February 21, 2019

Designing Events for Colleges & Universities

Ideally located in Somerville, MA, just outside the city of Boston, VDA is neighbors with some of the most illustrious and prestigious educational institutions in the entire world. With that proximity comes great responsibility, as VDA regularly partners with colleges and universities such as Northeastern, Harvard, Emerson, UMass, and Babson, to execute their presidential and executive-level conferences and galas.

Spearheading the partnership between VDA, and a number of these establishments, is Associate Director of Sales, Kim Gallagher, who has built many of these relationships from the ground up. “We do a lot of different kinds of events with the colleges and universities in Boston,” says Gallagher. “A lot of these events started out as smaller speaker series, and this gradually evolved into bigger and bigger things.”

As is the case with most events, when working with colleges and universities, it is important to understand a few things: A) the scaling, B) the purpose of the event, and C) the branding.

Look for the purpose.

Working with colleges and universities, the events are always different; they run the gamut from student Super Bowl parties, small speaker series, and fireside chats, to presidential events – by definition, events that the president of the university attends or speaks at – and, multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign galas. Being able to understand the purpose of the event is fundamental. The scaling and tone of the event dictate a lot of things, and this is largely driven by the attending audience. If it’s an event where students will be attending, it is important for the vibe to be cool and interesting. Students want interactive stations and activations that they can engage with. On the other hand, if an event is geared towards alumni donors, which tends to be populated by an older generation, a very specific type of experience and environment is necessary.

How to become a campus hero.

With this range in scale, also comes varying budget, which poses a unique challenge for any experiential design company. How do we maintain the desired look and feel of the event, while competing with a tight budget? This requires a lot of creativity! We consider how we can reuse parts and pieces from our 75,000 square foot warehouse. And, more importantly, how we can integrate the existing elements within the space or venue. If a building is opening on-campus, and an event is being held to commemorate the occasion, how can we really showcase that space?

When the ISEC building opened on Northeastern University’s campus, the NEU events team really wanted to show off this new, beautiful space. VDA was able to match the wood paneling and create a faux wood stage with an LED tile wall set that blended seamlessly – people in the audience thought that the wood and LEDs were just part of the building!

Faux wood stage with an LED tile wall set build for Northeastern University ISEC Ribbon Cutting Event

While delivering a successful product is essential for all events, Kim remarks that the stakes are somewhat higher when working with colleges and universities – there is a higher expectation for perfection, and it’s a little more personal because a lot of the folks working in events at these educational institutions have been there for years, if not decades, and they’re very invested in making sure the college is represented right. This emotional investment is a bit different from a corporate event where clients seem more willing to take a risk, not only financially, but also by exploring unique, perhaps untested concepts!

Design events with branding in mind.

The final piece to understand when working with colleges and universities is branding. Each event and planning team has a very specific set of branding guidelines that they’ve been working with since the inception of the event. In some instances, these campus organizations have been working on the same event for months, if not YEARS, and a specific look and feel has already been built or established. When seeking design or branding inspiration, turn to the save-the-dates, invitations, or event specific collateral for ideas on the event atmosphere and color scheme!

When working with colleges and universities on their campaign galas and presidential events, Kim cautions to always ask for branding material; the event-specific branding could be completely different from the larger university’s branding and messaging. Kim has even seen multiple logos used within one institution, with different colors and visuals, so it looked almost like a completely different identity within the same school!

It all comes down to reading your audience.

Kim notes that these institutions are very cutting edge, so, “being able to read your audience and come up with those creative ideas and solutions that will change their vision or expectations,” is crucial. At VDA, we’re constantly trying to push the envelope and challenge our university event clients to try new things! There tends to be this old school mentality of “let’s just put some drape up” or, “we’ll roll out a red carpet!” and that’s where VDA comes in to challenge expectations. As is the case with any client/vendor relationship, a certain level of trust is necessary! If you ask us for a red-carpet entryway, and we present to you an idea that instead uses rope lights to illuminate the path, it’s all in the name of helping these major name university clients look better.

Plain and simple, schools are constantly competing with other schools – to gain student attention and admissions. These institutions strive to make people want to go their schools, and when they need help getting to that next level, that’s where VDA comes in to help!

For more information on how VDA can help you push the envelope, and get an A+ on your next event, please fill out our contact form, send an e-mail to sales@vdainc.com or call us directly at 617-628-1200.

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