Conference Center UpdateOctober 1, 2013

An Optimistic Outlook for Business-Focused Meeting Places By
October 1, 2013

Conference Center Update

An Optimistic Outlook for Business-Focused Meeting Places
Keystone Resort & Conference Center in Keystone, CO, provides 100,000 sf of meeting, exhibit and function space.

Keystone Resort & Conference Center in Keystone, CO, provides 100,000 sf of meeting, exhibit and function space.

Conference centers weathered the economic downturn due in large part to their business-focused, budget-friendly model. And now that the economy is on the upswing, the corporate demand for conference centers is rising right along with it. The International Association of Con­ference Centers (IACC) estimates that 70 percent of conference center business is derived from corporate meetings and events, according to its CEO, Mark Cooper.

This proportion of overall conference center bookings has been consistent, even indicating a new resiliency as the economy and the meetings industry as a whole continues its recovery. What the past 18 months have shown is a small but notable uptick in business, reversing trends of corporate meeting sluggishness and meeting budget cutbacks that had stymied the corporate meeting conference center business since 2008, the beginning of the economic downtown.

Upswing Signs

“In 2012,” Cooper observes, “members reported a 7.3 percent increase in occupancy, a clear sign that meetings and conference business was improving. Rates improved marginally as well, showing 5 percent increases on 2011 rates, supporting the view that the meetings industry has turned a corner. The improvement in top-line sales and bottom-line profitability is a clear sign that the industry is benefiting from the wider economic recovery and returning to a stable and improving global economy.”

“Our budget has actually improved for 2013 and 2014 both for internal department advancement as well as our meetings.”

— Sandy Monkemeyer, V.P. Corporate Travel Director, Captive Resources LLC, Schaumburg, IL

Sandy Monkemeyer, vice president, corporate travel director, for Captive Resources LLC, who plans about 130 meetings, incentive travel programs and other events annually, has seen an uptick in the use of conference centers mainly because the recovering economy has finally translated into an increased participation in her events. “We use conference centers if we outgrow the hotel meeting space,” says Monkemeyer. “We have been using them more now than in the past, simply due to our growing meeting attendance.”

Another positive economic sign is that cutbacks on corporate meeting program length have been either stalled or reversed. According to Monkemeyer, the length of conference center events “has remained the same. Those that have changed have increased by one night.”

Budgetary Easing

Corporate budgets for conference center meetings may not be significantly expanding — or in most cases, not even returning to pre-recessionary levels — however, the era of budget slashing may finally have come to an end. The difference may not be vast, but it is nonetheless a noticeable change from 2008–2011, when program reduction and/or elimination plagued planners and the facilities they utilized. What has increased substantially for all types of programs is the emphasis on proving ROI.

“I have seen minimal change from 2012–2013,” says Ashley Russell, small meetings manager of Chicago, IL-based BCD M&I. “However we are monitoring our budgets closely, possibly closer than in previous years, to ensure the money we are spending is going to the right things, such as building client relationship and enhancing employee training programs.”

Says Monkemeyer, “Our budget has actually improved for 2013 and 2014 both for internal department advancement as well as our meetings. We had held back on staffing the last few years and now are considering department growth. Our meetings, too, have increased in attendance, especially those in Europe and other locations, which had been stagnant or had decreased.”

Because conference centers offer intimate spaces, enhanced learning environments and the latest in meeting technology, they are prime choices for small- to mid-size corporate events. Russell plans more than 70 meetings or events per year, and conference centers are critical facilities. “A small meeting is usually less than $50,000 in estimated spend,” she says. “At least 25 percent of those meetings go to a conference center.”

New & Noteworthy

The boardroom at the Emory Conference Center Hotel.

The boardroom at the Emory Conference Center Hotel.

Benchmark Resorts & Hotels

In June, The Chattanoogan in Chattanooga, Ten­nessee, completed a renovation that included new carpets, wall coverings, furnishings, AV equipment and flat-screen TVs. Public areas also were upgraded. The property includes a 25,000-sf conference center.

The Bonaventure Resort & Spa near Fort Lauderdale, FL, announced that the resort’s 60,000-sf conference center, including a 175-seat amphitheater, will be completely refurbished. The ballroom, individual meeting rooms and communal spaces also will be updated this fall.  Installation of wooden flooring in all guest rooms is planned for a future time.

Benchmark also recently completed renovations of Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs, with more than 40,000 sf of conference center space; the Snow King Hotel (more than 10,000 sf of meeting space) and the Grand View Lodge (more than 7,500 sf), both in Jackson Hole, WY; and The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, that features 12 meeting venues.

Dolce Hotels & Resorts

The Alexander, a Dolce Hotel, with 16,500 sf of event space and an IACC-certified conference center, opened earlier this year in downtown Indianapolis.

Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, CA, with 12,000 sf of meeting space, is renovating all 415 guest rooms and suites. Dolce also added to its overseas properties with the opening of the Dolce CampoReal Lisbon in Portugal.

