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Excitement, Angst and the Six Core Challenges Universities Face

Excitement is always part of potential upgrades for branded environments. And angst often accompanies the complex process to get there, from concept to completion. That’s the story we heard at the Campus Athletics Facilities Summit and Pro Sports & Entertainment Facilities Summit in Philadelphia this month.

We repeatedly encountered six core challenges.

  • Inconsistent or inexperienced project management
  • A lack of discipline with budgets and schedules
  • Good designs followed by poor project execution
  • A struggle to create and maintain consistent and effective branding
  • Luxuries that briefly “wowed” but ended up ignored, purposeless or, even worse, wasting space
  • Technology that’s cool in theory but burdensome in practice

At the summit and over the past year, we’ve heard a lot of frustrations from athletic directors and their teams. One time, an AD walked into a meeting with an irritated expression after finishing a phone call. When asked about his current facilities company and an ongoing project, he said, “Well, my facilities manager just said I should tell them to get their [beep] together.”

We hear that a lot and want to help.

Creativity and innovation fall short without disciplined execution

While we lean hard into our end-to-end services, we also know developing branded environments is often a collaborative task. This means it’s important to be able to enter a project at any time in the process and provide value and solutions.

For example, an SEC program recently was moving forward on a state-of-the-art football performance center. The $90 + million project was complicated, with a large scope of work for a short timeline. Miller Zell was brought in as project managers to coordinate between general contractors and an array of vendor partners.

As our roots are in large and complex nationwide retail projects, this task was well within our sweet spot. We managed lines of communication between five different companies, coordinating timing, approvals, equipment, materials and managing documentation and paperwork. We also made sure that branding consistency was maintained, matching the look and feel of the university’s celebrated stadium.

We recognized specific vendor strong points and took over work from overwhelmed partners while providing less expensive solutions for the project. We met all timelines within budget. Coaches, athletes, administrators and an ardent fanbase were thrilled with the results. And, judging by recruiting comment sections, rivals were just a bit jealous.

Branding & sub-branding: Supporting sub-cultures within a cohesive brand

Colleges and universities are branded businesses that serve customers and associates (students, athletes, coaches, professors, administrators, etc.)

This is notably like Miller Zell’s core retail clients. Many universities now understand this retail equivalency — that they are selling customer experiences and fostering a national brand.

Elevating a school’s national brand is critical in today’s evolving campus competition. And this isn’t just about sports or a logo and some colors. The look and feel of a university’s business school, student union, dorms, etc. play critical roles in recruiting the best students, professors and administrators, just as training facilities, locker rooms and stadiums attract elite athletes. Each is part of the university brand while also being its own distinct sub-brand. Failure to recognize that nuance will hurt recruiting.

Moreover, the collegiate applications/admission environment is an emerging challenge. Demographics indicate the number of U.S. teens is dropping, creating a smaller pool of applicants, even as tuition costs have skyrocketed, and some wonder if college is even worth it. Even before COVID-19 and years of inflation, many schools were suffering in student recruiting, as nearly 30 percent of all four-year schools brought in less tuition revenue per student in 2017-2018 than in 2009-2010.

Conversely, the “big brands” are thriving, experiencing record-breaking increases in applications.

Not to belabor the point, but this is retail — some brands thriving, others struggling and all knowing that marketplaces change and often rapidly.

One of our longtime partnerships with a university has produced elevated branding and sub-branding over a wide range of projects, from a football stadium to a student union, from dorms to a graduate school. Our collaborative process recognizes and serves the user wants and needs and the various purposes of each facility, whether academic, athletic, social or administrative.

The fundamental goal is to produce the best possible customized environment, on time and on budget.

Immersive, purposeful campus destinations

We’ve toured many campus facilities and seen many interesting details. We’ve seen technology that augments experiences and technology that is practically abandoned. We’ve seen purposeful luxuries in athletic facilities that are focal points of recruiting, and we’ve seen now-farcical elements that might make immediate headlines but end up becoming locker room jokes and headaches for coaches and trainers.

The process for developing campus facilities needs to start with research and data that aim at specific goals, not speculative creativity that works better at amusement parks.

Many campuses have a love-hate relationship with technology. It’s important to recognize that digital innovation is not a one-off cost but one that needs to be continually supported, updated and improved. It may “wow” at first, but then it should serve users and exceed experiential expectations — today, next month and in two years.

Whether it’s a donor wall or an off-campus branding experience, a large football stadium or a business school, a competitive collegiate environment means facilities initiatives are no longer “just build it and they will come.”

It’s about a blending of strategy, purpose and innovation, which is then paired with disciplined and cost-effective execution.