As the school year winds down, college and university foodservice operators are gearing up for summer conference season. At San Diego State University, this summer marks the first time the Dining Services department has been the manager of the conference schedule, says Paul Melchior, director of dining services.
“Traditionally we just served the meals,” Melchior says. “Housing had turnover in its conference manager position and was not excited about continuing the program. We did not want to lose the food business from Conference Services, so we arranged to lead the program and rent the required sleeping rooms from Housing. Now we are involved in every aspect from arranging meeting space and equipment to meals and room nights.”
Melchior says his department treats summer conferences more like catering than its day-to-day dining service during the school year.
“We have a down period of about three to four weeks where most of our academic year employees leave,” Melchior says. “Summer conferences are more a series of events rather than normal day-to-day business. [Conferences are] not like opening for business and waiting for customers to come or not. We know they are coming.”
Melchior says the department is in the process of recruiting someone for the conference manager position. In the meantime the department has been working with M.L. Taylor, a consultant for Conference Services, who says the university welcomes about 68,000 students and adults during the summer. The types of groups vary, but Melchior says one group that the department has had some fun with is a group of about 4,000 Catholic youths who come for three days.
“[They come for] two nights, three days and five consecutive meals,” Melchior says. “One cool thing we did with them was we brought in a trailer smoker and did smoked tri-tip with all the fixings. They ate in an outdoor amphitheater in the middle of campus.”
Taylor says this summer the department is gearing up for a group of 200 youths who are planning many special events that Dining Services will help them with.
“One event is a Sports Day that is meant to challenge them all in different ways to prove that ‘they can do anything!’” Taylor says. “They will be able to try everything from water aerobics to rock climbing and Zumba. We are putting on a barbecue dinner for them and providing energy-boosting snacks such as fruit bars.”
Melchior says one of the biggest challenges with summer conferences is getting the various university entities to collaborate on their conference needs. The conferences bring in about $1.6 million in revenue for the department, so Melchior says it is important to communicate the value of the conference season has.
“Summer conferences are all about building and maintaining relationships between campus entities, conference groups and Housing,” Melchior says. “The campus needs to understand the overall value of summer conference business to the entire community. This is tough because each entity usually only sees its part of the business. Our goal is inform all entities of the collective value to the campus. I send a weekly report to my boss, which she shares at high-level campus meetings involving Business and Financial Affairs, Athletics, Housing, Associated Students, Facilities, Parking and Academic Affairs—all the departments that benefit from Conference Services on campus. I also believe that service is required to meet expectations, but exceeding expectations requires hospitality. We work with all the different entities carefully. It takes a lot of relationship building. The important thing to remember with conferences is to keep your sense of humor and give hospitality, not just service.”