Happy campers make colleges smile Summertime activities fill up otherwise empty campuses

May 05, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

St. John's College outfits its Annapolis campus for weddings, and the University of Maryland College Park opens its armory for national jump-rope competitions. St. Mary's College lets CIA agents wander amid serenity of its river-edged lawns, and Hood College gives local teen-gers lessons in how to play rock in their garage.

Those are just some of the surprises to be found on college campuses this summer.

Weekend or weeklong respites for academics, alumni, children, taxidermists, bowling alley managers, cyclists and bird watchers alike have become a major source of good will and extra cash for higher education nationwide.

Though not willing to play hotel operators to just any tourists, many Maryland colleges say their dorms, their dining halls and their swimming pools are increasingly filled to capacity in the off-season by non-profit or education-related groups.

"There's really a different rhythm in the summer," says Chris Cihlar of St. Mary's College, which has hosted cyclists and sailors by the thousands. Four times as many people pass through campus in summer than during the academic year, she says, including 5,000 to 7,000 for the annual Governor's Cup Yacht Race. "Where else could you find enough showers and bathrooms?"

Squeezed in around summer school sessions on big campuses like College Park or filling otherwise empty space at Goucher and Notre Dame, the campus conference-and-event industry has climbed dramatically in the past decade as outsiders search for solitude, beauty and low cost and colleges look for new sources of revenue.

A decade ago, groups looking for a relatively cheap source of housing had to wind their own way through the bureaucracy. Today, many campuses have set up offices to handle the package deals groups require -- lodging, meeting space, shuttle service, and catering.

"We're the best deal in town," says Jeanette Hoffman, wharranges accommodations for rentals business groups, wedding parties and lawmakers at St. John's College. "We do it mostly for public relations, not for the money," she says.

Colleges account for 8 percent of the nationwide meeting business, according to Meeting News, an industry trade journal. More than 600 U.S., Canadian and Australian colleges now belong to a professional association for college conference directors, up from 11 when the Colorado-based group was founded in 1981, according to James M. Limbaugh, Frostburg State University administrator and a director of the professional group.

"They come for ambience as much as cost," he said.

For college communities, the benefits can be enormous: jobs for students and for food service workers, janitors and faculty otherwise laid off in summer, extra income to spend on academics during the year, and a chance to show off the campus to potential students -- or relatives of potential students.

"For every couple that comes to a marriage encounter, there could be an 18-year-old at home," said Sally Allison, head of conferences at Towson State University, which expects 1,200 people for a regional marriage counseling weekend affiliated with the Catholic Church in August. "It's a real recruiting tool," she said.

The catch is that overnight guests sometimes must bring their own linens and almost always put up with group showers.

But they don't seem to mind.

For years colleges have opened their doors to the outside community in summer, offering everything from the use of the swimming pool to summer concerts, courses, lectures and athletic camps for kids.

What happens on college campuses in the summer nowadays is part good will, part academic necessity and part happenstance -- such as when a popular program grows too big to handle other times of year.

Such is the case with the National Orchestral Institute, a three-week camp at College Park for aspiring musicians, taught by top conductors and first-chair musicians from orchestras around the country. It culminates in the International Piano Competition. The 10-year-old event is one of the premier competitions in music and draws 400 volunteers from the campus neighborhood to help raise money and host events.

College Park is the busiest state campus in summer, bringing in more than $1.2 million in gross revenues. In past years, said Melvin Bernstein, dean of summer programs at College Park, profits have been used to computerize the campus and purchase academic equipment.

He runs a giant summer school program, which generates 72,000 academic credit hours, or nearly half the wintertime enrollment. More than 15,000 students in 68 disciplines study in summer.

Public campuses began to be used heavily in summer after World War II to accommodate the academic needs of returning veterans. At College Park and many other campuses, conference services evolved in response to demands from faculty who needed a place to host colleagues and academic exchanges at all times of year.

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