University events adapt to in-person, hybrid models

Wayne Johnson, of Georgia Southern University, conducts final drone tests of high school teams’ designs for its 2021 Engineering Design Challenge. Competition participants were able to take part in the event virtually this year.
Wayne Johnson, of Georgia Southern University, conducts final drone tests of high school teams’ designs for its 2021 Engineering Design Challenge. Competition participants were able to take part in the event virtually this year.

Amidst declining enrollment that predated the pandemic, universities have come to rely on on-campus meetings and events as revenue generators and recruitment tools. Summer youth conferences and athletic camps can be multimillion-dollar moneymakers; some universities have even built conference centers to accommodate these groups. Meanwhile, internal events like commencements and alumni weekends can motivate donors to give back to the university.

Universities hoping for more normalcy for the upcoming graduation season and summer 2021 have had to scale back their expectations. But planners say this spring and summer will at least be better than last year, and they’re applying lessons learned from virtual gatherings to improve future events.

“With more people getting vaccinated, I think you are going to see a return to in-person events—homecoming, football games, etc.—with limited capacity. Social distancing isn’t something that’s going to go away anytime soon, even with people getting vaccinated,” said Karen Nedbal, executive director of the Association of Collegiate Conference and Event Directors – International (ACCED-I), which represents more than 1,200 members from 400-plus campuses.

Scaled-back youth conferences

Bowie State University ROTC cadets participate in a recognition ceremony as recipients of the 2LT Richard E. Collins III Leadership with Honor Scholarship.
Bowie State University ROTC cadets participate in a recognition ceremony as recipients of the 2LT Richard E. Collins III Leadership with Honor Scholarship.

In a typical summer, American University hosts multiple youth conferences, with about 10,000 attendees. This year, AU is hosting just one group, the National Student Leadership Conference, which usually attracts about 2,500 high school students over seven weeks.

Although AU is used to hosting four times that number over the course of the summer, it’s still an improvement over last year, when AU was unable to host any summer conferences. The university initially expected about 1,000 participants for this year’s conference, so it was a pleasant surprise when the event reached capacity, with more than 2,500 students signing up, said Kimberly Araya, director of conferences and guest services for American University in Washington, D.C., and the current board president of ACCED-I.

Araya realizes her counterparts at other universities will be having another quiet summer. Some universities are opting to hold events for adults, since they can be vaccinated, but most campuses have chosen to forgo youth events.

“We look forward to summer. And my colleagues across the country look forward to summer. This is when we can really shine,” she said.

Some universities plan to hold day camps instead of having students board in the residence halls. While that approach may help limit the spread of germs, it also limits the amount of money universities can make on dining and boarding fees, Nedbal said.

“We’re seeing the return of these (camps), but they’re in a much different format,” she said.

Rethinking graduations

Bowie State University students gather to watch a virtual Freshman Matriculation Convocation ceremony.
Bowie State University students gather to watch a virtual Freshman Matriculation Convocation ceremony.

Staging virtual gatherings has helped some universities improve on their existing events. At Bowie State University in Maryland, switching from physical to virtual events allowed the university to tap into its creativity to engage participants.

For virtual commencements, the university mailed out gift boxes, arranged for celebrity shout-outs, and invited graduates to submit their own content. For other events, the university sent out snack boxes so participants would feel like they were taking part in an outdoor event. The university even hired a virtual event producer for its internal events.

“Outside of those events, we have not had live external events, which has diminished our revenue,” said Nancy Martin, the university’s director of conference and event services.

Martin said her team has learned to stretch beyond the bounds of tradition to make virtual event planning possible. “We have been able to adapt mission-critical university events into shorter, dynamic events,” she said.

This year, some larger universities are sticking with virtual ceremonies, but smaller institutions are planning limited, in-person commencements with smaller groups or multiple ceremonies spread out over several days.

“They may have eight commencements back-to-back over a week,” Nedbal said.

Lessons learned from virtual

For the past year and a half, Georgia Southern University had to get creative with its annual Engineering Design Challenge.

In fall 2019, mechanical engineering professor Wayne Johnson had just taken over as program director for the Engineering Design Challenge and was putting all the pieces in place for the 2020 competition to take place in April. NASA sponsors the annual event, along with the university, the Georgia Space Grant Consortium, and Gulfstream. “The year I took over, of course, COVID happens,” Johnson said.

After postponing the Design Challenge, Johnson soon realized an in-person competition still wouldn’t be feasible and started to think about how to reengineer the event to make it virtual.

The competition took place virtually in November, with three local high schools participating. As soon as the event was over, Johnson began planning for the 2021 version, which took place April 17 with five teams. It was still short of the eight schools that had signed up for the cancelled 2020 event, but doing the events virtually—and having the students submit videos of their presentations—provided some opportunities the competition participants wouldn’t have had otherwise, Johnson said.

“We got visual arts students who may have more interest in doing communication or video production. So we had a couple of high school students who may not have had anything to do with engineering, but because they had a video presentation, it provided an opportunity for students outside the STEM area to get involved in something like this,” Johnson said.

Having the teams meet and communicate virtually provided another advantage for the participants in that their meetings mimicked the collaborations real-world engineers experience.

“Even before the pandemic, you had engineering groups placed all over the world. So now we had our teams meeting virtually and having to communicate over this virtual medium, in a way that simulated what happens with large, multinational corporations,” Johnson said.

Looking ahead, Johnson is hoping to incorporate ideas like the video presentations in future competitions. “This was a really great exercise in thinking outside the box,” he said.

Autumn Cafiero Giusti is a freelance journalist based in her hometown of New Orleans. For over two decades, she has covered everything from small-town government to Fortune 500 companies. When she isn’t on deadline, she likes to hang out at home with her husband, their two daughters and their very needy Labrador.

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