Strategic Thinking for Student Unions

Strategic Thinking for Student Unions

Foodservices in a student union must today be carefully managed in the context of those offered in decentralized campus retail dining programs, says Rick Thomas, Northwestern University's executive director of the Norris University Center.

“In his book The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg spoke at length about a ‘third place’ — not home, nor work, but a place where people choose to go to find a sense of community — ” Thomas says.

“Student unions are the original ‘third place’ for the college campus. But while the union's fundamental role as a primary community center has not changed, it is no longer in the position of being the only community center as it often once was.

“Today, recreation facilities, libraries and even classroom buildings are designed new or renovated to include community space. Students use social networking to create virtual gathering places on a whim. We need to accept that neither retail food nor community space are the exclusive territory of student unions on today's campuses. They just aren't the only game in town any more.”

That wasn't as much of a challenge a decade ago, when Norris was the only place on campus that offered retail foodservice. But as retail was decentralized, “the red ink began to appear on Norris' foodservice financials,” Thomas says.

The facility was already handicapped by its location on the far east edge of campus. As traffic declined, annual revenue at Norris dropped by over $800,000 at one point, even as overall campus retail sales grew by more than $2 million.

“Society today has sometimes come to value convenience, quick service and food-to-go at the expense of larger, shared community experiences,” Thomas adds. “This has significant implications for those charged with providing both on a contemporary campus.

Administrators need to think more strategically about the role brands play in such venues, he believes. “We needed to focus on making Norris a destination for students in its own right, rather than just a convenient place to gather between classes.

“Brands — national, regional and corporate — can play an important role in this regard. It can make sense to intentionally place power brands in a union to create destination value that draws segments of the community to a central location.

“Our decision to renovate a portion of the union building, replacing an in-house coffee concept with a Starbucks outlet, was based on this premise. We also modified the concept mix in the Norris food court.

“You can quantify the resulting impact — we used to average 5500 people a day at Norris. That is now up to 7500, and sales there now exceed the original level. In contrast, it's my view that food operations located in academic facilities or those positioned to serve a specific region on campus should perhaps rely primarily on location and convenience as traffic drivers.

Thomas points to a related challenge: “Campuses by their very nature are segmented into smaller communities based on academic departments, residential communities and geographic zones. In efforts to serve these unique populations, our ‘silos’ sometimes create redundant programs and services. One of my colleagues at another Big Ten student union calls this the ‘Every Dean Wants a Starbucks’ syndrome.”

Thomas believes such issues are best addressed by ensuring that foodservice programs are not structured separately from plans to manage the overall campus experience. Northwestern's administration “is trying to approach all of these issues more strategically,” he says, noting they will soon complete a master plan that will help guide such decision making in the future.

“We also have to be vigilant in always asking at what point we might meet market saturation,” he says.

“While it is common on college campuses for residential dining programs to subsidize retail programs, I believe our goal should always be to have student union-based retail stand on its own financially. Depending on the circumstances, that may not always be possible without significantly compromising the mission of the union and ultimately harming parts of the overall foodservice program that are highly valued.

“That is where a strong provider partnership comes in. We in administration must seek to understand the financial realities of the operations, recognize our provider's need to meet financial benchmarks, and be willing to make fair changes in the program given the realities of unit performance and customer usage.”

Thomas is quick to acknowledge that some of the constraints to achieving higher levels of customer and service satisfaction are dependent on the school's own investments in infrastructure and facilities. At Northwestern, where historic buildings and architecture are prevalent, such investments are often higher than usual and a real hurdle to overcome.

“As administrators, we have to recognize that we also have to make our own decisions and contributions in this regard,” he says. “But the experience with our partial renovation of Norris bears out the old adage: ‘If you build it, they will come.”’