23, No. 1, July 3, 2003
On the job: Mary Blair
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
(217) 244-1072; email@example.com
by Bill Wiegand
is a conference coordinator at the Illini Union.
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.
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’
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
We put out a daily event report so that the retailers and other offices
know what events are going on and can plan accordingly.
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
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.
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.’