Eight Helpful Tips on How to Best Utilize the Conference Season

ConferenceAs conference season grows upon us, I think it is important for us to reflect on the best practices for making the most of your conference experience. Whether you are a seasoned professional or interviewing for your first job out of Graduate school; these helpful tips can be very helpful no matter what level you are in your field.

  1. Have a flexible game plan. Planning out your trip and schedule ahead of time is a great way to pressure yourself to make the most use of your time at the conference.  Using the conference schedule or brochure is a great way to plan ahead to which speakers, sessions, or receptions to attend.  It is important to remember that you must have some flexibility with the schedule allowing some opening to connect with old colleagues or creating time to connect with new ones.  You can also plan these ahead of time if you know of others attending the conference.
  2. Always dress to impress. You never know who you are going to meet or run into at a Conference.  Whether you are job hunting or secure in a position; networking contacts can help you at any point in your career and you want to make a good first impression.  Always dress to impress and be professional.  Even if you are out for the evening with some colleagues and in casual attire; make sure it is appropriate as you can run into anyone at any time!
  3. Always have your name tag visible.  Professionals use nametags at conferences to find out who you are and where you are from.  This can help create connections that you may not know you had. Although you may feel like a small fish in a big sea; your affiliation with your company, university or colleagues could lead to connections with others.  People will also be more likely to use your name (which will help them remember it) if you are wearing a nametag.
  4. Bring business cards and resumes. Having these on hand, even if you are not job hunting, can benefit anyone attending a conference.  Updating your contact information with old colleagues, connecting with vendors, having your information for new contacts or even to enter yourself into drawings and prizes are some of the examples of how business cards can benefit.  It may seem simple, but many people do forget!  Don’t have business cards? Create some for yourself!  Sites like vistaprint and 1800postcards often have deals for free business cards or you can create them yourself on the computer!
  5. Go to sessions. A few days away from work and a comfy hotel bed?; It is easy to get caught up in staying in bed and hanging out with other friends or colleagues who may be at the conference or in the area!  It is important to remember the purpose of this professional development opportunity and the investment you or your company have put into sending you to the conference.  Make the most of the experience and attend sessions.  Be sure to pick sessions that you can utilize now or in the future.  Be strategic.  Choose the best sessions for your site, company or you; not because everyone else is going to it or you know the presenter.  Attending sessions are a great way to get information and make connections through networking.
  6. Attend receptions, speakers, and vendor fairs. Gather resources!  These “extras” at conferences may not seem as important as sessions but they are! These are great opportunities for you to network and gain valuable resources for your site! Even if you don’t feel like you need it now, you can always have a “toolbox” and have resources readily available if something does come up.  
  7. Connect with old colleagues; meet new ones and network as much as possible.  Making sure you keep in contact and up to date with your old colleagues can be just as beneficial as making new connections.  Professionals in the field are always advancing and/or moving around to new job opportunities which may be able to benefit you.  Let them know what you are doing and what you are looking to do in the future.  Down the road if a position opens up, they may think of you because you connected with them!  Networking can be tiresome for some introverts but it is well worth the energy for the things you will gain!
  8. Apply what you’ve learned. Conferences are not beneficial or worth the investment if you do not apply the things you’ve learned!  After you return from a conference, reflect and review the things you gained.  Additionally, write down the things you wish to implement in your professional life or on your site and how you plan on implementing these new initiatives. This is also a good time to reach out to those you connected with at the conference.  Grab all those business cards and send a quick “thank you” to those you connected with.  This will make you stand out and hopefully spark a conversation!

These eight tips are a glimpse into the ways that you can make the most of your conference experience.  Use them to your advantage.  Enjoy the experience and all the benefits you can gain from it.  Be intentional and strategic! Hopefully, using these tips, you will make the best of this season! Happy Conferencing!


The Current Financial State of the US Higher Education System

Lee WhiteOur first podcast guest of 2015 is Lee White, Executive Vice President and Manager of the Education and Non-Profit Finance Group, George K. Baum & Company.  Lee is active in all areas of public finance, with a special emphasis on higher education.  He is regarded as the industry’s leading expert in the area of privatized student housing finance, and has made numerous presentations over the years for the NACUBO organization.

This is Lee’s second time on our podcast, as he joined us in October of 2012 to talk about the financing aspect of building student housing.  Today he joins us to talk about the current financial state of the US higher education system and talked about the topics, “is higher education overbuilt?” and “where are the bright spots?”.

