The Conference Center DifferenceFebruary 1, 2014

Dedication to Meeting Spaces, Package Pricing and Superb Service By
February 1, 2014

The Conference Center Difference

Dedication to Meeting Spaces, Package Pricing and Superb Service
Eaglewood Resort & Spa

Eaglewood Resort & Spa completed a $1.2 million renovation in 2013. Credit: Eaglewood

As convention centers and major hotel conference centers offer less space and fewer dates with limited amenities, turning to a conference center allows planners to stay within budget while offering attendees an experience with even more perks.

Though the meeting industry has rebounded and hotels are taking more powerful positions in negotiations, conference centers are still proceeding cautiously, eager to work with planners to create the best agreement for all parties. Thriving conference centers are placing a higher priority in their packages, services, and physical spaces to help planners provide that intangible something special for attendees.

In the Seller’s Market, Planners’ Needs Can Take a Back Seat

“People feel like the economy is coming back, and they’re willing to have more meetings, but while we’re able to have more meetings, we’re not able to pay more for them,” shares Judy Anderson, senior manager, meetings and travel, for Grapevine, TX-based GameStop. “I will choose locations that will keep rates steady. Going five dollars over my room rate will cause me to leave.” While many planners share her sentiments, not all hotels are listening.

Julie Powers, CMP, manager, global accounts for HelmsBriscoe in the Lake Forest, CA, office, comes across a wide swath of the market in her work, and suggests the writing is on the wall. “We’re going into a seller’s market,” she says. “We were starting to see it at the end of 2013 and now in 2014, it’s going to be in full force.”

When Joann Chmura, CMP, CMM, meeting and event manager at Stamford, CT-based Viridian Energy (at the time of this writing) set out to plan Viridian’s main 2014 event, she had to begin at square one. “We were trying to find a location. We were going to Baltimore, because we outgrew the size of the hotel in DC. The hotel in DC knew they couldn’t make it work, and we just shook hands and parted ways. I was trying to track someone down at the Gaylord National Harbor, and when I did she was very apologetic about the initial lack of response. The person we dealt with at DC ended up going to Gaylord, and he didn’t even follow up on our request.

“But we went to meet them, and then it took a couple weeks to get one room drawing,” she continues. “Then I asked for a contract and one week went by, then another and so on. We were thinking about going somewhere else, and then in one day, we had six drawings. Location number three is what we finally went with, and since we signed I went to Gaylord to tell them we went somewhere else, and they asked me why. I told them, ‘It just wasn’t going to work. You just weren’t doing everything you could to work with us.’

“It’s a seller’s market with the hotels and convention centers, and it wasn’t like that a few years ago,” Chmura shares. “I just started getting the feeling that if we’re not getting the focus now, how is it going to be while we’re onsite? I think they lose sight that this is about relationships. Why burn that bridge? That person isn’t going to be there forever.”

“We provide everything a hotel does, from dedicated meeting space to skill space to connectivity.”

— Mark Cooper, CEO
International Association 
of Conference Centres Chicago, IL

The Conference Center Difference

Many of the factors that make hotels and conventions centers play a little hard to get during the RFP and contract negotiation processes don’t affect conference centers. “Conference centers behave very differently than hotels,” explains Mark Cooper, CEO of the International Association of Conference Centres (IACC). “One of the best ways of explaining it is that hotels have their fingers in many different pies. When they look at the space they want to sell, they’ll be looking at a number of different things: Are there conventions coming to town? Do they have leisure events, weddings or banquets? A traditional hotel is generally restricted in terms of how far out they’ll commit because they don’t know how the other cash cows will be.

“Conference centers are not affected by transient events,” he continues. “In places like Florida, where you’re affected by high season and tourist season, since centers in Florida don’t take that type of business, you can go when you want and not when the tourist season forces you to.”

Educating meeting planners on the key differences between conference centers and convention centers is one of IACC’s core goals for 2014. “It’s a continual process,” says Cooper. “We’ve noticed that when you have a very well-established, long-standing group of professional corporate meeting planners, they know the venues and they know the marketplace. They might gravitate naturally toward a hotel brand because they work with hotel brands in other parts of their job and parts of their corporate life, and they don’t necessarily know that there are conference centers and that they are very different than convention centers.

“We focus on groups with less than 100 delegates, like training and board meetings,” he explains. Cooper says some of the centers may not be able to accommodate very large conferences as they require many smaller breakout rooms and meeting spaces. However, “we provide everything a hotel does, from dedicated meeting space to skill space to connectivity,” says Cooper.

“The conference center works out really well when what the conference center offers is in line with the goals of the event,” agrees Robin Anderson, CMP, CCTE, CMM, corporate travel and meeting manager at Downers Grove, IL-based T-Systems North America Inc. “Mostly over the past year, when I’ve dealt with conference centers, it’s been for events that can use the conference center services, training events and things like that.

“For me, one major benefit of conference centers is that it’s all included,” she continues. “With a hotel I have to make sure that the concessions that I want are there, like Internet and breakfast. When you compare the training environment in a conference center versus being stuck in a hotel in a portion of a ballroom, with the training environment you get the white board and items like that thrown in with the specs.”

Powers says she has been dealing with some amazing conference centers this year. “I use a lot of convention centers and conference centers, but I do like to go to an IACC-certified location for certain groups because they offer CMP packages that include sleeping rooms, meeting space, some F&B and some AV all under one roof,” she says. “They even have ergonomic chairs, and when you’re sitting there all day, it’s easier on your body and makes you pay attention a little better.”