Destination Hotels & Resorts

Skamania Lodge, 45 miles east of Portland, OR, improved its meeting space, public areas, the restaurant and bar, and recreation spaces. The property also added a zip line for teambuilding activities and expanded the outdoor jacuzzi area.

In Arizona, the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel and conference center added a small ballroom, and renovated its lobby, bar, restaurant and dining area.

The Inverness Hotel and Confer­ence Center in Denver remodeled the dining facilities, pool, spa, tennis courts and recreation area. The Inverness offers 63,652 sf of meeting space and a PGA championship golf course.

In downtown Seattle, the Red Lion Hotel on Fifth Avenue, a new Destination property, is undergoing a major renovation that will be completed in three phases by spring 2014. The Red Lion provides 17,715 sf of meeting and ballroom space.

Crestline Hotels & Resorts

Emory Conference Center Hotel in Atlanta, a LEED Silver-certified property, completed an extensive renovation of its 32,000-sf, IACC meeting facility in 2012 including auditorium, amphitheater, meeting space and ballroom. The property features a private bowling facility, Wisteria Lanes. Emory Conference Center Hotel is currently offering a 3 percent rebate and complimentary lane fees for a two-hour event at Wisteria Lanes for a contracted CMP event worth a minimum of $14,000. The meeting must be booked by December 31, 2013 and held by June 30, 2014.

Miki Brown, senior specialist, executive administrative assistant for Sapient, planned back-to-back meetings at Emory Conference Center in December/January, with approximately 150 attendees. “Especially in a large city like Atlanta, using the Emory Conference Center is so cost-effective because it is a one-stop shop. Planning similar events at hotels, you have to pay à la carte for everything. When you need something at the conference center, the people jump because everything is included; they don’t have to get somebody from another department. You don’t have to shuttle everybody all over Atlanta to get to the meetings because everything is under one roof. It’s a very seamless meeting. They also have fantastic bowling alley space, which was great for teambuilding. My team loved it.” C&IT

Pricing Simplicity

Budgets may have stabilized, but planners remain more cost-conscious than ever, which has made them detest à la carte pricing and other budget surprises when booking a meetings venue. The all-encompassing services provided at conference centers eliminate the need for outside vendors; and the adherence to straightforward pricing eliminates any risk of hidden costs.

According to Miki Brown, senior specialist, executive administrative assistant for Sapient, a global services company, it is the CMP (Complete Meeting Package) that these types of meeting venues still excel at, and that remains the most appealing attribute of conference centers. “We look to these types of facilities because they tend to offer the all-inclusive option,” says Brown. “This makes meetings/events very cost-effective. You pay one fee for food, beverage, meeting space, AV needs and hotel rooms, while at resorts or hotels, each additional item is an added expense.”

In addition to the CMP and all-inclusive contracts, the self-contained environment often intrinsic to operations at most conference centers appeals to today’s cost-conscious corporate meeting planner. Brown adds, “Having everything in one location makes meeting logistics run very smoothly. No need to have executives staying at one venue and needing to provide transportation to another. It is all right there. The people that we work with at the facility must be accommodating. They have to be willing to help out at a moment’s notice.”

Says Russell, “I expect package pricing, simple food, all-day beverage breaks included in package pricing, complimentary or low-cost Internet and efficient AV staff and equipment.”

Image Change

Conference centers were often treated as stepchildren by some meeting planners, but after a concerted effort, these facilities seems to have successfully shed their stigma as staid and dull meeting environments. Conference center spaces, services and amenities are now widely perceived as comparable to those offered by other types of meeting hotels. “I expect all of the same amenities and variables of hotel meeting space, though with more advanced AV options and square footage of meeting space,” says Monkemeyer.

Conference centers have long touted this makeover, a process that has probably taken more than a decade. Leading this industry-wide elevation in standards has been IAAC, which has 300+ members. In recent years IACC has been very busy issuing several standards and white papers on technology, ergonomics, sustainability and other topics. The organization also has incorporated many of these concepts into their best-practice guidelines, certifications and other programs. As a result, many conference centers — especially those properties within the portfolio of management companies specializing in conference centers, such as Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, Destination Hotels & Resorts, Dolce Hotels & Resorts, Aramark Conference Centers and Sodexo Conference Centers — have implemented technological and physical upgrades, essentially adopting what has become an industry-wide upgrade.

These changes have finally paid off. Planner perceptions have drastically improved. The venues are now seen as a cutting-edge learning and training environment that is more conducive to achieving an event’s objective, as opposed to merely functional space devoid of imagination or energy. “ Conference centers seem to be more modernized as compared to the old, stale centers of the past with outdated equipment,” Russell says. “They are cleaner and brighter with more amenities to distinguish them from their competitors and give them a unique brand and identity. In addition, I have noticed that some have partnered up and located on properties of luxury hotels to give the ambience of a more ‘upscale’ experience.”

