Upon graduating from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in 1973, Mary Blair moved to Champaign-Urbana looking to put her newly minted bachelor’s degree in education to work. But there were few teaching jobs available at the time, so Blair migrated to the hospitality industry, a career move that helped prepare her for her current job as conference coordinator at the Illini Union. Blair, who has worked in the reservations office at the Illini Union since 1984, joined the university’s staff as a travel secretary for the Athletic Association in 1980.
Tell me a little about what you do every day.
We have 26 multipurpose rooms within the Illini Union. My office coordinates the reservations and setups of these meeting rooms. We have the capacity to hold meetings that range from 10 people to 1,000 people.
In the last fiscal year, we did more than 10,944 events involving more than 611,333 people.
There are only two secretaries and me in this office. It sounds like a simple, quiet operation but we are constantly moving and working to get these events in here. It’s like a fine-tuned machine: If one little part’s not working right, it can upset the whole event, so it’s important that we all work well together.
We work very closely with Housing Food Service because they do our catering. We work with the multimedia department, the building engineers and the maintenance crews. We have many, many job fairs, and we have to coordinate not only with shipping and receiving in our building but with central receiving for all the materials that come in for the recruiters’ booths.
During the summer, the registered student organizations (their biggest user) lay low, but we’ll have the tax program for four weeks, the Ukrainian conference, events for Labor and Industrial Relations and we’re ‘wedding central.’ Practically every weekend, we have a wedding. During new student orientations, we only have a reception at night but during the day the Union is filled with parents who are visiting campus with their students, so there’s a lot of traffic flow.
We put out a daily event report so that the retailers and other offices know what events are going on and can plan accordingly.
What are some of the unique challenges you face in coordinating these events?
Trying to keep everybody happy. You have to remember what events are annual events and what’s important to the whole campus, like commencement weekend, Foundation weekend, Moms Day, homecoming.
Communicating details to all of the people involved and trying to ease their fears that there’s not enough time between events to get the rooms set up is also a challenge.
One of our biggest challenges is that we serve lunch in the ballroom every day, and it’s set up like a restaurant. A lot of times we have to tear that entire room down for evening events.
I think Moms Day weekend is always remarkable because we do the Queen Mom banquet in the Illini Rooms on Friday night, then turn the rooms over for a crafts fair by the next morning while we’re also changing the ballroom setup for a fashion show. Then on Sunday the crafts fair in the Illini Rooms is torn out for a huge awards brunch for Minority Student Affairs, and the rooms are changed again for an Alumni Association luncheon.
What’s your favorite part about what you do?
Variety. There’s never a dull day. I’m not chained to my desk. I can go around and look at the different setups and see if I’m communicating the information right and if it’s getting done. I love the beauty of the building. I’ve never one day not wanted to come in here. Sometimes some of the wedding parties will say the Illini Union is one of the best-kept secrets in Champaign-Urbana.
Just this year, we went online with our reservations process. I’m not so used to the technology advancements. When I started here, we did all the booking and planning on pen and paper with binders. I typed the daily and weekly event sheets and the cards that went on the doors. Now the computers do all that for us.
What kinds of things do you do away from the job to relax?
My husband and I have a recreational vehicle and we camp. We go all over Illinois. We recently went to Clinton Lake for two weeks. It’s nice to get away and be out with nature. I like to read. We pass mysteries and romance novels around the office. I also have a 4-year-old granddaughter who I love to spend time with, so I’m getting to do a lot of things that I haven’t done for a while, like chase her around the block while she rides her bicycle and go to movies like ‘Finding Nemo.’