Moment of Clarity: No Free Liquor?!
Last week, like several other Howard students, I participated in some events for the Congressional Black Caucus Conference. Although I try to steer clear of the panels, receptions are my thing. Who doesn’t love working a room, schmoozing with professionals, exchanging business cards, wine glass in hand? In addition to the networking, these receptions usually include a light buffet of gourmet food and an open bar.
Of the five receptions I attended, only one did not include those luxuries. The reception that disappointingly met my expectation of falling short was, you guessed it, the Howard University Alumni Association (HUAA). I arrived stylishly tardy, casually unbuttoning my blazer as I chatted with some students and young alumni. During the course of small talk, I smoothly gave the bartender the “pour me a glass of Cabernet” nod, only to find that I was expected to pay $9 cash (most drinks in the club cost $7).
Needless to say I did not pay or remain at the reception very long after. The underlying issue here isn’t a lack of free drinks, it’s that HUAA missed the ball. These small amenities go a long way toward relaxing guests and making them feel welcome and comfortable. A well-planned reception can cause alumni, specifically younger generations, to look at Howard in a different light. Conversely, a nickel-and-dime reception can resurrect negative memories about the Howard student experience.
The tragic reality is that most students leave Howard with adverse feelings about the university. Alumni love Howard, and would trade their experience here for nothing, but certainly do not feel an obligation to give back. HUAA has to attack this reality through forging a new relationship with alumni, with different characteristics than the relationship between the university and current students. Current students and young alumni also bear a responsibility to approach the alumni phase with an open mind, lest our alumni experience simply not compare to other schools.
Most Ivy League schools have alumni clubs in New York and other cities. Inside these clubs, students and alumni are given fine service, quality food, and tasteful spirits at little or no direct cost. The effect; those alumni feel more welcome and loved by the institution, and are more inclined to give back. Thus, the small gesture of charging for drinks at a reception sends a stark message to alumni, especially during a conference where cash bars are not the norm.
Certainly this is not to diminish the efforts of the HUAA, as the reception was otherwise a fine event. Nor is it to ignore the fiscal reality that these events cost, and the HUAA likely is working with a very limited budget. However, in the future, have an open non-alcoholic bar, open bar for part of the night, or splurge on the full open bar. The gesture and cost is an investment in developing a new relationship with alumni, a key step toward increasing the alumni giveback ratio at Howard.