How to Leverage the Creativity of Universities to Boost Your Conference

Nontraditional spaces can spark innovation and collaboration.

Colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher education are great venues for events at small to medium-sized conferences outside larger convention spaces.

These hubs for learning, research, and innovation ooze intelligence and inspire creative thinking. In many cases, particularly when smaller, more intimate spaces prompt attendees to sit around circular tables or in small groups, university events spark collaboration among attendees.

University spaces offer a variety of other benefits over larger settings, including presentation areas equipped with the latest technology, contacts for speakers, partnership opportunities, and more. In most cities, higher education institutions also sit on public transportation lines, making accessibility from hotels in the central business district a breeze.

A city like Montréal, home to seven institutions of higher learning, four universities and a large body of international students and researchers, offers a good model.

For starters, the city has established an organization to help universities and businesses partner for a variety of engagements, including events. That organization, the Quartier de l’Innovation (QI), creates bridges between public and private sectors. Four universities are members of QI: McGill University, Université du Québec à Montréal, École de Technologie Supérieure and Concordia University.

McGill played a key role in QI’s 2013 launch. Heather Munroe-Blum, who was the principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University at the time, helped establish its vision. “The QI will make Montréal an international leader in innovative cities, building on the experiences of other visionary cities such as Barcelona, Manchester and Boston,” she said in a news release. “Montréal’s Quartier de l’Innovation is truly one-of-a-kind as it embraces all aspects of innovation: from the social, cultural and urban dimensions to education, research and industry.”

QI regularly works to attract events to college and university campuses. Damien Silès, QI’s executive director, said one of the biggest benefits of bringing outside conferences onto Montréal’s campuses is the knowledge transfer that happens—both inside and outside of the conference rooms.

“Something about the learning environment just seems to excite people and inspire them,” he said of conference attendees. “Conventions and conferences always are about sharing knowledge, but when that takes place on an academic campus, in academic buildings, the results can be particularly special and can lead to serious innovation.”

Silès noted that smaller and more private conferences work just as well in the higher education setting. With all these events, quality trumps quantity every time. “Events don’t have to be huge to be worthwhile,” he said. “All you need is for the event to have an impact.”

(Concordia University)