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William and Mary Wants to Attract Conferences

This article originally appeared at vagazette.com

The College of William and Mary was certified last month as a one-stop shop for conference business by the Association of Collegiate Conference and Events Directors.

That means the college is one of two in Virginia and only 39 nationwide that provide one contact, one contract and one bill to conference planners. That's meant to mirror the practices at convention centers and hotels.

It boosts the college's chances of attracting conferences. And that isn't confined to academic gatherings.

"Meeting and conference professionals have an abundance of options when planning their programs in Williamsburg, but only one location can provide a truly turn-key experience from housing to dining, meeting space and beyond. Now with our one-stop shop certification, planning an event at William and Mary has never been easier," said director of conference services Mariellynn Maurer in announcing the certification.

Does that put the college — only two months after restaurants in Tribe Square complained that they were losing business due to changes in the college's meal plan policies, including keeping the dining hall open late into the night — into competition with the area's already struggling hotel industry?

Well, yes. But that's not new.

"We host conferences of all types here – and have for some time. The certification is a formal recognition for the services we provide. The services are not new, but the certification is new," said college spokesman Brian Whitson.

Ron Kirkland, executive director of the Williamsburg Hotel-Motel Association, said he had as many questions as answers about the college's conference business.

"If they are bringing in new business that's not here now, then we'd be behind that 100 percent," he said in a phone interview. "But I think we'd want to be very careful that they are not taking away business from our existing conference hotels."

However, both Whitson and Bob Harris, vice president for tourism at the Greater Williamsburg Chamber and Tourism Alliance, say conferences at the college are a net plus for the destination, including the hotel industry.

"When they bring people to town for a conference, those people stay in local hotels, they eat in local restaurants and they provide our attractions with the opportunity to sell more tickets," Harris said.

He said the Alliance works closely with the college's conference services department.

Harris said that even in cases like the summer football camp that has been held at the college in recent years, where the participants are housed in vacant college dorm rooms, the destination as a whole benefits.

"There are parents who come here and they stay in our hotel rooms," he noted.

In the past, it's been stated that one part of the problem for the Historic Triangle's hotel industry is that, unlike nearby competitors like Virginia Beach, Richmond and Newport News, Williamsburg's hotel business is almost all tied to leisure travel. There isn't a significant conference business. What conference business that does exist generally goes to Colonial Williamsburg. Of the area's other conference hotels, two — the Fort Magruder and the Williamsburg Hotel and Conference Center — have changed flags and owners in the last several years. A third, the Williamsburg Hospitality House, was taken over by the college and turned into a dorm.

Whitson said the college and the hotels in some cases attract different types of conferences.

"The types of groups that utilize campus meeting facilities tend to be the types of groups that specifically seek out college campuses and non-traditional meeting venues for their camps and conferences. It is a unique niche of the market segment," he said. He noted that the college works with local hotels to provide lodging for conference attendees.

Conferences are a profit center for the college.

"First, it's important to know that the state requires auxiliary enterprise activities (such as Conference Services) to be self-supporting," Whitson wrote in an email in response to questions about the college's intentions. "So the state does not provide funding and the auxiliary function must break even. Second, the ability of the College to attract more educational, academic, and campus based conference and camp business would continue to provide an additional revenue opportunity for both the College and the community."

He said the college draws a number of visitors to the community.

"We all want to bring new visitors to the Williamsburg area. W&M brings a lot of people to campus each year – an estimate a few years ago was more than 100,000 visitors each year for campus tours, events on campus, camps or conferences. Many who come to W&M stay in local hotels, they shop at local businesses or eat at local restaurants. This benefits everyone," Whitson wrote.

Whitson said that the college is actively seeking ways to increase revenues, which is partly made necessary by a drop in the level of the college's state support.

"Of course we look for ways to increase revenues, reduce costs and innovate. What leading institution doesn't do this? ... state funding has dropped from 43 percent of operating budget in 1980 to approximately 13 percent today. This means that a higher percentage of our funding has to come from other avenues – such as earned income through tuition, greater philanthropy (we just finished the best fundraising year in our history), innovation and greater efficiency on campus and opportunities, such as hosting conferences and events, to raise additional revenue," Whitson said.