January 5, 2011

Summertime is ‘showtime for busy conference coordinators at Housing & Food Services

Here in the heart of winter, Maya Escobars work is all about summer.

The three conference coordinators who organize the approximately 175 conferences that come to the UW every summer. From left, they are Maya Escobar, Christine Sismaet and Ryan Jones. | Photo by Mary Levin.

The three conference coordinators who organize the approximately 175 conferences that come to the UW every summer. From left, they are Maya Escobar, Christine Sismaet and Ryan Jones. | Photo by Mary Levin.

And when summer comes and the pace slows for many on campus, Escobar and her colleagues will be at their flat-out busiest — multi-tasking, trouble-shooting and keeping scores of clients content.

Escobar is one of the three conference coordinators who organize summer conferences for Housing & Food Services. Together the three — Escobar and colleagues Ryan Jones and Christine Sismaet — handle all of the roughly 175 conferences that come to the UW, bringing thousands of visitors each summer.

The three are ably guided by Penni-Anne Bricker, Housing & Food Services conference operations manager; and Leonard OConnor, conference general manager.

Bricker said their team works closely with the other “spokes of the wheel” at HFS: food service, custodial, desk services, the Husky Card Office, Bay Laurel Catering and the departments communications and marketing arm. “And I think that as a group they understand not only what they do but why,” she said of the conference coordinators. “They are all service-oriented. Thats how it works so smoothly.”

And these are not the only conference coordinators on campus. Many units at the University bring conferences to campus. The Conference Management Group in Educational Outreach brings dozens of conferences to campus, some of whom stay in HFS facilities.

Summer conferences hosted by Housing & Food Services include the Power Chord Academy for young rockers, top. At bottom, Lisa Crosson, a graduate student in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and a teacher in the summer GEAR-UP Project, shows a moon snail to students and even lets them touch it. | Photos by Mary Levin.

Summer conferences hosted by Housing & Food Services include the Power Chord Academy for young rockers, top. At bottom, Lisa Crosson, a graduate student in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and a teacher in the summer GEAR-UP Project, shows a moon snail to students and even lets them touch it. | Photos by Mary Levin.

A wide variety of conferences come to the UW each summer, from student athletic, computer and language immersion camps to rockers, bikers, dancers, business professionals and more. One loyal group, the Pacific Coast Banking School, has sent students to the UW each summer since 1938.

The conferences happen only in summer, but with organization beforehand and billing afterwards, it makes for a busy yearlong job. OConnor usually brings business in to the department, Escobar said, but then delegates the conference plans to the coordinators in a way that assures even workloads.

Escobar said OConnor reminds his staff that patience and professionalism are key when dealing with clients. “They see us as the face of the University as a whole, so their entire experience on campus needs to bode well for the entire University … They dont see it as individual units, they see you as the UW.”

Each season brings new challenges, and summer conference planning begins in winter. Escobar said, “January, February is the time when we really start contacting our conferences and saying, ‘Hi, are you coming back? What are your dates and how many rooms do you want us to hold?” Come mid-spring, its time to finalize arrangements for the summer — booking spaces, writing up contracts, deciding on residence and dining options and other key details. All the contracts are finished and signed by OConnor and implemented by Bricker, who said she makes sure “we deliver what were contracted for.”

In May, the office hires its student workers for the year, called conference assistants. They help with many of the smaller, but important, details of conference planning, such as programming meal cards, wrangling diagrams for meeting facilities and confirming guest names so they can be assigned rooms.

“Then comes summertime,” Escobar said. “Then its showtime.”

All their plans start becoming reality just after spring quarter ends. Custodial crews have a week or less to deep-clean all rooms, and dining halls retool for summer food delivery. The pace in Escobars office picks up, too — and on come the conferences.

Every day in summer can bring new questions, challenges and last-minute needs from the visitors, Escobar said, and all have to be handled in the same professional manner. “Its a flexible environment — you must be flexible, because every conference is different, so they all have different needs.” She added, perhaps in slight understatement, “Not everything will run as smoothly as you had hoped, so you are constantly trying to find solutions.”

Indeed, its not hard to imagine that with many young visitors away from home to visit campus, there is occasionally some misbehavior. The coordinators follow up on such concerns, to be sure. “But we do it with a smile,” Escobar said.

The coordinators must be flexible with their schedules in summer, too. That can mean working nights or weekends, especially if one of their conferences holds an opening or closing banquet. Oh, and they take their annual vacations anytime but during the summer, for obvious reasons.

The slumping economy has had its effect on the conferences that come to the UW each summer. Numbers are down, though not by much. And the coordinators make every possible effort to keep their clients — who tend to become friends over the years — returning every year.

“We dont want to lose them!” Escobar said. “So if theres anything we can do to try and help them, well definitely do that — find them cheaper alternatives or figure out a way to make their event happen, but with fewer resources. And they appreciate what you have done to help them, so they make the effort and really try and keep that relationship, even if they cant come one year.”

She laughed telling about one client who was so personally apologetic for having to cancel, “It felt like we were dating! They literally said, ‘Were sorry, its not you guys — we just dont have the money right now.” They even sent a gift basket.

Whats the most challenging part of it all? Its a combination of the large volume and the many details that have to be right, Escobar said. “Those are the two biggest difficulties that we have to work with and be aware of when (conferences) are coming, so that we can prepare for them.”

And so in summer, when you see the legions of visitors merrily enjoying the UW campus, now youll know whose hard work made it all possible.

“Most people dont even know we exist!” said Escobar.