Also, if you missed our “best of” podcast from 2014, go check it out.  It’s some bits and pieces from our favorite moments of last year. Lastly, we’d love to hear from you!  If you’ve got any ideas or topics you’d want to hear about, or even guests you might like to hear from, please email us at info@studenthousingmatters.com.  And don’t forget to check us out on Twitter at @OnCampusHousing and on Facebook.

Mitigating The Risks Associated With An Un-User-Friendly Crisis Plan

crisis-preparedness-signIn the first blog I wrote here, we talked about being proactive with our crisis response protocols.  In this post, we’re addressing why its important to make that plan very user-friendly.

Many large universities and organizations have a crisis management plan, and some have taken the time to distribute them to their administrators and department heads. More often than not, however, they resemble the large university textbooks of old, are referenced rarely and carry a substantial amount of dust.

One of the measures of a great crisis protocol is its ease of use. Even the smartest of plans will not receive a lot of attention after they are introduced initially and when not in use. The best favor you can do for your university is to develop a thoughtfully-customized plan for your school that is communicated broadly, understood fully and referenced (particularly in the event of a crisis) easily.

If your university’s crisis plan is of the textbook variety, take solace knowing you have the ability to remedy that problem. Invest the time necessary to identify the titles and names of those individuals who should compose your school’s crisis communications team. Then develop an easy-to-follow plan that can live in many places across your campus, clearly identifying who is responsible for what. Those without specific responsibilities play roles too – they are responsible for saying nothing at all to (or to share a specific statement with) their families, friends, grocery-store acquaintances, neighbors and, obviously, members of the media.

Your crisis plan simply should describe who and how you respond to an event. The following steps may be useful as you think about how to structure your protocol should an issue arise:

  • Engage the crisis team and discuss the situation (wouldn’t it be nice if all team members have each other’s contact information and easy ways to communicate in advance?)
  • Communicate with your legal team (whenever necessary) to develop a partnership to balance response strategies
  • Gather the facts by deciding which members of the crisis team are responsible for fact-gathering; compare and confirm known facts about the crisis and carefully choose facts you can and should release in any written or verbal communications
  • Respond swiftly and in one voice by creating a list of questions that members of your target audiences (e.g., faculty, employees, students, parents, the community and the media) may use by developing one clear statement for all audiences; during a crisis, you should assume that any statements shared with your faculty and employees also will be shared externally, so consider all of your university’s various channels that could be used to communicate your response (e.g., news conferences, in-person meetings, social media channels, e-communications, website, direct mail, etc.)
  • Stay connected to the crisis by providing the university’s spokesperson’s contact information to key reporters and your stakeholders; the spokesperson should commit to being reachable and approachable while you continue engaging the crisis team, discussing progress and any new facts that have developed, and developing additional talking points, as needed.
  • Monitor coverage and gauge reaction by gathering all print clippings, video files and feedback from crisis team members and university advocates and partners; monitor students’, parents’ and community members’ comments, as well as the reactions of your faculty and staff (remain flexible to adjust your plans for next steps and post-crisis responses)

Remember, a simpler crisis plan is not easier to develop – it’s just much more effective and useful in advance of, during and after a crisis – when you actually need it. And once you have created your plan, share it with your administration, faculty and staff, and ask that they review it regularly. Make it accessible at a moment’s notice. And draft it in such a way that it easily can be read, understood and used by a college senior who made it to her 8am class after too little sleep and too much fun the night before.

Danny Markstein is the Managing Director of MarkStein, a PR company located in Birmingham, AL. 


From Wasting Time to Tasting Wine: Vacation and Wellness

Have you seen the MasterCard “One more day of vacation” commercial[1] yet? Elementary aged school kids look at the camera in disbelief as they talk about all the unused paid vacation days each year. As one of the children says in the commercial, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. They’re paid vacation days.”

I chuckled the first time I saw the commercial, but then I started thinking. How many vacation days do I have left? Looking at my hours accrued, I asked myself why haven’t I taken more vacations? This led me to the bigger questions; why do we, as a country, really leave that many vacation days unused? And how does that impact employee wellness in the workplace?

According to a survey released August 2014 by the U.S. Travel Association and GfK, a market research firm, more than 20% surveyed did not use their vacation days because they did not want to appear replaceable. With even higher percentages, the top rated reasons for wasting vacation days included lack of funds to afford a vacation, fear that they would only return to piles of work, and the fact that nobody else could do their job.[2]


While these are valid reasons, the truth is that NOT taking vacation time leads to faster burnout as well as poorer performance from employees. Taking time off lowers employee stress levels and keeps people motivated. Haven’t you ever noticed that the most productive day is the day before you leave for vacation?