Booking Window

In a rather curious, almost paradoxical sign that the corporate meeting business is on the mend is that the conference center booking window is no longer shrinking. Why paradoxical? Conference centers have earned a reputation for being flexible, i.e., better able to accommodate comprehensive corporate meetings and events on shorter notice than other small- to mid-size event facilities. As the economy weakened, spending not only tightened but the decision-making also went closer to the wire. The shorter notice got notice, especially for corporate meetings and other events. A shrinking window was a sign that the economy and corporate meeting business were faltering — a scenario that served to boost demand for conference centers, underscoring the value of their flexibility.

Russell offers a succinct answer as to why a quarter of her events are booked at conference centers: “Quick event order turnaround, sufficient space and competitive package pricing.” She continues that the booking window is still tight and buy is holding steady, i.e., no longer shrinking.

“We are trending at about the same lead time as recent years, but it is improving,” she says. “For reoccurring programs, we have about a three- to four-month window to source, plan and execute. For those with short lead times, conference centers are always a great facility to lean on. They are always very flexible and accommodating.”

By how much or by how quickly that window is lengthening remains an open question. Using the booking window length as a gauge of corporate meeting business improvement or the extent of the economic recovery — especially based on mainly anecdotal evidence — seems problematic at best.

“IACC has seen no real change in what is a very short lead-time window for meetings,” says Cooper. “As the market continues to recover and popular meeting destinations become booked earlier, we will see lead times extend. But we are still a little way off seeing occupancies return to 2007 levels.”

The economy may be recovering, but the pace of that recovery is dependent on industry, company and region, causing booking “paradoxes” beyond just the length of the window that conference centers accommodate. Nonetheless, even reports of booking window lengths edging closer to what was considered typical seems a positive, if sometimes counter-intuitive, occurrence. “We are booking three to five years in advance when possible,” says Monkemeyer. “We find many conference centers do not wish to book out that far, thus creating a challenge for us. Our issue is booking out too far long-term versus the short-term availability.”

As the manager of a Benchmark conference center explains, “The amount of time that meeting planners are inquiring about space and rates prior to the program’s arrival date has lengthened again. After 2008, we saw the booking window shrink to just over a few months. This was due to the fact that companies were very unsure of their projected sales numbers or how the economy was going to continue to react. Now, in 2013, we see that booking window lengthened to well past 14 months. This shows that companies are confident in the direction of the economy and the future performance of their sales teams.”

Perception Concerns Persist

Regardless of whether planners book a conference center, hotel or other meeting facility, they are still sensitive to the perception of excessive spending, a lingering repercussion of the AIG effect. But according to Monkemeyer, other than planners retaining an overly cautious attitude, the worst ramifications have passed. “I think people are simply making sure their i’s are dotted and t’s crossed more than ever. Other than that, we have not noticed a major impact. There always has been and I think always will be a perception-versus-reality issue of which we need to be aware. This comes into play more so when we use upscale resorts for our meetings and upper scale hotels versus mid-line brands. There are particular meetings (for which) I would not be able to use a specific brand due solely to perception.”

Made for Business

The business-focused environment of conference centers helps to erase perception concerns. When asked what are the main attributes of a conference center she looks for, Monkemeyer replies, “The square footage of space to be able to create any sort of meeting setup we wish, soundproof air walls and pillarless rooms.”

Planners point out that conference centers have responded to demands for more ergonomic, less-claustrophobic spaces. Brown books conference centers because they are utilizing “open space, natural light. Our team does not like feeling that they are stuck in a conference room for three days.”

Among technology concerns, planners emphasize Internet access. “Conference centers have enough bandwidth for usage by the multitude of their guests using several devices each,” says Monkemeyer. “Accessing the Internet throughout the entire facility is a strong concern.”

“Technology is a key component in our program,” says Russell. “Confer­ence centers all have their pros and cons, but they are key to reporting accurate data and managing our account and client expectations.”

Other meeting amenities — especially leisure activities such as golf or spa — seem less critical in the current cost-conscious climate. As an executive with Destination Hotels & Resorts says, “Golf and other activities are still important, but pre- or post-meeting. It is not as important as a teambuilding function.”

“Decent golf either onsite or nearby is important to many of our groups,” says Monkemeyer. “Spa is a wonderful perk, but not a necessity.”

Brown agrees, noting that instead of spa services, she has observed more interest in activities centered on exercise. “Fitness centers, tennis, basketball, golf are more important than a spa,” she says.

Regarding F&B trends, conference centers seem to offer effective fare. “For the meetings I plan, I like the simplicity that conference centers offer,” says Russell. “A few basic hot and cold options for lunch, grab-and-go breakfast and all-day beverages packages.”

She emphasizes that the packaging of a meal plan is a crucial conference center attribute, but does not mean quality cuisine is ignored. “Some trends we are seeing is that they are partnering with higher quality vendors. They offer Starbucks coffee and local bakery bagels. I think like everyone else, they are implementing CSR and green initiatives wherever possible.” C&IT

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