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One of the fastest growing disciplines of event expertise is found in the little-publicized but highly populated world of academia. This specific market — where planners face unique challenges in adhering to protocol and budgetary restrictions — also suffers from a lack of educational resources.

Campus budgets don't always include funding for academic planners to attend industry trade shows and conferences. As a result, academic planners do not have the opportunity to learn from event professionals, embrace industry innovations, share their specific experiences and exchange best practices with their peers.

When I began to manage academic programs eight years ago — having worked in special event management for an international company for more than 20 years — I was astonished to see the scope of what was expected of campus planners in light of the limited resources available to them. The corporate event world provides bigger budgets that enable you to work with creative industry professionals, thereby developing your own skill sets. Campus planners are often required to produce complex events, particularly for development events or during a campaign, without having the resources and learning experiences open to other professional planners.

In 2003 I introduced a session at The Special Event with internal planners from several universities, which has always been well-attended by campus planners visiting the show. Each year discussions take place regarding the limited opportunities available for event education and networking within this sector. During the session last year, I suggested holding a mini-conference specifically for academic planners to coincide with The Special Event, and the Academic Event Professional Conference was born!

With my committee — Carolyn Ent, CSEP, director of campaign events at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.; Jenny Jones, director of special events at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.; Nancy Hobbs, director of dean's events at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Kathleen S. Nelson, Ph.D., CSEP, CMP, assistant professor in the Tourism & Convention Department at University of Nevada, Las Vegas — we set about finding a location and programming a day that would have universal appeal to campus planners.


With The Special Event taking place in Los Angeles in 2007, Jim Hooker, executive director of the Office of Protocol & University Events at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, immediately offered to host the event at the Davidson Executive Conference Center on the USC campus. “We were delighted to bring this exciting event to USC,” he says. “This premiere rollout of the Academic Event Professional Conference has been extremely successful and has got solid legs to allow it to run for years to come.”

With limited resources being the root cause for the lack of education opportunities, we decided to set a minimal charge of $95 to attend the conference, which included sessions from noon until 5:30 p.m., a sumptuous lunch and breaks, as well as transportation from The Special Event host hotels. The USC Protocol & University Events office, Duke University Medical Center and my company, The Special Event Co., also stepped forward to provide the funds to produce the conference.

Jenny Jones notes that Duke supports the conference because of the importance of networking for academic event planners who “face a unique set of challenges when planning an event. Working with administrators, faculty, students, alumni and donors is very different from working with corporate sponsors or clients.” She adds, “There are few conferences that are solely for academic planners and focus on the individual issues and concerns they face on a daily basis. The information shared at the AEP conference was invaluable for the Duke staff who attended.”

The committee was delighted when The Special Event embraced this initiative and became our partners by refunding the $95 fee to anyone who registered for an educational package for the shows. So for the vast proportion of AEP attendees, the entire day was absolutely free!


More than 130 academic planners from 49 colleges and universities throughout the United States and the Caribbean attended our inaugural conference, where general and breakout topics included:

  • The scope of campus planning
  • Why have the event?
  • Campaign strategy and events
  • Alumni strategy and events
  • Working with vendors to create an impactful and cost-effective event
  • Staffing your executives

Dennis Cornell, associate vice president of university relations and chief of protocol at USC — which has one of the most progressive and innovative university special event teams in the country — was the keynote speaker. Dennis spoke of his time as head of casting and events at Columbia Pictures and how he brought the same philosophies to USC when he joined the department, stating that USC's president recognized that “you can't raise a million dollars with balloons.”

Commenting on Dennis' presentation, Kathy Nelson notes, “The keynote speech enlightened and inspired attendees. This strong opening set the tone for an exchange of information and ideas brought forth to an audience comprised of neophytes and seasoned professionals.” She adds, “It is this unity of purpose that defines the community of campus event professionals. The information provided at this conference is a giant first step toward furthering the excellence all event providers seek to attain.”


Geni Greiner — director of university events at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. — spoke on campaign events and strategy. “Higher education has adopted a sophisticated marketing culture,” she says. “We have garnered from our corporate partners the valuable traits of business theater, which create preeminence for our institutions. Exceptional events help our university succeed with fundraising, friend-raising and positioning. Our audiences are brand loyal.”

When asked why she agreed to speak, Geni explains, “University events were often managed by an ad hoc committee of creative staff. But in the last decade, university events have evolved into key marketing elements on most large campuses. [So] event professionals were hired.” She notes, “It is essential that this specialty profession grow and develop. This conference is a huge step in that direction.”

Other prominent event and academic industry speakers who volunteered their time and expertise to speak include renowned author and founding member of ISES Dr. Joe Goldblatt, CSEP, professor of tourism and hospitality management at Temple University in Philadelphia. He spoke on “Why Have The Event?” with Nancy Hobbs. Fellow speakers were Sanyin Siang, M.D., of the Center of Leadership and Ethics at Duke; multiple Gala Award-winning event designer Sean DeFreitas of Designs by Sean in Dania, Fla., and Robyn K. Hadden, CSEP, alumni events manager at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, as well as Carolyn Ent, Jenny Jones and Kathy Nelson.

After a rousing finale by USC's Trojan Marching Band, the 130 highly charged attendees left at 6 p.m. There was nothing but praise from the attendees as they made their way back to the host hotel at the end of an exciting, informative and invaluable day. Comments on the evaluations included “Awesome day,” “A great resource for networking with peers,” and “Dennis was worth the entire event fee!” Ent adds, “There was such value from the relationships and ideas generated at this conference. We all left excited to be part of the industry.”


For attendees staying through the duration of The Special Event, AEP was capped with a “Lessons Learned” session for campus planners later that week, which was attended by 70 people. The seminar gave an overview of the conference and reiterated the main deliverables for discussion in small work groups. The session was followed by a wrap-up cocktail party in the Los Angeles Convention Center, sponsored by Duke Medical Center and The Special Event Co.

AEP is set to become an annual event and will take place in Atlanta on Jan. 14 to coincide with The Special Event 2008. The conference will be limited to 200 attendees; for further information and to register, visit the Web site at

Sally Webb is the managing director and CEO of The Special Event Co., an event production company specializing in university events, campaign strategy, development and alumni events. The company has offices in Durham, N.C., Los Angeles and London. She is also an executive in residence at the Temple University School of Tourism and Hospitality. She can be reached at 2616 Erwin Road, #1335, Durham, NC 27705; phone 919/767-7584; [email protected];

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