The ongoing seller’s market in the hotel industry has not only been good for hotels. Conference centers also have benefited in scenarios where low availability in the hotel space has driven planners to explore other venue options. And after a planner has a positive experience with conference centers and their proficiency in handling corporate meetings, that option may soon become a preference.
Steve Goodman, managing partner with Atlanta-based MeetingAdvice, has observed a recent ramp up in the utilization of conference centers by his corporate clients. Groups are finding “greater availability in many of the conference centers” in the current market, where “we’re going much further outside the box in looking for site options for clients,” he says. In some cases, that means a little less logistical convenience.
For example, “If a group flies into Atlanta airport, they could be in a traditional hotel in 15 minutes. But you have to figure a half hour to an hour drive to reach a conference center in the area. As a result of the compression that we’re seeing in the market, however, clients are more open to going outside your traditional radius.” The end result can certainly be rewarding. “We have clients that have experienced the conference center environment in the last several months, and they love it,” Goodman adds.
“We have clients that have experienced the conference center environment in the last several months, and they love it.”
— Steve Goodman
Of course, many planners need no introduction to the virtues of conference centers and have been devotees for some time. Tony Pastor, manager at McKinsey & Company, has found the facilities ideal for “about 95 percent” of the company’s internal learning programs, which generally bring in about 30 attendees. The company has seen enough ROI from the conference center experience to warrant a deeper partnership with one of these facilities, where they have been utilizing an entire floor exclusively. “We try to put most of our North American programs into that facility,” says Pastor. “The floor represents about 70 percent of their meeting space, and we have agreed to book 70 percent of their sleeping rooms. We renovated the floor and did quite a bit of branding. It’s been very well received so far; everybody in our firm wants to try the new place.”
Whether a group books a floor or a room at a conference center, they can enjoy a level of service that many planners feel is superior to that of a hotel. Conference centers focus exclusively on meeting groups, including those whose programs last a week or more. And quite arguably, that translates to a more in-depth understanding of their needs.
“We’re in the business of planning learning events and not in the event planning business per se, so we don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy on meal planning or scheduling breaks,” says Pastor, suggesting that conference centers take those responsibilities off a planner’s shoulders. And the service begins well before the meeting. “I’ve got one contact there who’s working with me starting six weeks prior, and who’s there to meet me the day of the program and is there the whole week for the most part,” Pastor adds.
In her relationship with the National Conference Center, Laura Joubert, leadership development program, operations, manager with BAE Systems, has also experienced service that goes the extra mile. “They accommodate unusual requests from us,” says Joubert about the Leesburg, Virginia, facility, which offers 917 guest rooms and more than 265,000 sf of meeting and function space. “For example, we are all about conserving nature, so they had coolers installed instead of using bottled water. And each one of us, as a souvenir of the conference, every year gets a water bottle to carry around to refill,” she relates.
Among various teambuilding activities, BAE Systems’ leadership development participants must build 6- 10-foot-tall trebuchets (a kind of medieval siege engine that throws stones via a counterweight mechanism) in order to hit distant targets. “The National Conference Center helps us conserve the materials that we bring in for the project,” Joubert notes. “And they don’t need to do that; they could just say that’s your problem.” The staff even set up a dojo in the ballroom, helping the group rent mats and jiujitsu gis for their conflict resolution class for third-year leadership development participants.
In addition, Joubert has seen evidence that the National Conference Center staff takes feedback from their clients very seriously. “They always set up meetings after the fact to ask, ‘What did you like and what can we do better?’ And the next time we go there we see they’ve implemented what we asked. So if we say we want a salad bar, we actually see it the next time. They don’t just give you lip service,” she says.
Breakout availability and flexibility are important to the BAE Systems group, and it’s one of the strengths of conference centers in general. The National Conference Center has 250 meeting rooms organized into five distinct areas, as well the ability to group several conference “pods” in proximity and then open up the space as needed, Joubert describes. Her participants are mostly millennials and highly active, quickly moving from one activity to another throughout the program. “We didn’t want to lose people in transition, and the layout of the National is perfect because we can have our first-year group together, our second year and third year. And then we can bring them all together in the larger space,” she says. Plus, “it feels like it’s only your group (in house) even though the National’s capacity is humongous. So there are other events going on but you don’t feel they’re encroaching.”