According to Powers, “They’ve been so responsive and really easy to deal with. This year I’ve done a lot more business with them than in the past, and they’ve been very accommodating, even when there are certain clauses we need in the contract, and they’re not able to come through on those, they will do what they can to accommodate the client’s needs.” Just what busy planners need in today’s seller’s market.

Make Yourself at Home

Hospitality services are a key differentiating factor for conference centers looking to lure in meeting planners overwhelmed with choices and underwhelmed with their budgets. It’s no longer enough to negotiate, customize meeting spaces and work closely with planners to ensure a smooth event.

For many planners, this attitude is music to their ears: “You want the venue to be an extension of you, and when you don’t have a tremendous staff, you depend on the service level of the property,” says Chmura. “It has to be more than a partnership between the venue and their client. It has to be more of a three-legged stool, with me, the conference center and the ancillary vendors they can partner with.”

Powers agrees: “The best meeting experience is when they go out of their way to accommodate the planner’s needs, because when it boils down to it, it’s the end user who will rebook year after year so the more positive experience they have, the better it will be for the center.”

In response to this growing need in the meeting industry, IACC has made one of its goals for 2014 to partner with the world’s top hospitality schools. “As an organization, our goal is to have the very best talent in the hospitality industry working in our member conference centers,” explains Cooper. “We’re looking to raise the profile of our centers with the very best talent, but we’ve found that a lot of students, as they’re entering the market, haven’t really heard about conference centers. They get blinded by big hotel groups like Kempinski or big sports venues. Little is taught that there is a huge need to help planners provide the best possible meeting to their attendees.”

Customized Packages

As the IACC ramps up its hospitality focus, many conference centers are already beginning to further customize their services and packages to ensure that meeting planners are getting exactly what they need. In a study of 26 dedicated conference facilities released December 2013, Easton, PA-based PGH Research found that complete meeting packages (CMPs) represent less than 10 percent of package sales for nearly half of respondents. For the purposes of their study, PHG defined dedicated conference facilities not specifically as IACC venues, but as locations that derive at least two-thirds of their total business from meetings and conferences.

Conference centers are often moving away from the CMPs they are known for and offering modified meeting packages (MMPs), because, as 60 percent of respondents indicated, they offer greater value to meeting planners. In the last three years, the volume of MMPs and day meeting packages (DMPs) has been on the rise for most venues, as planners look to save money by using different dining and guest room options.

“To some centers, an MMP is simply a CMP without breakfast,” explains Neil Pompan, president of PHG, in a statement. “To others, it is a CMP without dinner. And to still others, it is a CMP without breakfast or dinner. But to the majority of respondents, an MMP is any package that varies from the CMP or DMP, which is created to fulfill a customer’s need.”

Tom Cappucci, a regional director for Pompan Hospitality Global Inc., adds that this is a sign of conference centers’ increased focus on hospitality. “With their relationship-based selling efforts, properties must ask more questions about a client’s organization and the purpose of the meeting before presenting any package concept,” he says in a statement. “Questions about company culture, meeting goals, attendee profiles and more are important in developing the right meeting package for a group. Once an understanding is established on the desired conference experience, a package can be designed to meet most, if not all of their goals and objectives.”

As planners receive more pushback on rates and dates from hotels and convention centers, conference centers are stepping in to fill the hospitality void with custom packages, state-of-the-art facilities, and the space, staff and availability that planners need.

New and Noteworthy

Two conference centers from Bench­mark Resorts and Hotels have recently completed sweeping renovations of their meeting spaces. The Chattanoogan, the only four diamond-rated, full-service hotel in Chattanooga, TN, has brought the outside in to its 20 meeting and event rooms with an award-winning renovation incorporating carpets that replicate the Tennessee River and local historical scenes as well as botanical art displays. For tech-heavy events, the Chattanoogan has installed a new cyber café with custom seating. The venue offers a total of 25,000 sf of meeting space.

In the Chicago suburbs, Eaglewood Resort & Spa completed a $1.2 million renovation of its more than 37,000-sf facility in 2013. While the meeting and common rooms received an update bringing in Eaglewood’s Prairie-style design and homages to Frank Lloyd Wright, the center updated its Internet capabilities to 100 Mbps of bandwidth.

Dolce Hotels and Resorts has acquired and revamped The Alexander, centrally located in Indianapolis, IN. A style icon of the city, The Alexander’s 16,500 sf of event space, 157 guest rooms, and 57 extended stay spaces take a modern, colorful vibe and punctuate it with commissioned works of art noteworthy enough to draw enthusiasts on their own.

Within the IACC family, the 32,000-sf Emory Conference Center Hotel in Atlanta, the city’s first LEED Silver-certified sustainable conference center has recently completed a sweeping renovation. The two main amphitheaters, the 240-seat Emory auditorium, the 74-seat Oak Amphitheater, breakout areas and restrooms have been completely rebuilt, and all meeting spaces refurbished. Inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the conference center also features 325 guest rooms.

One of the most exciting recent renovations to an IACC conference center is taking place in Galveston, TX, at the San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center, where the conference center takes up the first two floors of the 16-story property. Retaining its sweeping views of the Gulf of Mexico, the completely overhauled, 40,000-sf meeting space features custom art from two staff artists, Herman Miller Setu chairs and flip-top training tables. The renovation continues into 2014, but 90 of the resort’s 250 guest rooms have already been refinished.

In northern Virginia, IACC’s Execu­tive Conference and Training Center (ECTC) in Dulles has recently expanded to 10,000 sf of flexible meeting space, double its available meeting areas. Two miles from Dulles Airport, ECTC’s state-of-the-art AV and cuisine make for a comprehensive meeting space. Five premier partner hotels are located nearby. C&IT

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