetings to bring in more money from university events?
1. Emphasize your university as a non-traditional venue.
Meeting planners aren’t just looking for ballrooms anymore, they’re looking for venues with wow-factor that differentiate their events and engages attendees. That’s why nontraditional venues are trending in events and poised to see a 3.8% increase in demand this year. So while you may be putting a lot of emphasis on your ballrooms and other spaces that fit into the traditional mold, it may be time to pitch bold, new spaces with a different kind of wow-factor if you want to drive event sales. The University of Delaware perhaps says it best:
“For decades, the hotel ballroom and convention center have been the stalwarts of traditional event venues, but as time goes on and the professional culture continues to change, these locations are beginning to look like DVDs in a Blu-ray world.”
Thinking outside of the ballroom and pushing artistic spaces, gardens, historic mansions, and beyond can diversify your offering as a venue and align with the evolving expectations of the meetings industry.
2. Improve the discoverability of your venue.
Teaming up with a venue finder is one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve your discoverability in venue marketing. Planners are already using these databases to source venues, so it’s really a matter of meeting them where they already are. In a similar fashion, partnering up with local convention visitors bureaus (CVBs) can also put you in a great position for planners to find you.
Aside from these venue pools, it’s also important to make sure you’re marketing visually on your own channels. Event technology is making it easier than ever to do this through powerful lead capture tools. Through these tools, you can easily include differentiating details, photos of event spaces, and diagrams that show the ability of both your traditional and nontraditional spaces to host events. This allows meeting planners to visualize their events as university events.
3. Showcase Your Campus
By now you’ve perfected the art of the campus tour for students. So, why not develop information sessions and tour dates customized for meeting and event professionals? Odds are you already have the systems in place for informational programs like this. Work with the student volunteers that already give tours to prospective students. They know the campus best; now they’ll showcase your most unique meeting and event spaces.
It’s less common for event professionals to evaluate venues as part of a group. But universities are uniquely positioned to pull off site visits like this. Think of it as a service. Event professionals, caterers, and corporate event strategists can use group tours as an opportunity to network. What better way is there to prove the value of your venues, than by inviting prospects to attend an event in them?
4. Source Clients Locally
If corporations within your community are already looking to your university to help cultivate professional growth, they may also trust your school to help support some of their other professional endeavors, such as growing their business with meetings and conferences.
Many companies realize the value of face-to-face meetings. Opinion research firm, APCO Insight, surveyed 400 small business owners across 24 industries, including technology, retail, and professional services. 96% of those surveyed said that special events yield a return on investment. Among those who specialize in technology, that number was even higher, at 100 percent.
So before you start running campaigns to bring in new leads, think about the leads that your university may already work with in a different capacity.
5. Expand on Services You Already Offer
Chances are, your university’s peripheral event services can compete with dedicated event production companies in your city.
Take a look at your campus catering services. Do you have the flexibility to supplement clients off-campus? On-premises catering is a unique opportunity to showcase your services to a new set of customers. Examine recurring events in your area and pitch your catering services as well as your event spaces. Use it as on opportunity to sell the client on moving their event to your campus. This strategy paid off for UMass Catering, which now generates $2.5 million annually by catering more than 500 events.
Time to be a campus hero.
With university revenue expected to downtrend in the year ahead, it’s the perfect time for events groups, associations, and services at schools to prove themselves a more valuable pipeline than ever before. By following these steps, you’ll grow that pipeline and cash in on an expanding industry that’s looking for the exact spaces and services you already offer. What it comes down to is the way you’re pitching them.