Choosing Between a Third-Party Facility Manager and an Operating Partner

Student enjoy the CSU Student UnionIntroduction 

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, the management of campus life facilities stands as a critical pillar in providing an enriching and engaging experience for students. Colleges and universities are great at delivering their core mission of education, but not necessarily good at every service that goes along with running state-of-the-art campus life facilities.  

In a 2022 survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 71% of campus leaders cited “superior service to in-house alternatives” and “speed” as the reasons to enter partnerships with third parties. Outsourcing campus life pillars such as dining and bookstores are common solutions for universities seeking ways to be cost-effective, preserve resources, and provide top-of-the-industry services.  

As universities continue to battle budgetary pressures and a lack of skilled campus professionals, many are seeking innovative operating solutions for campus centers, such as health and wellness facilities, student unions, multi-purpose sports complexes, event and conference services, and performing arts venues.  

To manage resource constraints, ambitious institutions are faced with the pivotal decision of what type of outsourced services best align with strategic objectives.  It may appear that facilities management services and an operations partner (similar to CENTERS) produce similar outcomes, but this article debunks this myth and outlines the distinct roles, benefits, and considerations associated with each option. 

Fundamental Differences Between Facility Management Services and a Comprehensive Operating Partner 

Before delving into the decision-making process, it’s essential to understand the fundamental roles and key differentiators between a third-party Facility Manager and a Campus Center Operating Partner.  

Facility Management Services primarily focus on the physical aspects of the campus center, encompassing maintenance, custodial, and building systems. This involves conducting regular inspections, implementing preventive maintenance programs, and coordinating repairs to create a safe and comfortable environment for the diverse activities hosted within the campus center.  

Custodial services are also under the purview of Facility Managers, as they oversee cleaning schedules, procure supplies, and manage custodial staff. Emergency response planning, risk management, and safety compliance can also fall within the responsibilities of a Facility Manager as well, ensuring the campus center is well-prepared for unforeseen circumstances.  

Additionally, Facility Managers are crucial in asset management, overseeing the life cycle of assets from acquisition to disposal and tracking their functionality and value over time. Personnel management, reporting, and oversight of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems are other key facets of their role. 

On the other hand, a Campus Center Operator takes a more ambitious and comprehensive approach, managing not only the physical facilities (including maintenance and custodial services) but all operational aspects, financial performance, staffing, services, and programming within the campus center. This broader management scope includes innovative business planning, strategic financial decision-making, student and professional development, student engagement, and an entrepreneurial approach that enhances the overall functionality and vibrancy of the center.   

Campus Center Operators lead the creation of business and operating plans, conduct market analyses, and ensuring the Center aligns with student demand and the mission of the institution.  

Campus Center Operators also actively participate in marketing initiatives, revenue generation, and the seamless management of priority scheduling and events across stakeholders. Their role extends to customer service, ensuring a positive user experience by all participants and visitors of the Center, and lead administrative functions such as human resources, financial reporting, payroll, accounting, and information technology. 

Moreover, an experienced Campus Center Operator also manages complex business needs including vendor contracts and public-private partnerships (P3) such as compliance, unrelated business income, and other key partnership terms. The Operator can serve as a strategic advisor by helping universities navigate the intricate collaboration between the institution and external entities, aligning the operating paradigm with the goals of the partnership, and ensuring the Center operates efficiently within the framework of the P3. 

Key Differentiators Between Facility Managers and Campus Center Operators 

Let’s delve into the functional differences between a Facility Manager and a Campus Center Operator to provide additional context and understanding of the choices presented by these two operating paradigms. 

