Conference CALL

Linda WheelerLinda Wheeler keeps her eye on the prize: a well-executed event

When Champlain College was seeking someone to help create a plan to bring in additional revenue through hosting summer conferences and meetings, Linda Wheeler was hired as a consultant. When it came time to formally open the college’s conference and event center, Wheeler was offered the job of running it.

by Janet Essman Franz

Successful planners know that a good plan begins with a goal and a strategy for reaching it.

In the early 1990s, Linda Wheeler was raising three young children and looking for a way to blend her work with the needs of her family. She wanted more control over her hours than her travel agency job allowed. She left the travel industry to start The Virtual Office, a business that provided administrative services to membership associations too small to have their own staffs or equipment.

Her clients included the Vermont Mortgage Bankers Association, Women Business Owners Network and the Vermont Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. She managed their finances, organized records, produced newsletters and Web sites, corresponded with members and served as executive director. She also planned their meetings and events, a task in which she took great pleasure.

“Over the years I found the piece I enjoyed most was event and educational planning,” she says. As I grew my business, I brought in more business based on meeting planning. I had customers for whom I was looking for meeting space. I called Champlain to find meeting space and found they were in the midst of planning how they would structure that.”

Champlain College in the prior three years had renovated and expanded its campus, with a new student life center and dining hall, spacious student lounges, classrooms with state-of-the art technology, and suite-style apartments. While the renovations were aimed at the traditional population of students, the college administration felt the facilities should not sit idle when students are not there. Hosting conferences and meetings during the summer would allow the community to use the facilities and help offset college costs.

“We wanted to bring in additional revenue when the facility is not being used,” says David Provost, vice president of finance and administration for Champlain College. “The college had always brought in some outside business, but not in a centralized way. It wasn’t strategic. There was an increasing demand to use our state-of-the-art facilities and beautiful campus.”

Wheeler came on board in a consulting role to help the college structure a conference center and determine the viability of hosting meetings on campus. “I worked with them to look at what we can host, what’s the best fit and how to create revenue with this department,” she says. “I know what meeting planners want, and I understand the logistics. I know what it takes to make a smooth event.”

The conference and event center at Champlain College took shape during the summer of 2006, and, in September, the college offered Wheeler a post as director. With her three children now in high school and college, Wheeler felt ready to take on the responsibilities of a full-time job, and this job was her perfect fit.

Photo of three women The center’s staff includes four full-time employees and one student worker majoring in a related field. Jodi Israel (left) is the scheduler and administrative assistant. Emily Arsenault, the student coordinator, helps wherever she’s needed. Susan Corcoran is the sales coordinator.

She closed The Virtual Office, and built a conference and event center team at Champlain College. The staff includes four full-time employees, who schedule events, set up rooms and manage sales, and one student worker majoring in a related field.

In this first year, the center has focused on marketing and creating awareness about the facilities. Sales out of the gate are strong, says Wheeler, with about 40 to 50 groups scheduled to use the campus this summer. Recent and upcoming events include technology-based youth camps, a conference of college admissions counselors, teacher-training seminars and social events, including a wedding brunch and a “Sweet 16” party.

The campus accommodates meetings for between five and 500 people in about 20 rooms, in addition to classroom space. The IDX Student Life Building may be used for receptions, taking advantage of the lounge, outdoor terrace and an Adirondack mountain view. The campus is networked with wireless Internet, and the new S.D. Ireland Family Center for Global Business and Technology offers high-tech classrooms and multi-media suites for seminars and presentations. Victorian-era mansions serve as dormitories, and a dormitory under construction will offer air-conditioned accommodations. Events last from one to 12 days.

“We are seeking people to use our dorms and our catering, take advantage of our beautiful campus and cutting-edge technology, and use our conference-planning services,” Wheeler says. The campus food service, Sodexho, prepares the meals for banquets, receptions and parties. “Sodexho does an excellent job with catering. This is not the campus food that people might remember from their college days,” Wheeler says. “They work with Vermont Fresh Network; they look at each client and tailor the menu to meet what they need, from everyday continental breakfasts to special dinners.”

