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If West Virginia University Decides to Buy the Waterfront Place Hotel,
it Won't be the First University in the Hotel Business

By Cassie Shaner, The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

October 17, 2010 --If WVU decides to buy the Waterfront Place Hotel, it won't be the first university in the hotel business.

At least seven of WVU's 20 peer institutions have hotels on campus, including the University of Georgia, University of Iowa and Virginia Tech. Others, such as the University of Connecticut, have partnered with hotels near campus to use conference facilities and provide visitors lodging.

WVU officials have discussed a possible relationship with the Waterfront Place Hotel's owners since early this year, when they hired Chicago real-estate consulting firm C.H. Johnson to study the possibility of buying the hotel.

WVU spokesman John Bolt said earlier this month that the two sides have not reached an agreement. However, buying the $50 million hotel and conference center remains part of the discussions.

WVU President James Clements hasn't been directly involved, but he said a lot of major universities own and operate hotels -- including Towson University, where Clements worked before coming to WVU. They are used for educational programs, including hospitality training, and other purposes.

"It's not uncommon at all for a university to own a hotel," Clements said. "At my last university, we owned it, but Marriott ran it for us. We used it for business meetings, conferences. It was a part of our overall facilities structure."

Pay and profit

WVU spent $458,789 on hospitality expenses at the Waterfront Place Hotel in 2007 and 2008, but the university wouldn't necessarily save money if it purchased the facility. At least two of WVU's peers that operate hotels still pay to use them.

Michael Ellman, director of hospitality services for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said the UMass Hotel is a self-supporting auxiliary unit. It generates profits for the university, but UMass still pays -- albeit a discounted, but not tax-exempt, rate -- to use the hotel.

"The money we raise pays for the building," Ellman said.

The 116-room UMass Hotel was constructed in the 1970s as part of the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center, which also houses the school's bookstore, student union, retail businesses, administrative office space and other conference facilities.

The average nightly cost for a room is about $110. The Campus Center's meeting and conference facilities cost $100 to $1,000 a day, depending on the room's size.

The University of Missouri's College of Agriculture Foundation purchased The Gathering Place, a small bed and breakfast next to campus, for $800,000 in 2008. Operations Manager James Hundle said the university hosts small meetings and houses guests at The Gathering Place, but pays the same rates as other guests, minus state taxes.

"The benefit is that it's right across the street from the university," Hundle said. "We used it quite a bit when it was run by the previous owner. There's something attractive about putting up visitors and job candidates at a historic bed and breakfast, rather than a regular hotel."

The Gathering Place contains five guest rooms, a common area and a large dining hall. Hundle said a night's stay costs $129 to $199, and room rental costs about $25 an hour, plus the cost of food.

Academic opportunities

The foundation owns The Gathering Place, but it is operated by the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. It serves as a business laboratory for students studying hotel and restaurant management, and Hundle said up to 50 students gain experience there each year through class projects, internships and paid work.

"Our hotel and restaurant management program has been growing by leaps and bounds, not because of the bed and breakfast, but just in general during the last three or four years, so it was a great opportunity," Operations Manager James Hundle said.

The UMass Hotel is also used for academic purposes. Ellman said students in the school's hospitality and tourism management programs are hired and paid to work there, but they earn course credit for doing so.

"It serves as a place where our students can get work experience, which is part of their degree requirements," Ellman said.

WVU does not offer degrees in hotel or restaurant management, but the College of Business and Economics offers courses on hospitality and tourism, restaurant development and restaurant management. B&E officials have said they hope to offer hospitality as a major within a couple years.

In July, WVU spokeswoman Becky Lofstead speculated that the discussions between the university and the Waterfront Place Hotel could be related to WVU's work with the hotel to provide professional experience for students taking hospitality courses.

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Copyright (c) 2010, The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.

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