By Ed Brennen
One sure sign that life is returning to normal on campus this fall is the 200-page stack of papers on the desk of Lauren Rojas, executive director of Hospitality and Event Services
. They outline the nearly 500 meetings and events UML is hosting during the first three weeks of October.
“We’re back at it, which is great,” says Rojas, whose team manages campus events big and small, from Convocation at the Tsongas Center to department meetings in reserved conference rooms.
While many of the events are once again in person, some are now being hosted virtually or in a hybrid format of in-person and online. Rojas says that’s an outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people discovered the benefits — namely health, convenience and accessibility — of attending events remotely.
“We’ve definitely noticed a trend in requests for virtual and hybrid events,” says Rojas, whose team has emerged as a leader in the growing space: UML was recently named “Best Virtual Conference Provider” by the trade publication Unique Venues
Just as classes quickly shifted online early in the pandemic, many campus events were able to pivot to a virtual environment when the university purchased a software platform called Hopin in spring 2020. An events management platform, Hopin allows organizations to host online events with up to 100,000 attendees and provides tools for interaction, such as one-on-one networking.
The university’s Hospitality and Event Services team — which includes Director Paige Schaller, Asst. Director for Media and Audiovisual Graham Allen ’17, and Senior Assoc. Director of Student Affairs Adam Dunbar ’11, ’13 — immediately began learning how to customize and support the platform.
Rojas says they became so adept with the technology that they volunteered to host a national conference for Unique Venues on Hopin last spring — an event that drew more than 400 attendees from around the world.
Afterward, Rojas says more than 30 institutions reached out to her team to learn more about the platform.
“They quickly realized it wasn’t the software, it was the personnel that made things so successful on the UML virtual campus,” she says. “The other institutions realized we were in a completely different league. We became the experts.”
Since then, UML has hosted more than a dozen virtual conferences (with around 3,000 attendees) for external clients who chose to outsource the service — including two events for Yale University that drew guests from as far away as Australia and Africa.
“We’re reaching an audience that UMass Lowell wasn’t able to reach before,” says Rojas, whose team is working with Information Technology
to equip 18 conference rooms across campus with Hopin software.
“The pandemic froze us, as it did with many in the hospitality industry,” Rojas says. “For us to be able to pivot and offer this virtual experience is a true testament to our staff. We’ve found an opportunity to bring in external revenue while showcasing UMass Lowell as a place to be for events, even virtual.”
UML will receive its award at Unique Venues’ annual marketing conference this fall — a virtual event that the university is hosting on Hopin.