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UMass Hotel and Conference Center Offers Diverse Menu of Options

Van Sullivan, left, Retail Dining Services Campus Center manager, and Hotel Manager David O’Connor

Van Sullivan, left, Retail Dining Services Campus Center manager, and Hotel Manager David O’Connor show off two of the international dishes available in the Blue Wall Café.

An entire wall in the lobby of the UMass Hotel and Conference Center in Amherst is dedicated to plaques and framed certificates showcasing awards, which range from accolades for green initiatives and cleanliness, to Trip Advisor’s Certificates of Excellence and a designation as the best hotel in Amherst, to being named the best college hotel in Massachusetts by Yankee magazine, as well as numerous prestigious honors for its extraordinary, world-class cuisine.
In 2012 alone, the AAA three-star-rated hotel won eight national awards for its food. In addition, Ken Toong was feted with the distinguished Silver Plate award during the International Foodservice Manufacturers Assoc. conference held last month. “Groups have chosen to come here just because our food is so good,” said Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises for UMass Amherst. “Our food has been ranked third in the country by the Princeton Review, and visitors can choose to eat at our University Club and Restaurant, in our food court, or in one of four dining commons.”
The self-supporting boutique hotel/conference center accommodates groups of fewer than 10 people or as many as 10,000, thanks to its access to apartments and rooms on campus during the summer months, as well as the Student Union Campus Center, two auditoriums which each seat 600 people; the Fine Arts Center, which seats 2,000; and the William D. Mullins Memorial Center, which seats close to 10,000. In addition, more than 200 classrooms are available during the summer.
“We are an affordable alternative with a vast number of options that people may not have considered,” said Meredith Schmidt, director of the Campus Center Student Union Complex, adding that the hotel is used by many national and international organizations and is positioned in the heart of the campus within a 400,000-square-foot complex that includes the university store, a credit union, a hair salon, and a wide variety of dining options. Sports organizations can access playing fields, and the staff works closely with the area’s five-college community as well as the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID).
Guests can also enjoy events held on campus, stroll through its miles of walkways, mix and mingle with students, and visit the student-run Franklin Permaculture Garden, an ecological center which has been formally recognized by President Obama.
The $5 million in annual revenue generated from the hotel, and 350 annual conferences held there, also helps to support the university and the Amherst BID. Each hotel guest is charged a daily $1 fee, which goes to the BID, and, like other revenue-based operations on campus, the hotel and conference center pays administrative overhead to the central UMass budget office.
“It’s a domino effect,” Toong said, as he talked about how the revenue this operation raises contributes to the economy.

Unlimited Resources

Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises

Ken Toong, executive director of Auxiliary Enterprises, says the award-winning Franklin Permaculture Garden is one of many attractions on the Amherst campus that people who stay at the hotel/conference center can enjoy.