The flexible breakout spaces conference centers offer can be a boon not only to the traditional corporate training program. In October, a major global products company found the rooms at Convene in New York City (117 West 46th Street) to be ideal for a beauty product launch — not the typical event that suggests a conference center. “When one of my producers in New York said, ‘I’ve got this conference center for the event,’ I said, ‘Really?’ ‘Trust me, you have to see it,’ he said,” relates Larry Abel, owner/partner at Abel McCallister Designs, the independent production company that staged the launch.
“We were (showcasing) 10 different products and brands at the same time, and the client wanted to have a site where they could bring everyone together (about 150 attendees in total) and then break off into individual presentations and rotate around,” he says. “Convene was very flexible in allowing us to come into the rooms and do complete build-outs, changing the whole look. The space was actually beautiful, very sleek and modern, yet decorated neutrally.”
At its 46th Street location, Convene houses 35,000 sf of total space, including the 700-capacity Forum, Living Room, Gallery and two Hubs. The company has nine other locations: six in New York City, two in Philadelphia and one in the DC metro area. On the AV side, the group found it helpful that “all the systems were already built in. Some rooms even had video screens on three walls, any of which can be used depending which way you want everybody to face,” says Abel.
The best conference centers anticipate a group’s needs, as BAE Systems found to be true for their experience at the National Conference Center. The BAE Systems group are known to be “grazers” when it comes to F&B, and so the National Conference Center staff welcomed them with a snack area they had created. “And we didn’t ask them to do that,” Joubert notes. “We also have people who require special meals, and we have a lot of people that are gluten-free. And they’ve been really terrific about labeling food. We’ve been at other venues where they don’t do that, and then we end up having issues with somebody who is allergic to mushrooms, for instance, and they didn’t know it was in the food.”
Perhaps most impressively, the National Conference Center went the extra mile for their client by building a ropes course to their specifications. The new course was one of the primary reasons BAE Systems selected the property for the leadership conference, bringing along its longtime teambuilding facilitation team from the University of New Hampshire’s Browne Center. “And the advantage for them is that any company, not just BAE, can go to The National and have experiential training there,” Joubert remarks. Not all ropes courses are created equal, she adds. “I looked at other conference centers that have ropes courses but they’re dinky and would not withstand the traffic of (the approximately 160) people we put through those courses.”
In December, the National Conference Center and the Browne Center identified “Six Trends in Experiential Learning for 2017,” and among them was “Learning By Choice,” where classroom training is mixed with outdoor activities like ropes courses. The National’s Challenge Course has both high and low rope elements, enabling participants to choose their level of physical challenge. Another trend was “Barrier-Free Learning,” essentially “hands-on training in a lab-like setting versus the traditional meeting room or classroom,” the white paper describes. In response to this trend, the National has created a workroom and lab for simulation or scenario training. With the ample grounds that many conference centers have, the meeting room walls need not be barriers, either. “If the weather’s nice a team will just grab its flipchart walk it outside,” Pastor comments. A change of scenery is “important when you’re talking about a program that lasts for five days. And our meetings run from eight in the morning until five or six in the evening.”
The other four trends identified by the National Conference Center and the Browne Center are “Learning By Shared Experiences,” which emphasize collaboration among everyone from C-level executives to assistant managers; “Learning By Silence,” where participants are allowed more time for reflection and mediation; “Learning By Doing,” where attendees engage in an activity that connects to a skill they hope to improve or develop; and “Learning Through Application,” a post-program debriefing that assists participants to connect learning to their work at the office.
More trends in the conference center sector come from the second installment of IACC’s Meeting Room of the Future study, released in October. Surveying more than 65 venues, including a large number of IACC-certified properties, the study presents numerous insights into the state of meeting room design and technology. A key finding is that a majority of venue operators and suppliers are seeing it as their responsibility to support attendee engagement via approaches such as gamification, design thinking and matchmaking.
While conference centers provide numerous advantages to their clients, including the kind of thought leadership described above, it’s also wise to consider the advantages one’s booking pattern may bring to these facilities, which can create negotiating leverage. Pastor has found that conference centers tend to struggle on weekends, so a weekend arrival pattern may be of interest to them. Program duration is also a factor. “Anything less than four nights makes it a jigsaw puzzle for them to put together,” he observes. And since their clientele tend to book on the short term (three to six months out), planners bringing longer-term business will have the advantage, he maintains. The planner will have more space available, and the property will be able to secure its revenue earlier than usual.
Indeed, as planners increasingly utilize conference centers as an option to competing for hotel meeting space, booking these facilities in the short term may become less and less feasible. C&IT