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University Housing Conference Services keeps Madison thriving in the summer

July 2, 2009 By Kiera Wiatrak

The mass exodus from the university residence halls each May may lead some to believe that these busy buildings enter a summer slumber until they welcome back their students in the fall.

This year, a projected 18,000 guests will come to campus for summer conferences in 92 groups, 88 of which are residential.

However, this is not the case. Thanks to the University Housing Conference Services Program, there are plenty of university occupants to keep the beds warm during the summer months.

Housing Conference Services recruits academic and recreational summer programs to keep the dorms up and running in the students’ off months.

This year, a projected 18,000 guests will come to campus for summer conferences in 92 groups, 88 of which are residential.

Last year, in addition to age groups ranging from elementary school to senior citizens that participated in conferences during the summer, guests arrived from more than 40 countries. A similar diversity is expected for this summer.

This range of demographics renders the jobs of Conference Services employees dynamic.

“We have to change what we do in many ways because of that diversity in our customer,” says Sharon Seagren, director of Housing Conference Services.

Everything from meals, security and equipment needs vary from group to group, depending on the nature of the program and the demographics of the participants.

Instead of presenting an all-encompassing standard summer plan, Housing is as flexible as possible, designing a tailored program for each conference.

Seagren says the residence hall-locking schedules in the dorms change only a couple of times during the academic year — during winter and spring breaks. In summer, it changes every day to cater to the different age groups.

University Housing has a menu planner and dietitian on staff year round for special dietary needs or requests.

To keep the food new and exciting, they consistently taste-test new menus and recipes and tailor menus for international groups or language and culture groups. They’ll also throw in theme nights for precollege programs just for fun.

And for excursions, they’ll be sure to have lunches packed and ready to go.

Housing Conference Services will also arrange for conferences to have the necessary IT equipment and computer software, and reserved classrooms and computer labs within their buildings.

Even though Conference Services currently has control of 12 residence halls, five dining rooms and eight computer labs, they can’t do everything alone. They maintain close relations not only with the conference groups themselves, but with more than 40 university departments to ensure that no need goes unmet.

“I can’t think of one department that doesn’t go out of their way to assist one of the conference participants,” says Wisconsin Union administrative program specialist Nancy Kujak-Ford. “People have always been very welcoming, and I think that’s what our niche is in the Midwest and specifically in Wisconsin.”

With cleanliness, hospitality, convenience and affordability as some of Conference Services’ top priorities, it is no wonder the vast majority of the groups are returning after several summers on campus.

UW-Extension 4-H Youth Development is returning for its 89th year this summer.

“The accommodating UW–Madison summer Housing staff makes young people and adult volunteers feel most welcome on campus, which enables staff to concentrate on programming instead of logistical details,” says 4-H youth development outreach specialist Kay Hobler. “Great facilities; capable, friendly Housing staff; a beautiful setting; and close proximity to university and government services makes the UW–Madison campus a terrific site for this youth conference.”

But precollege students who are away from home for the first time are a much easier sell than adults who have become accustomed to their own comforts.

Conference Services recognizes its adult guests have different needs, and dedicate time to making the grown-up experience as comfortable as possible.

“Smith and Ogg halls were really designed strategically to meet the changing needs of our students as well as our adult conference groups,” Seagren says. “We do a lot of special things in Ogg and Smith that we don’t do in our other halls. We run them like a hotel.”

This includes guest-room housekeeping, televisions in the rooms, radios, coffee and tea services and higher-quality bed and bath linens.

“Most people think dorms are very cramped quarters with shared bathrooms down the hall,” says Kujak-Ford, adding that adult participants staying in Ogg and Smith “say they’re the best dormitories they’ve stayed in for conferences.”

Seagren estimates that 20-30 percent of summer conference guests are adults.

“Adults come here and stay in a residence hall, and they’re not really excited about that,” Seagren says. “But between having really good customer service — we have a lot of high ratings on cleanliness, friendliness — being very hospitable and having good maintenance in our buildings, all of those things are really important to us so their experience here is a good one.”

She believes that adults and children alike will have a more complete campus experience if they stay in the residence halls.

“It’s really a learning community of their own,” she says. “I think in the economy and environment we have, if our groups are willing to invest in campus and stay on campus, I think that’s very important.”

But the University Housing Conference Services is not profit-driven. In fact, they don’t accept conferences that aren’t sponsored by a dean or director of a department on campus.

“The purpose of having a summer program is two-fold,” Seagren says, “that we’re using our buildings in service to the state, so they’re not sitting here empty in the summer, and so that we can employ our people 12 months of the year.”

Otherwise, she says, employees could be laid off every summer.

Once direct expenses are paid, any remaining funds benefit academic-year residents by keeping the rates low.

“What students pay during the academic year is directly impacted by how much revenue we can make in the summer,” Seagren says. “The more we make, the less the students pay.”

Summer conferences, Seagren adds, also support the campus mission.

“That can be people’s one and only impression of campus,” she says. “When you talk about the Wisconsin Idea, and reaching out and extending beyond the walls of just what we do during the academic year, it helps support Madison and it helps support Wisconsin.”