From guest lectures to orientations and from alumni events to weddings, special events constitute a key part of campus life. Colleges also leverage these activities to market the campus to students, families and the surrounding community.
Event management systems have given schools greater control over everything from booking spaces to ordering food, linens and equipment.
Officials say the technology is proving invaluable, especially at large institutions where more than one department plans and manages events.
When Angela Covington came to Vanderbilt University in Nashville in Tennessee nine years ago, events were planned with what she calls a “siloed approach.”
Covington, assistant director of Vanderbilt’s Student Centers office—which handles event services from start to finish—had two staff managers who spent their time answering the phone, replying to emails and doing data entry.
“This is all they did all day, booking rooms for people,” because the university didn’t have a streamlined process, she says. There was an event scheduling system, but it was used only sporadically, Covington says.
There was also no data on room utilization campus-wide or a way to prevent double bookings. “There’s a human error factor when you enter reservations,” Covington says, adding that occasionally a double booking would occur.
Another issue was security and not knowing where students were at certain times of the day if there was an emergency on campus.
If there was one system, officials would know which rooms were being utilized at that time, she says, adding that the provost’s office has formally requested staff and faculty consider how data can be used to communicate more quickly and effectively.
Three years ago, the addition of a meeting and room scheduling platform put event planning and classroom scheduling on the same system. But that didn’t mean everyone jumped on the bandwagon right away.
Booking rooms was still a time-consuming process because some individual offices insisted on keeping their original systems.
Today, Vanderbilt is using the latest iteration of its scheduling platform. Now students and staff can directly request space anytime, anywhere.
Another component of the system allows for scheduling events in classroom spaces and solved the double-booking problem. And Covington and her staff are spending more time on customer service and “not just sitting at a desk doing data entry,’’ she says.
aAt the University of Florida, where many groups are responsible for planning events, Michael Howard is charged with organizing large events including orientation and convocation, and assisting with homecoming.
His department, the Dean of Students Office, found that at student orientation, for example, families received a lot of handouts. The team sought a way to save on paper and printing while still delivering updated information to students and parents, says Howard, associate director of new student and family programs.
The office has been using the Guidebook mobile app for scheduling to provide a hub of information for over 50 departments since 2013. It allows attendees to tailor their schedules and individualize their event experience.
As new information becomes available, such as changes to room and location availability around campus, Guidebook helps event planners like Howard provide updates in real time rather than posting to a website.
The university uses a separate homegrown system for session registration because officials cap the number of people who can attend each of the 23 two-day orientation sessions.
Other siloed systems are used for additional aspects of the event planning process, including equipment rentals, catering and staffing campus police, he says.
The use of disparate systems seems to be a typical approach to handling event planning at large colleges and universities that have multiple departments involved in the coordination process.
Spartanburg Community College in South Carolina, a commuter school of about 5,000 full-time students that doesn’t host a lot of events, handles event promotion more centrally.
Administrators had realized that many departments posted their own special dates—such as the deadline to apply for financial aid—on internal web pages and within the student portal, says Jane Beckler Bird, creative manager and webmaster. “Sometimes there wasn’t one place where dates lived.”
About a year ago, the college adopted Dude Solutions’ Event Publisher system to schedule, promote and manage dates and campus events. The system posts dates on the website’s home page, the academic calendar and the student portal.
Spartanburg’s foundation organizes an annual fall fundraiser, which began as a small gathering for a handful of donors but has evolved into a more public event. In 2016, through Event Publisher, staff promoted the event to the community via social media.
Attendance grew by 10 percent, Beckler Bird says. Staff now spend more time planning and strategizing, and they can easily post aspects of the event, such as a “save the date” notice, how to donate, and where to get a ticket.
“We’re being more strategic as to how [the fundraiser] ties in with our social media plan to promote it,’’ she says. “It’s more branded than before, which is pretty nice.”
The system will also let staff appeal to the public and give them easier ways to donate even if they don’t attend the event. A goal for increasing use of Event Publisher is to add the capability to purchase the tickets online.
Getting procurement involved
Colleges and universities with multiple departments in charge of event planning may still share vendors, and the procurement office can help. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, for example, has separate departments for university events, advancement events and presidential events.
But when it comes to ordering food from off campus for events of 50 people or less, pretty much everyone has relied on America to Go, an online system for managing the catering procurement process, since 2012, says Geoff Mielke, strategic sourcing manager in the school’s procurement services department.
About 80 percent of the restaurants in Troy are participating in the system, which connects users to a network of approved caterers and restaurants via a single customized platform.
“We were getting a massive amount of campus users requesting reimbursement from purchases from local restaurants,’’ Mielke says. In the last fiscal year, 706 orders were placed for food in America to Go, he adds.
To be reimbursed for the expense, users must get prior approval by submitting a request in the system. Once a campus user chooses a date, menu and delivery time, the system routes the request for approval and from there the order will be placed electronically with an area restaurant.
A follow-up feature confirms the restaurant, order and delivery time.
America to Go is the intermediary between RPI and the restaurants, offering a service for users who want alternatives to the on-campus food provider, he adds.
The campus hosts about a dozen admissions events and about 10 smaller events annually. Other aspects of event planning are done either through the university’s e-procurement platform Jaggaer, which is integrated with America to Go, or through spreadsheets and email, Mielke says.
Campus event managers collaborate with Mielke’s office to acquire other services they need, such as rental of tables and chairs, floral arrangements, linens and entertainment, as well as finding large-scale caterers with Jaggaer.
Offering more time for service
When technology is used for event management, planners have more time to invest in enhancing the event. At Vanderbilt, about 40 percent of the bookings the Student Centers office receives come in through the Virtual EMS system, says Covington.
“It really makes a difference in what you can spend your time doing as an event manager.”
Now, her staff can conduct more site visits with campus clients and attend some of their events. Covington’s team uses the system for everything from storing room diagrams and contracts to communicating with setup crews and requesting audiovisual equipment, housekeeping or caterers.
They can add reminders of when the event is happening and when to follow up with a client to get the room layout done.
“Honestly, I don’t know how we’d do our job without this technology,’’ she says. “At any day or time, I can see what events are happening today, tomorrow, in one year. We’re booking events 18 months out.”
Esther Shein is a technology-focused writer based in Framingham, Massachusetts.