Published: Feb 28, 2011 7:56 PM EST
Updated: Feb 28, 2011 5:07 PM EST

FORT MYERS, Fla.- Southwest Florida's largest hotel and conference center boasts rooms with water views, full kitchens and living rooms, a pool, picnic areas and free parking.

It can accommodate 1,250 guests at a rock-bottom rate of $20 to $30 per night, and is just minutes from the airport.

Where is it?

Florida Gulf Coast University.

To the south, Ave Maria University also has 30 rooms for rent, "quiet, retreat-like accommodations that make visiting campus easy and enjoyable."

Vacant dorm rooms, just like empty hotel rooms, generate no revenue. That's not an issue at FGCU when class is in session, but during the summer, a majority of its 3,263 beds are empty.

FGCU is trying to rebrand its housing complex and academic buildings as a conference center - albeit one that operates fully only from May 16 to Aug. 5 - to attract sports camps, academic groups and education meetings.

"It's one thing when we had a few hundred empty rooms in the summer, but it's another thing to have a few thousand rooms empty," said Brian Fisher, director of university housing. "If we can't generate more revenue in the summer, then we'll have to raise rental rates to generate enough revenue to operate."

Ave Maria has a year-round issue - more beds (1,000) than students (800). Some rooms are filled by visiting priests and nuns, but the college transformed Xavier Hall into the Xavier Hall Conference Center, which rents rooms to invited guests of the university for $50 to $70 per night.

"This isn't a profit center for us, by any means," said Ave Maria President Nicholas Healy. "In fact, we probably lose money on it. But the nearest hotel is so far away, so it has a great convenience factor for our guests."

Recently, the Major League Soccer team Chicago Fire checked into Xavier Hall. Players will spend two weeks on campus as part of their preseason training.

FGCU isn't trying to compete for corporate conferences against the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point or Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa, said Sue Thomas, assistant director for marketing and summer conferences. Rather, FGCU wants to pursue academic-related conferences and retreats, as well as expand summer athletic camps.

Fisher said that because the university is a state entity, it's not subject to the tourist tax.

FGCU's dorm-room marketing doesn't alarm Fred Hirschovits, owner of The Holiday Inn Fort Myers Airport at Town Center three miles from the campus.

"They're going after a different type of customer," Hirschovits said.

At summer athletic camps, for example, he thinks few adults other than coaches or chaperones will stay overnight in the dorms.

"Parents usually want a different type of accommodation. They ... will stay in the surrounding hotels," Hirschovits said, adding he hopes his sales staff will go after the parents.

Hirschovits thinks the adult use of the dorms for academic conferences also will be limited, noting not everyone is comfortable sharing living quarters with people outside their immediate families.

Still, Lee County's visitor market suffers from a glut of inland hotel rooms that has made it difficult for hoteliers to raise room rates even though overall visitation has remained strong.

The university is hiring a full-time conference coordinator to solicit groups, reserve dorm rooms and classrooms, coordinate catering and provide technology required for meetings. It's now just a hodge-podge of classrooms and meeting rooms, but in January, the Board of Trustees authorized the purchase of 12.3 acres near the campus' north entrance, and one potential use listed on acquisition documents is a conference center.

FGCU is the only public university in Florida without an official conference center on campus, and all allow non-students to fill rooms during the summer.

"They're not your traditional dorm rooms anymore," said Vicki Westcott, manager for reservations and conference services at the University of West Florida. "Sure, you don't have all the amenities, like blow dryers and shampoo, but most adults are fine with that."

Many professionals are accustomed to three- and four-star hotels on business trips, but FGCU sophomore Chris Ruskai, 19, thinks the university would have no problem convincing participants to stay in the dorms.

"The North Lake Village dorms are like apartments," said Ruskai, a computer science major from North Fort Myers. "You have two places on campus where you can eat a buffet, just like a hotel. And we have a Subway and Taco Bell."

FGCU has been the site of many conferences, seminars and symposiums, predominantly during fall and spring semesters. In February 2012, FGCU will host the International Conference on Civilians and War in World History, with confirmed participants hailing from the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

"The conference will bring together some of the world's leading academic experts on the history of warfare," said associate professor Nicola Foote. "The summer is the time when most historians travel to archives to conduct their research, so conferences are typically held during the regular academic year."

Guests will be staying at the Hampton Inn in Estero because residence halls are at 100 percent capacity when class is in session.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)