Numerous studies have returned with the same results; employees that don’t take time off have higher levels of burnout and are less productive.[3] The reverse is also true. Employees that utilize vacation days are more rested, and better rested employees are more productive. More importantly, well rested employees make better decisions. They return to work energized and focused. They tend to have a more positive outlook and demeanor, which is important in a field such as ours where we interact with students, schools, clients, and vendors on a daily basis. Not only that, but these employees also tend to be happier and healthier, and subsequently lose less productive time being out of the office sick.[4]

The situation is more serious than just providing employees with a positive disposition. Studies have discovered that there is a direct correlation between utilizing fewer vacation days with an increase in heart disease in both women and men.[5] Think about that. Would you rather miss a day of work in the doctor’s office, or out of town visiting old friends? All of this means that it is important for us, as a company, to work together and make sure that everyone is utilizing their vacation time.

So what can we do to help spread this wellness, gained from taking time off, to employees?

The first step is to lead by example. Some employees fear taking vacation time because of the example set by their supervisors. If they do not see their supervisors making time for a break, they often believe that it will be frowned upon if they attempt to take some time off.

Just as important is to ACTUALLY take time away from work. This refers to more than just being out of the office for a few days. This means putting away the work email and not answering all phone calls. Every site has contingency plans for who to contact in case of an emergency. If there is an issue during your vacation time, you should be able to trust that the system is set up to account for that without you having to swoop in and save the day. The day to day running of your site will continue in your temporary absence.

Some businesses have found that employees are more likely to use vacation if they create some innovative options and alternatives. An example would be creating a policy which permits for employees to not use vacation hours for time away spent responding to emails and phone calls.[6] This allows employees to take an actual vacation while still being available to respond to any urgent tasks that might come up.

Another survey, conducted in November 2013, showed that employees were more likely to take time away if they mixed business with travel. Respondents said they were very likely to pay out of pocket to bring a friend or family member with them on a business trip, or to extend a business trip and turn it into a vacation.[7]

Finally, we need to remember to be sympathetic of our staff’s needs to take time off and not send mixed messages. We need to hold each other accountable and be supportive of other’s time away. Help members on your team find time between projects to plan a trip. Remind employees that the rest of the team can hold down the fort in their absence, while also reassuring them that they won’t be replaced. And then we need to set the right example by planning our next vacation.

All of this is easier said than done. I type this knowing that I am guilty of not always taking time off, and of responding to texts, emails, and phone calls while on vacation. However, it is possible to actually detach from work and take a real vacation if you prepare ahead of time. Here are some tips I ran across[8] that can help you be able to leave the office with peace of mind and enjoy the restful break that we all deserve.

  • Notify colleagues and clients
    • Let everyone know, at least a week in advance, that you are going to be taking time off. Give them the dates ahead of time, making sure to also mark it on any shared calendars and clear any reoccurring meetings that might still be scheduled for when you are gone. Let people know how long you will be out and who they can contact in your absence. And don’t forget to put up an out-of-office auto reply on your email!
  • Prepare your colleagues
    • Talk to the people in your direct office about any projects you are currently working on or any student situations that might come up in your absence. Give them the information that they will need to handle any emergency situations that might be on the horizon.
  • Straighten Up
    • Just like it is much better to return home to a clean apartment or house after a vacation, the same is true about your office space. Returning to a clean, clutter free office will make it easier to be productive immediately upon your return. Also, it will make it easier for colleagues to find something they might need in your office if everything is in its place while you’re gone.
  • Get mentally prepared for vacation
    • We are so used to being constantly connected in this day and age that it can oftentimes be difficult to disconnect. It usually takes a couple of days to get into vacation mode. Start really thinking about your trip and destination a few days before you leave. This will help get you in the right mindset.
  • Turn off your electronics
    • We have become Pavlov’s dogs, checking our smartphones every time they ding or beep or vibrate. When you go on vacation, be aware of this. Turn off some of the persistent reminders so that you are not constantly reaching for your phone. Plan set times when you will check email and messages, if you cannot go an entire vacation without being in touch, and only check messages and emails during that time. Don’t let technology ruin your vacation by tethering you to the office. If you are thinking about work, and drafting work emails in your head, then you are not truly on vacation!
  • Trust!
    • Trust the people that you work with. If you have given them the information that they should need in your absence, then you should trust them to be able to handle using that information. And, for the supervisors out there, remember that this is how employees learn. We often need to trust them with taking on bigger tasks to give them experience and professional growth.

