Golf, Gadgets, Gimmicks

When colleges' financial gurus gather, companies use strategy and give-aways to hawk their wares. 
July 12, 2005

"Think fast," says Emily Brinkman as she tosses a juggling ball at me -- across the aisle where I had been looking at another exhibit.

Emily, 11, sports a name badge identifying her as a vice president of DerivActiv, a company that advises colleges and other entities with large investment holdings. Emily, Lauren (9 and also with a vice president's badge), and their father, Collin (whose name tag ID of senior vice president has a little more credibility) are all decent jugglers. And while some jugglers impress by doing multiple tasks while juggling, the Brinkman family can juggle flashy silver-and-black balls while also talking about why college administrators should use DerivActiv's services.

The girls might not be able to close a deal, but they can get off the first line or two of the sales pitch (while juggling) and that gets more than a few visitors to their father's booth.

At the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the exhibit hall is full of companies trying to attract attention. Big-name companies like TIAA-CREF and Sallie Mae and upstarts you've never heard of all stake out positions in the Baltimore Convention Center.

Want to outsource your custodial service? Construct a building that will win architectural prizes? Cut your energy costs? Be more efficient in ticketing illegally parked cars? Want more order in your procurement system? Whatever your business needs, there is a company here (usually along with its competitors) that wants your college's business. And if you are feeling confused about your options, you can find consulting companies here that specialize in helping colleges pick among the companies that do all of the above.

Exhibit halls are of course a standard part of the academic meeting. But those who exhibit at most scholarly meetings don't have much in the way of marketing budgets. And presidents don't tend to get into the nitty-gritty that occupies chief financial officers, so the exhibit halls at presidential conclaves aren't packed. NACUBO -- along with a few other associations, such as Educause -- is a meeting that gathers people who sign off on major college purchases.

As such, this is a meeting where businesses want to make an impression. And a walk through the exhibit hall provides a glimpse at some of the issues facing college administrators -- as well as the depths to which some businesses will go to get a few minutes with your senior vice president.

Gimmicks abound. Perhaps it's a stereotype, but the businesses clearly assume that campus financial leaders like to play golf. Several have set up small putting areas and offer prizes (putters, golf balls, golf shirts, golf hats) for those who perform well on the green (and who have left a business card). For PriceWaterhouseCoopers, a putting areas is only one draw; the accounting and consulting giant also pays for a massage service that is offered -- free -- to NACUBO attendees right across an aisle from the PriceWaterhouseCoopers area.

"There's a line of people waiting," says Dale Cassidy, a Houston-based consultant for the company, noting that some of those waiting might stop to chat. Cassidy says that he finds meetings like this one helpful not so much in selling services, but in finding out how people view the firm's various offerings and whether new services are finding a niche.

There's also a line outside the Chevron booth, where a caricature artist does portraits. Bret P. Hunter, head of business development for higher education, says he likes to bring the artist to shows. "She draws people in, and they will wait and talk," he says.

Those who talk to Hunter hear about Chevron's energy work "on the supply side and the demand side." The company helps colleges identify ways to save energy and then uses those savings to finance additional improvements that will help make institutions more energy efficient. And of course, Chevron also supplies energy.

On the high end, raffles abound, in which people who leave a business card win a shot at various prizes. iPods were popular at NACUBO this year. And for those whose idea of sport isn't golf, the Exeter Group, which does consulting on IT issues, is giving away a mountain bike. (In the interests of full disclosure, Inside Higher Ed has also used raffles at meetings, although our give-aways have been more modest -- bookstore gift certificates.)

Playing cards were another popular give-away this year. Those with the University House design on them seemed a perfect way to play off the growing student interest in playing poker. University House is an outsourcing company for student housing and its marketing materials feature picture after picture of happy students.

More surprising was the use of playing cards to promote Moody's Investor Services, one of the entities that scrutinizes colleges finances. Was Moody's encouraging the endowment managers at the meeting to take their holdings to Vegas? Dennis Gephardt, a Moody's analyst, offers reassurance. College financial management these days, he says, is about "calculated risk," and the cards with the Moody's M symbolize that.

When competitors are adjacent at the meeting, it becomes clear just where an industry is heading. In the booths at Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexho -- each of which manage food operations and other services for hundreds of colleges -- similar themes were evident. Healthy food is in. Flexibility is in. "These students are grazers," says Holly J. Hart, director of marketing for Chartwells. As a result, there is less emphasis on meal hours and more on having food of some sort available all the time.

Chartwells was going personal with samples of fresh cookies that parents on client campuses can have sent to their children -- baked fresh (all natural ingredients, of course) on the day of order and delivery. At the Aramark booth, a waiter in a chef's hat served strawberries and cream.

But Tina Willcox, director of trade relations for Aramark, said that the materials being used at NACUBO were intentionally designed to be about more than food. "We're not talking about our great pizza concept, but the great moments students will experience in our facilities," she says.

Similarly, Chartwells' theme was "Eat. Learn. Live" and to demonstrate non-culinary college interests, the company's booth has a place where attendees were invited to write graffiti.

Sodexho seemed more focused on food, with an emphasis on healthy eating. NACUBO members could pack up bags of diced papaya, Turkish apricots, banana chips, mixed nuts and apples and more. (Of course there was also a large glass container that looked to have chocolates in it -- a Sodexho rep explains that while the company is proud of the nutrition it provides, some people at this meeting expect chocolate, and the company can't disappoint.)

If providing food has long been a staple of NACUBO's exhibit hall, other objectives or issues (and their corresponding businesses) are just hitting their stride. Several companies were offering services to deal with potential graft by employees (or to check out potential employees for past criminal records).

Ethics Point, for example, has signed up 50 colleges (most of them in the last year) for a whistle-blowing service that allows employees to anonymously report wrongdoing. Using either a phone or a Web site, employees can report wrongdoing and university administrators investigating wrongdoing can send questions back to the whistle blower -- with both the investigator and the whistle blower assured anonymity.

The costs for colleges vary by number of employees, but a rough estimate of an average cost would be about $5,000, says Sharene Rekow, education director for the company.

Ethics Point is among the companies giving away an iPod, and Rekow says that a few NACUBO attendees have said that they don't want to enter for fear of violating an ethics rule.

For all the competition on give-aways, it's unclear how much good they actually do. Many attendees walk the aisles with bags stuffed with loot. But others ignore much of the scene. At a table off to the side of the exhibit area, two colleagues from the State University of New York at Binghamton are carefully going through the NACUBO program, figuring out which one of them will attend which sessions.

Asked about the exhibit freebies, they say that they are great presents for children, but not of huge value beyond that. "I focus on the companies that are going to do me some good," says Michael McGoff, vice provost for strategic planning. "I'm not a give-away guy."


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