This post originally appeared on the P3 Resource Center.
Why do some schools build hotels / conference centers when others don’t? And what are the subtle (or not so subtle) differences between all the facilities we see popping up around the country? Some of the hotels, for example, are boutique, while others are major flagships. And in some cases the university is the majority user, while in others the minority user. These are just two variables of many. While the current landscape of campus hotels / conference centers is complicated, it is navigable, and the trends toward partnering with private organizations are worth learning.
There are at least a dozen reasons. The most common among them are as follows:
As with any contemporary campus project, hotels / conference centers can happen in a variety of ways. Typically, though, we see one of three styles:
There is no winning combination that can be applied to every school; each school looking to pursue a hotel / conference center will evaluate what it can and wants to take on, and what it wants to partner for. Generally, though, we see a lot of outsourced operations—regardless of who designed and financed the facility. Often schools recognize that the immense, nuanced set of tasks that compromise the day-to-operation of a hotel / conference center is not in their wheelhouse and/or not core to their mission. When that happens, outsourcing can be a logical, strategic choice, saving money and allowing the school to focus on other facilities and initiatives. Indeed outsourcing partnerships wind up being crucial to the success of most campus hotel / conference centers.
While most campus hotels / conferences are owned by the school and operated by a private partner, some facilities represent more significant engagement by the private partner. In these cases, a public-private partnership (P3) was likely selected for its ability to offer financing while preserving the school’s debt capacity. That can mean not having to choose between core university projects and those that expand what the campus is and offers. P3s, as mentioned above, can also offer schools ease—from bringing in experts to augment design/construction and facilities departments, to benefiting from the knowledge and experience of an organization focused in these facilities.
Why might universities not want to consider P3 developments? As with any P3, there is a concern related to control. This concern can be mitigated but never entirely addressed. Consider that a school and private company might have competing visions for the facility; the school might want its brand throughout the lobby, ballrooms, hallways, and hotel rooms, whereas the private partner might prefer its own brand (or something else entirely). The larger the role the private partner plays in the facility, the more of a say it gets in these things. So schools must understand that, with a private partner, they might not receive special treatment.
Just as a private partner might not be willing to accommodate a school’s request for visual branding, it might also have a hard time budging on money. Whereas a school might assume that it is community space and room rentals that should be offered at a discounted rate, the pro forma might not allow that.
Finally, schools that opt to handle more or all of the design, financing, and operations simply might not have a need for a partner. They might already have staff, they might have accessible capital, etc. In these cases, if a private partner isn’t needed, and if one’s expertise and experience don’t introduce enough value to offset the costs, a school will likely endeavor on its own.
Some key trends/themes come up when looking at campus hotels / conference centers around the country. Here are four.
Facilities tend to be tied to the university mission or positioned as an open-market hotel with a main user. The facilities at UCLA and Notre Dame, for example, see all or a majority of their sleeping and meeting business tied to the university and affiliated users. Compare that to facilities at Emory, Georgetown, and UT Austin, whose focus is on corporate, association, and SMERF users (i.e., social, military, educational, religious, and fraternal), with university use coming in at just 20 to 25%.
Most campus hotel / conference centers are owned by the respective schools, but most are operated by external operators. These organizations have revenue generation as a priority; however, this motive is structured by their agreements with the facility owner.
Being profitable is very possible, with a range of profit margins but generally appearing strong. Sites with the greatest profitability level are externally focused, while those focused more on university uses naturally achieve lower profitability levels in accordance with their mission-based positioning and, in many cases, tiered rate structure that provides discounts to university-related users.
Some schools operate more than one hotel / conference center; typically the multiple facilities are organized as one cost center. Duke, for example, operates the Washington Duke Inn and JB Duke Executive Education and Conference Center within half a mile of each other. Meanwhile UCLA operates both its Luskin Conference Center and its Lake Arrowhead Conference Center; they are grouped with the UCLA housing system to provide economies of scope and scale for operation.
From here, we expect to see more and more schools open campus hotels / conference centers. Often the revenue generation opportunity is too great to not explore—especially since the resultant facility can positively impact enrollment, retention, and brand.
We also expect to see the trend toward outsourcing operations to continue, the same way higher education is increasingly curious about partnering with private entities on other parts of campus (e.g., housing, rec centers, student unions, energy, parking). Is there a risk that some projects will fail? Yes, indeed some already have. But with a strategic and careful process, the right projects will be undertaken in the right way at the right place and time. We look forward to seeing them.