Sunshine Dollars

Summertime… a three-month stretch on the calendar when the students are gone, and so is the revenue they generate.

Or at least that was the status quo until administrators began dreaming up ways to turn campuses into cash registers. With meeting space, lodging, and recreational facilities all in one place, colleges and universities have the perfect environment to host everything from youth camps to conferences to tourist packages.

“And of course with any colleges renting their facilities over the summer, the goal is to fill,” said Donna Browning, assistant director of special events and summer programs for Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, PA.“I have a couple of little voids we won’t talk about, but I’m still taking phone calls and trying to fill space until the very last minute.” Browning has been in this position for five years now, and, thanks to her efforts, Elizabethtown College’s summers are in the black.

Good Times

As a Church of the Brethren-sponsored institution, Elizabethtown College declines to invite groups outside its education mission. But that makes it a prime candidate to host the denomination’s national youth conferences during the summer, as well as music camps, field hockey leagues, and sporting camps for everything from lacrosse to soccer, volleyball, and basketball. The groups range from 200 to 750, which is pushing nearly 50 percent occupancy for the 1,800-student campus.

“We are selective with the groups that we bring in for our computer classrooms,” Browning noted. But at $22 per person per night for housing, the price is right to incentivize groups to book as far out as the summer of 2009.

Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, begins its quest for summer dollars by pushing to increase summer enrollment. But that still leaves plenty of room to host events like the Joseph Baldwin Academy for young scholars, the Upward Bound high school program, and the ubiquitous football and band camps. T. Ralph Cupelli, assistant to the vice president for academic affairs at Truman State, even contracts to hold professional development classes for teachers, and opens the classrooms to programs that teach English to foreign exchange students from Taiwan.

Building Profits

East-coast-based Shawmut Design and Construction bills $200 million of its annual $600 million revenues from college projects during the summer months. In the short haul, increased demand for building materials and competition for subcontractor trade forces means the company must charge a premium — roughly 25 percent more, according to director of construction operations Ron Simoneau — to tackle projects between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

And still, campuses that break out the power saws, hammers, and nails during this season manage to come out ahead on the books.“You have to weigh the costs against the logistical plan challenges of not doing it in the summer,” Simoneau said. “For instance, when it comes to dorm renovation, the premium you pay over the summer probably is much cheaper than the cost of putting them up in an alternative housing scenario.”

So the University of Rhode Island seized the days to bring its housing up to code on stricter fire alarm and sprinkler systems. Other campuses in Simoneau’s portfolio choose to use this time for everything from new coats of paint to carpeting to major utility and infrastructure upgrades. Additions, on the other hand, typically get shelved until fall or later, as they may disrupt — but not stop — daily activity at a university.

But squeezing dollars from this angle comes at a price: Administrators need to be willing to start planning the details very early in the game. “You want to be up-to-date to the subcontractor market by March at the latest,” Simoneau gave as an example. “In March, they’re still hungry. The closer you get to summer, the more work they’ve taken on and the prices go up.” Preconstruction drawings that basically build the project on paper also help eliminate costly snags and slow-downs as well.

“There are definitely pitfalls in entering this type of renovation, because if something goes wrong, the time frame to react and the domino effect on the schedule can make it not feasible to finish on time,” he added.

Cost of Doing Business

Naturally, the same cautions crop up on the rental side as well. On one hand, the cost for the facilities is often fixed, so the university need only budget incrementally for air conditioning and lights. In Cupelli’s case, 15 paying students in a classroom more than covers that expense and nets a small profit. Because most of the faculty offices remain open during June, July, and August, the janitorial budget isn’t affected.

However, Browning needs to staff up to help clean the residence halls between groups and make sure doors are unlocked and folks have a liaison to turn to on the spot. It means she carries 12 full-time students’ salaries, housing, and meals on the budget. And that doesn’t include her salary. “It absolutely takes a year-round effort to sell summer space,” she noted.

And you must take into account the damage a younger crowd of students might create. Cupelli’s conclusion: “They are livelier and require more supervision. So facility-wise, because we have so much supervision, there are no real problems with intentional damage. But there might be more wear and tear because they’re so active.”

But before Truman State can become a bigger player in the summer rental space, Cupelli knows the public institution will need to continue upgrading the residence halls with air-conditioning systems. After all, summer in Missouri means sweltering temperatures and accompanying humidity few enjoy. They built their first residence hall with cooling in 2006; 2007 will see the renovation at the student union building completed. And like Elizabethtown College, this Midwest university knows it will need to put someone on staff to start scheduling more overnight conferences as the air-conditioning arrives.

Location, too, plays a strong role. Fewer Truman State students, for instance, choose to skip summer school because the rural community of Kirksville doesn’t offer sufficient summer employment. Likewise, it doesn’t exactly shout “destination spot” for conference planners, either. After the facilities’ upgrade takes place, Cupelli anticipates attracting Elderhostel groups and other niche travelers who will see the campus as a regional travel-and-learn opportunity.

Finally, realize that even with the best of conditions, residence halls don’t offer turndown service and a mint on the pillow at night. At Elizabethtown College, guests don’t even have a television set in their rooms. That’s fine for $22 a night — but it doesn’t bode well for a hefty price increase. “I honestly don’t think the market could bear it,” Browning said. “Several of our dorms have been remodeled and renovated but we can’t compare to a local hotel. The facilities just aren’t similar.

“So you have to budget very closely to make sure you get your profit margins,” she added.

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