Conference and Catering switchover causes problems for student groups

Some student groups say they are having ongoing problems with the switchover from the university-owned Special Functions to the Aramark operated Conference and Catering Services, with problems during Student Group Recruitment Week being the latest in a string of issues.

University of Manitoba Students’ Union (UMSU) president Heather Laube explained that every year Student Group Recruitment Week takes place during late September for the fall term and mid-January for the winter term.

However, this year saw a series of miscommunications between UMSU and the university, and the event was pushed to the third week in January, instead of the second week when Student Group Recruitment Week traditionally takes place.

According to Laube, UMSU books all dates for the upcoming year of events such Celebration Week and Student Group Recruitment Week in April for the following school year.

“We wouldn’t have booked Student Group Recruitment Week so late in January as it would interfere with Celebration Week on the Bannatyne campus,” she said.

Laube said she is still not quite sure what happened.

On top of the bookings being during the wrong week, the space was also overbooked by Conference and Catering Services, providing too much space for outside organizations — space that could have been allocated to student groups said Laube.

Student groups were forced to compete for space with outside organizations during Student Group Recruitment Week. To combat this problem, UMSU made extra accommodations in the Fireplace Lounge and throughout the campus so the groups could be present for the event.

In August 2010, the university inked a deal with Aramark for a takeover of the services offered by Special Functions in return for 1.5 per cent of Aramark’s revenue generated from the deal.

While Laube did not want to “point fingers” at anyone, UMSU feels that the mix-up during Student Group Recruitment Week might be attributed to the Aramark switch.

“[UMSU] has raised concerns over the past several months, and issues consistently still arise around the costs of room bookings and miscommunication about room usage and policies,” Laube explained.

UMSU has been attending bi-weekly meetings with Conference and Catering Services and university administration to discuss the issues that come up. 

The contracting out of Special Functions to Aramark has presented a number of problems for students organizing events on campus and trying to expand the student experience, said Laube.

Laube said she felt Aramark was not making students a priority and believed that the takeover is discouraging student groups from considering having events on campus.

“[ . . . ] Very few student groups and associations are able to continue to have events on campus without significant cost,” said Laube.

Pat Reid, director of Ancillary Services at the U of M, said that it was “quite possible” that the overbooking was a simple mistake.

“We do thousands of bookings a year. [ . . . ] There was probably nothing untoward trying to be done there,” said Reid.

Reid predicts the accessibility of room space for student groups will improve “because we’ve just gone through a transitional period [ . . . ].”

“We’re working together with UMSU to sort through some of these things that unfortunately may have been mistakes. [ . . . ] We haven’t changed any of our business practices, per say.”

The University of Manitoba Strategy Gaming Club (UMStrat), a group for people who play a variety of tabletop games, say they have been experiencing difficulty since the switch this past summer.

Faculty of arts student James Edwards, the current president of UMStrat, explained that in past years he had dealt with the now defunct Special Functions and he never had a problem booking rooms.

“Special Functions did such a good job of managing space,” said Edwards. However, Edwards said that since the transition to Conference and Catering Services “it has been hell.”

Edwards expressed his concern, that with the switch in management of Special Functions, Aramark may have too much control over university operations, and felt the university should prioritize student experience over turning a profit.

“The administration and Aramark both treat us like we’re nothing but money bags,” said Edwards.

He added that his student group has experienced an increase in costs assocaited with holding events in University Centre since the take-over.

Dean Duff, manager of Conference and Catering Services, said that, like before, student groups are not charged a rental rate for booking space in University Centre at all, and that the only charges that apply to student groups are administrative fees.

Duff explained that, for example, the administration fee for a student groups to book the entire MPR would be $250 per day, versus rental rate for an external non-profit group of $925 and $1650 for businesses.

“We’re doing our best to ensure the students are not affected by price increases. [ . . . ] It’s as simple as that,” said Duff.

With files from Sarah Petz.