Area businesses and organizations, such as Dwight Asset Management and NeighborWorks, use the campus frequently for board meetings, seminars and staff retreats.

“People sometimes need to get out of their everyday environment to get a wider perspective on their business and issues,” Wheeler says. “We have one conference room at the top of the building with a great view of Lake Champlain and New York. It’s set up like a living room, so it’s very relaxing.”

Recently Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility held its annual spring conference at Champlain. The one-day event included speakers, workshops, a luncheon and a post-conference party. More than 350 people attended, with several spending the night in Cushing Hall dorm.

“Everyone loved the feel of the space. It’s very welcoming and warm with a lot of light coming through, says Rita Bevacco, VBSR program manager. “All of the space was completely wired with A/V and Internet access. It made it very convenient not to worry about these details. Facilities coordinator [for the Event Center] Mike Mansfield-Marcoux was around all day and ready to help me within seconds of a request, and that made the day go smoothly.”

Michael Mansfield-Marcoux The campus accommodates meetings for between five and 500 people in about 20 rooms. This summer about 40 to 50 groups are scheduled to use the campus. Michael Mansfield- Marcoux, facilities coordinator, is responsible for setting up rooms, furniture and signage and helps with catering.

The main reason for choosing Champlain, Bevacco says, was the food. With a mission to protect the natural and economic environment, it is important to VBSR’s member to use local products as much as possible. Bevacco was impressed by Champlain’s commitment to meeting this need. “We were looking for a location that would be flexible in using local, sustainably produced food and supplies. That’s not easy to do with a group this size. Executive Chef Pete Elder took a look at every ingredient in every dish that would be served and tried to determine if he could source that in Vermont. Right down to the oil that went into the salad dressing, he was able to get it locally. That took a lot of extra work, and I was very impressed with Pete’s efforts in that regard.”

Facilitating the connection between Bevacco and the staff at Champlain was Wheeler’s specialty. “Linda was my main contact for the event. She was very accommodating, efficient and extremely helpful,” Bevacco says.

These are the sorts of details that make each workday different, Wheeler says. “There is nothing typical about any of my days. Planning meetings has a myriad of details, and you have to get them all right.” That involves, she adds, meeting customers, preparing contracts, placing directional signage, arranging food service, dormitories and technology needs and “pinning down step-by-step what happens at a given time so you can be prepared so everything runs smoothly.”

Marketing is Wheeler’s biggest challenge. “It’s getting out there and letting people know we’re here and we’re a unique venue.” She advertises in location listings and Web sites frequented by meeting planners. She markets to businesses and associations in Vermont and works closely with the Vermont Convention Bureau to draw business from out of state.

Provost says she met the challenge head-on. “She did a remarkable job in improving the presentation of the Champlain brand through marketing materials, signage and delivery of services,” he says. “Linda is well organized and very driven.”

Her organizational skills allow her to find time for her family. Her husband, Ian, a native of England, is an engineer at Hayward Tyler Inc. in Colchester. They live in Essex Junction, and she describes their family as typical. “We have a house in the suburbs, three kids and a dog, and too many cars,” she quips. One child attends Clarkson University and another is considering colleges to attend this fall. The youngest child is a rising junior just beginning to think about college. Wheeler’s mother still lives in the Colchester house where Wheeler grew up.

Her favorite diversion is singing. “I sing a lot, and I take voice lessons.” She sings with Bella Voce, an area women’s choir that performs at regional venues, including the University of Vermont recital hall and churches in Burlington, St. Albans and Warren. She sings with her church choir and plays in the bell choir. She sings with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and this summer, her soprano voice will be heard in the chorus of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Gondoliers for the Vermont Mozart Festival.

She finds her escape on a motorcycle. On warm summer evenings, she and Ian take their Hondas out for rides in the country. “It’s a way to get away from everything else, feel the wind and smell the pine and flowers,” she says. “A lot of times we pick a creemee stand and we go.”

Even on a motorcycle, though, Wheeler must know her destination before she starts. “I’m a planner to the max. I always want to know where I am going.” •