Cashing in on Campus Space

Improved space scheduling can generate cash for colleges and universities. Here’s how.

To keep budgets in balance, colleges and universities are under constant pressure to do more with what they have while supporting the fundamental missions of education, campus life, and recruitment. It’s no surprise, then, how often provosts look for ways to get more return out of their largest asset category: facilities. How can more value, or revenue, be derived from those facilities?

There are plenty of outside organizations that want access to exactly the kind of space campuses occupy: community programs, business groups, music producers, nonprofit fundraisers, and youth sports leagues, to name a few. University facilities are attractive because they have features that are difficult to find elsewhere: the ability to move large numbers of people in and out quickly, accessible parking, sound security systems, on-site catering and audiovisual resources.

However, it’s not always easy for universities to make their facilities available to paying customers. There are four main barriers to generating revenue from facilities:

1.  Primary Mission Dominance: Each facility category has its own rigorous set of requirements that must be fulfilled in order to serve its fundamental mission. These include classes to schedule, students to house, internal events to stage, etc. Management of educational buildings to serve their specific commissioned role is, on its own, complex and difficult even without adding in new usages.

2.  Decentralized Management: Each facility type is organized and managed by specialized, dedicated departments and organizations such as academics, student life, athletics, admissions, and specific schools. These entities are not in the business of space rental. Each has limited bandwidth, knowledge or inspiration to seek outside paying users, and they are simply not set up to collaborate with other departments to maximize revenue derived from outside engagements.

3.  Resource Gaps: Physically adapting facilities to make them amenable to outside, paying users receives low priority in capital budgeting. Since changes to facility resources require significant efforts, secondary or tertiary uses such as outside rentals don’t usually make the cut.

4.  Insider Bias: When space is underutilized and sharing is considered, internal institutional users are likely to take precedence. While more and more campus spaces serve multiple purposes, adding outside applications to the multitasking of space management makes space scheduling much more challenging.

Some universities and colleges are beginning to overcome these barriers. The key to success is enabling administrators to synchronize the planning and staging of revenue-producing events with their core needs in academics. That means administrators must have some kind of system for visibility to booked and expected core facility needs when planning to rent space to outsiders. “Our student center uses one type of software, the registrar uses another, and some just use spreadsheets,” says Kevin Kelly, vice president of Administration at Rice University in Houston, TX, when asked about his school’s space planning processes. “Every organization can benefit from the extra funds if they rent. At Rice, it’s important to rent to organizations that serve our core mission. As a result, we tend to rent most to outsiders in our education and not-for-profit networks.”

New Scheduling Paradigms

Notre Dame University in Indiana was able to become more proactive about outside rentals by segmenting their facility schedules within their EMS system. The first segment, the “core academic block,” is Monday through Friday between 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., while the weekday evening segment, between 5:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M., is of nearly equal importance.

“We split it that way, into two major blocks, for better reporting and analytics,” says Linda Martellaro, Notre Dame’s vice president of Administration. “Our provosts can go in and pick multiple buildings, single buildings, or different room types, and run utilization rates, seeing exactly what they want to rent in an easy-to-understand format.”

Installing a system that enables scheduling of outside events alongside academics doesn’t require a “big brother” monolithic approach.

“It would not have worked for us to establish a top-down centralized scheduling system at Notre Dame,” Martellaro continues. “We’ve developed a hybrid system where we have centralized scheduling to reserve classrooms, but our system is also decentralized for things like our law school and executive MBA programs that need to set their own schedules.”

Systematic Focus on Utilization

A great space management system does more than just enable rental income. When a system is in place, it can constantly capture data on how all facilities are used. That provides facilities maintenance and capital planners with analytics they can use to tune deployments of people and funding.

“You name it, we scheduled it,” says Bradley Bower, referring to his experience when he served as events manager at Georgetown University in Qatar. “The higher education mission obviously includes courses, plus symposiums, parties, family weekends, and sporting events. Then, as we thought about how to generate revenue, we looked outside the box to draw people into spaces when they’re not being used. For this, we needed a system to show us which spaces are underutilized. That let us book revenue-generating events like weddings, corporate meetings, and organization outings. We increased our building utilization and generated more revenue than anyone expected.”

Plan for Scale and Variety

Outside rental opportunities can come up at the last minute. A comprehensive space scheduling system can enable a facility planner to quickly and easily see which spaces across the campus can be available for outside events, and when. If there should be a conflict, the system can immediately identify the internal university stakeholder whose approval would be required if a scheduling exception is needed.

“We schedule a wide variety of about 200,000 events on our campus each year,” says LaNae Poulter, university scheduling manager, Brigham Young University–Idaho. “They range from a study room for a single student up through auditorium events seating 15,000. Having a comprehensive system for managing this helps our academic deans feel confident that outside paid events won’t compromise access to the facilities they need, when they need them.”

If you have an individual or department with the inclination to tap into the resource of unused university facilities, try doing it with a comprehensive space scheduling system. A small core group managing the program can then be your financial “rainmakers” who connect with outside entities. Those managers can tap into available spaces without compromising the activities that are most important to the institution achieving its goals, such as graduation rate management, outside ranking optimization, and academic excellence. 

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