The hotel’s guests represent a wide spectrum of business opportunities. Some attend conferences, while others are there for events sponsored by the university, which include graduations, open houses, and career fairs. There are also guest lecturers, performing artists, visiting sports teams, alumni, and the general public, who find the location and hotel convenient if they are visiting the area or attending events such as Amherst’s annual craft fair.
The hotel also hosts wedding receptions, often held on the 11th floor, which features sweeping views of the campus and the Pioneer Valley.
Rooms in the state-of-the-art hotel average $135 a day for visitors. Conference rates for rooms in residence halls are much lower, however, and typically cost $25 per person per day without air conditioning, or $50 for an air-conditioned space. Three meals a day featuring award-winning cuisine can be added for an additional $30 per person per day.
Although there is lots of space available, the campus is constantly expanding, and the hotel offerings continue to grow. Commonwealth College will open a residential complex there on Aug. 13 with 1,500 beds, which will add to the number of rooms that can be reserved during the summer months.
“People can stay at the hotel or in one of our 10,000 rooms,” Toong said. “One of the big advantages we offer is a multitude of choices.”
There are also continual upgrades, and a new front entrance to the hotel with valet parking is expected to be complete within two years. “We are also putting in a new restaurant inside the hotel that will have 200 seats,” Toong said.
He told BusinessWest that employees focus on providing exceptional service, for which they have been feted, and guests as well as the student population enjoy the international cuisine, with choices such as an all-you-can-eat sushi bar. “We serve only sustainable seafood and offer students 15 food choices from around the world at every meal. We promote healthy eating, so we check the sodium content of everything we serve and use a lot of fresh herbs and fruits and vegetables,” Toong explained.
The food-service operation spends $2.3 million each year for fresh produce, and 27%, or about $600,000, is purchased from local farmers. “It’s also very important to us to buy meat from animals that have been treated humanely. Plus, we compost everything, including our plasticware and the paper coffee cups used at conferences,” he noted. “Our goal is to give our customers the best, and we want to be a leader in supporting the environment.”
During the past year, the operation has generated an additional 48 tons of compost due to an increase in recycling efforts.
Toong also cited a number of organizations the facility belongs to, such as the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture program. “Students and guests want us to do this, and we find that, if we give people great value, they come back,” he said. And since the school has 16,000 students signed up for its full meal plan, it’s easy to accommodate groups of any size. “The hotel gets 24,000 guests each year, and large numbers don’t scare us.”

Group Offerings

About 40% of conferences held on the campus are related to academics, and professors from the university’s 200 departments often bring in key people from leading organizations they belong to.
Toong organizes the annual Taste of the World Chef Culinary Conference, which is held at UMass Amherst and attracts 300 accomplished chefs from across the nation, who engage in research and development during the week-long event. This year, they will include Robert Irvine from the television show Restaurant Impossible and Jet Tila, celebrity guest judge from the TV series Chopped.
Although he is integral to the hotel/conference center’s operation, Toong said the staff makes it easy to host events there, as they employ a one-stop-shopping approach. “We are able to be flexible, and because we are part of the UMass family, we seldom say ‘no’ to requests,” he explained.
Special needs are recognized even when there are no requests, and to exemplify this, Toong pointed to a recent conference attended by senior citizens, where food-service staff brought meals to their tables to make things easier for them, even though that had not been part of the arrangement.
“We want to create jobs for staff members and bring more business to campus; there are so many great buildings here, and we make sure people get great value in terms of food and service,” he said, adding that price is always negotiable.
Schmidt agreed. “We give people lots of options because we can,” she said.
Meredith Schmidt, director of the Campus Center Student Union complex

Meredith Schmidt, director of the Campus Center Student Union complex, says the hotel’s 116 rooms were gutted and completely renovated several years ago.

That includes technological advances. The hotel renovations have allowed the Hotel and Conference Center to keep abreast of trends, and iPod docking stations and charging areas are built into desks in each room. In addition, wireless Internet is available everywhere on campus. “And we have the best views in the Valley, especially during fall foliage season,” she said.
Toong said the center takes pride in bringing visitors to the university. “Our job is to enhance revenue, as we are self-supporting. But we also want to share this world-class university.” And there are many events that guests can enjoy on campus, such as a guest chef who is brought in to make a weekly presentation.
The award-winning Franklin Perma-culture Garden is one of the attractions. It provides a popular walking destination that hotel and conference attendees enjoy. It is shaped like a leaf and was created by student volunteers who used more than 500,000 pounds of composted food and mulch to turn a section of lawn into a sustainable ecological plot.
“Last year, we grew 1,500 pounds of vegetables there, and this year we expect to grow 2,000 pounds,” Toong said. “The garden contains more than 1,200 species of plants and herbs.”

Ongoing Mission
Toong said the future of the hotel and conference center is bright, but its administrators are aware of the need to be continuously proactive in their marketing efforts. But it’s a worthwhile task.
“This hotel and conference center is good for Western Mass.,” said Toong. “There are so many great buildings on campus, and it’s efficient and effective for us to use these resources.
“We offer a lot of options because we care — it’s the little things that make a difference,” he continued, adding that, together, they add up to a big opportunity for the university to generate revenue and gain exposure.

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