List of differences between Facilities Management and Operator

Maintenance: 
  • Facilities Manager: Focuses on overseeing the maintenance of the physical infrastructure, ensuring regular inspections, preventive maintenance, and repairs to maintain optimal conditions. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Manages routine maintenance and integrates aspects related to facility safety, overseeing surveillance systems and access controls. 
Custodial: 
  • Facilities Manager: Responsible for ensuring cleanliness and hygiene, managing cleaning schedules, procuring supplies, and overseeing custodial staff. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Coordinates custodial services with considerations for overall safety, ensuring regular surveillance reviews for any concerns. 
Emergency Response and Risk Management: 
  • Facilities Manager: Handles emergency response planning, risk management, procedure development, drills, and safety compliance. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Takes a broader role in emergency response, including crisis management and ensuring staff is trained effectively. 
Asset Management: 
  • Facilities Manager: Oversees the life cycle of assets, tracking and managing them to ensure functionality and value over time. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Integrates assets into inventory management, regularly assessing surveillance systems and access control devices. 
Personnel Management: 
  • Facilities Manager: Manages personnel responsible for maintenance, custodial services, and facility-related tasks. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Extends personnel management to include security staff, implementing training programs for enhanced safety. 
Reporting: 
  • Facilities Manager: Documents maintenance activities, budgetary information, and compliance data, providing regular reports to higher management. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Extends reporting to include safety-related incidents and the effectiveness of safety measures. 
FF&E Inventory and Lifecycle Repair and Replacement: 
  • Facilities Manager: Manages FF&E inventory and plans for lifecycle repair and replacement. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Integrates equipment into inventory management, regularly assessing risk-related assets. 
Systems Oversight: 
  • Facilities Manager: Focuses on MEP systems, ensuring their maintenance and efficient functioning. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Oversees systems, including security, ensuring seamless integration. 
Security: 
  • Facilities Manager: Security measures are often managed separately by dedicated security personnel. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Assumes responsibility for overseeing the implementation and maintenance of security measures and continually risk assessment. 
Marketing Strategy and Execution: 
  • Facilities Manager: Typically, not involved in marketing strategies and execution. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Actively participates in marketing initiatives to promote the Center’s services and events. 
Revenue Generation: 
  • Facilities Manager: Generally, not directly responsible for revenue generation. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Plays a crucial role in revenue generation by identifying opportunities for hosting events and renting out facilities. 
Manage Scheduling and Events Across Stakeholders: 
  • Facilities Manager: Ensures scheduling aligns with operational needs and coordinates with different departments for events. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Takes a hands-on approach, overseeing a diverse range of events and activities. 
Capital Project Planning: 
  • Facilities Manager: Collaborates on technical aspects of capital projects related to the facility’s infrastructure. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Contributes to identifying facility needs, contributing to the overall success of capital projects. 
Programming: 
  • Facilities Manager: Coordinates facility usage for events but not typically responsible for planning and execution. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Takes a leading role in programming, organizing and executing a diverse array of activities. 
Customer Service and Engagement: 
  • Facilities Manager: Ensures customer service contributes to the overall user experience. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Places a strong emphasis on customer service and engagement. 
Administrative Services: 
  • Facilities Manager: Administrative services such as accounting, HR, and IT are not typically within their purview. 
  • Campus Center Operator: May coordinate administrative services, ensuring seamless integration with overall operations. 
Business/Operating Plan and Market Analysis: 
  • Facilities Manager: Typically, not responsible for business and operating plans or market analyses. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Actively participates in creating business and operating plans, conducting market analyses. 
Public-Private Partnership and Operating Assessment: 
  • Facilities Manager: Generally, not within the direct scope of responsibilities. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Manage complex relationships between stakeholders and conduct operating assessments to continually align business strategy with the asset’s mission. 
Advisor: 
  • Facilities Manager: Providing advice is not a primary role, focusing on the physical aspects of the facility. 
  • Campus Center Operator: Serves as an advisor, offering insights on overall management strategies.  

The Decision-Making Framework for Outsourced Solutions 

As institutions stand at the crossroads of this decision, a systematic framework can guide them in selecting the most suitable option for Campus Center Operations. The key lies in aligning the specific needs, goals, and dynamics of the campus center with the strengths offered by each approach. 

  • Assessing Institutional Priorities: Consider the overarching priorities of the institution. If the primary focus is improving physical facilities such as maintenance response time and cleanliness with less emphasis on maximizing student engagement, a Facility Manager will suffice. Alternatively, if seeking a partner to create a vibrant and engaging hub for campus life is a top priority, a comprehensive Campus Center Operator will be more suitable. 
  • Flexibility: Evaluate the flexibility required for the campus center. If the institution anticipates a wide range of programs, events, and stakeholders, a Campus Center Operator’s entrepreneurial and innovative approach will be advantageous. If the demand is based on consistent daily maintenance and custodial services, a Facility Manager will provide the necessary stability. 
  • Budget Considerations: Analyze budget constraints and financial considerations. A Facility Manager focused on physical building aspects only, will cost less; however, a Campus Center Operator with a broader range of services can generate revenue and operational savings that will exceed the cost of the management fee and, therefore, be a more cost-effective solution.   

Weighing the Options: Pros and Cons   

A Facilities Manager:  Opting for a Facility Manager can offer several benefits. These include system expertise, a professional approach to custodial services, and streamlined maintenance. Facility Managers excel in providing expertise in physical infrastructure and ensure functional and clean facilities. This approach is particularly valuable when the primary goal is efficient facility management within a controlled and stable environment. 

A Campus Center Operator: Selecting a Campus Center Operator provides a holistic approach to Campus Center management. This approach brings a wide range of benefits, including specialized programming, enhanced student engagement, financial accountability, and adaptability to changing needs. Operators offer a comprehensive solution for institutions aiming to create dynamic, student-centric spaces that go beyond baseline facility management, fostering a vibrant community within the Campus Center. 

Making An Impact One CENTER at a Time 

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, institutions must not merely manage their facilities; they must optimize them to create a dynamic experience that supports student life and financial objectives.  A Campus Center Operator is the lynchpin for institutions seeking not only Facility Management Services but also a partner that will use innovative and entrepreneurial discipline to deliver a return on investment. The decision is clear: choosing a Campus Center Operator is not just a choice for efficient management; it’s a strategic move towards unlocking the potential of your Campus Center, ensuring it becomes a nexus of engagement in the broader educational landscape and a value to campus. 

Is Partnering with CENTERS to Operate Your Facility Right for You?  

Founded in 1998, CENTERS was the first company in the United States formed for the sole purpose of providing management services for university recreation, fitness, and wellness facilities. Our focus is on student life, educational outcomes, market responsiveness, mission sensitivity, and cost-effectiveness. As a natural evolution of our unique management approach, CENTERS expanded into the management and planning of other campus centers such as competitive sports venues, arenas, multi-purpose venues, and student centers. 

Unlike any other firm in the industry, CENTERS’ management expertise and strong technical knowledge across a broad range of issues and activities allow us to provide our clients with management services that produce operational efficiencies, cost savings, and value-producing programs and services, while contributing to vibrant communities. We seamlessly integrate into our client’s environment to promote their mission and enhance customer experience.