When I began researching this article, I had no immediate plans to take a vacation. However, since then, an opportunity to take a trip presented itself. I am going to take my own advice from above and enjoy some time away from work. I know my team can be trusted to handle the property while I’m gone. This means it’s time for me to submit this article, pour myself a glass of Pinot Noir, and pack for my vacation. Bon Voyage!

[1] http://www.priceless.com/travel/

[2] Berman, Jillian. “Americans are too afraid and Stressed to Take Days off from Work.” Huff Post The Third Metric, 19 August 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/19/americans-vacation-days_n_5682576.html

[3] Schelmetic, Tracey E. “Lack of Vacation Leads to Burnout and Lost Productivity.” Workforce Management, 18 November 2013. http://www.customerzone360.com/workforce-management/articles/360683-lack-vacation-leads-burnout-lost-productivity.htm

[4] Johnston, Katie. “For Majority of Workers, Vacation Days Go Unused: As workplace demands and culture change, many cut back on free days.” The Boston Globe, 30 December 2013. http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2013/12/30/for-majority-workers-vacation-days-unused/7X1VwsRbVahLOzy98wnTyH/story.html

[5] Berman.

[6] Johnston.

[7] Langfield, Amy. “Unused Vacation Days Piling Up at Faster Rate.” CNBC, 19 November 2013. http://www.cnbc.com/id/101207442

[8] Mackay, Harvey. “Mackay’s Moral: Vacations aren’t luxuries, they’re necessities.” Atlanta Business Chronicle, 15 June 2014. http://www.bizjournals.com/atlanta/how-to/growth-strategies/2014/06/why-taking-a-vacation-is-your-patriotic-duty.html?page=3

Seth formal

Top Five Suggestions/Tips for Effective Use of Downtime

thumbI know what you are thinking! “Downtime… What’s that?”  While some departments and sites experience downtime during the break season, others are busy all year round.  Eventually, we all hope to have downtime at some point throughout the year; so don’t stop reading!  After a brief survey of colleagues at different locations and within different departments below are the top five suggestions I found particularly useful:

  1. Focus on the Details:  Whether you work in maintenance or in an office, downtime is a great opportunity to get more detailed in the work that you do.  Having the extra time (particularly when it is slower and there is less traffic) to focus on improving common areas, performing detailed cleanings, preparing details of renewals or turn season, or even making sure files are  being accurately kept, will benefit you during your busier seasons.
  2. Training Opportunities: Utilizing the downtime to train, retrain, or create trainings for later use can provide great benefit for staff.  It is also a good opportunity to engage in professional development offered by your company, institution or by an organization you are a member of.  Not only will this benefit the department, but this will also provide an opportunity to reenergize you and your staff!  It will also lead to sparking discussion about ways to improve the work that your department does and new initiatives and ideas that could be implemented.
  3. Clean and Organize:  With the chaos and traffic during the busier seasons, it is easy to get behind on cleaning and organizing.  Downtime is the perfect time to reorganize and do some more thorough cleaning of your desk, the office, the maintenance shop, storage closets and other areas that can become disorganized during the hustle and bustle of day to day work.  This is a perfect opportunity to take inventory, clean and rearrange, organize or reorganize, file, and even plan ahead!
  4. Reflect and Regroup/Plan Ahead: A great team builder for your staff (no matter what department you may be a member of) during downtime is for your team to reflect on the work that has been completed to date including team and personal goals.  Reflecting on progress, benchmarking and goals will allow the team to analyze what has been accomplished and focus on what needs to be accomplished or improved. This regroup period will initiate great brainstorming and can lead to creating proactive planning for the time left within the year.
  5. Relax and Take Some Time for Yourself!:  Self-care is very important in our field as it is easy to burn out.  During the downtime, take some time to relax and do something you enjoy.  Read a new book or treat yourself to something you enjoy.  You’ve worked hard to get here so take some time and enjoy it!

Hopefully you find these suggestions useful; even if they are friendly reminders for things we can all accomplish during our slower times.  Thank you to all those who have offered their suggestions and I encourage readers to comment on ways they utilize downtime!


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