Last October, the International Association of Conference Centres confirmed the vitality of the industry in its 2015 edition of Trends in the Conference Center Industry, which reported that IACC members have seen occupancy and rates rise over the previous year. In particular, the study indicated that conference centers with more than 200 guest rooms projected a 6.5 percent increase in annual occupancy over 2014.
In the same month, it became clear that IACC itself was poised for growth with a newly elected dynamic leader: Alex Cabañas, CEO of Benchmark Hospitality International, who began his two-year term as global president. Cabañas is spearheading the IACC 2020 task force, which is developing the organization’s strategy for the next five years. At the time of his appointment, Cabañas noted that “our members support and learn from each other. There is a kinship within IACC like no other association that I’ve been affiliated with.”
“We planned an event offsite and Lansdowne was wonderful in taking care of the transportation for the group. …They just say, ‘Tell me what you need and I’ll take care of it.’ ”
— Glynnis Judy
Among IACC’s 400 global members is The Chattanoogan, the only IACC-certified hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Cabañas gave a speech at WordSouth’s StoryConnect conference last year. A communications company for the southern U.S. telecom industry, WordSouth welcomed about 80 clients to The Chattanoogan to discuss and experience “the power of story and storytelling in marketing,” explains Andy Johns, vice president for telecommunications. “We had Alex Cabañas as one of our speakers because Benchmark is a company that obviously embraces storytelling.” Apparently, the speaker choice was a success. “Previously, my sessions were always the highest rated, and Alex took that away from me last year. But I forgive him for that,” Johns quips.
WordSouth’s first StoryConnect was held at The Chattanoogan in 2014, and “the conference center difference” started to become apparent to the organizers at that time. Johns relates: “We had never done the conference before. We went to a couple of different places around town looking for space, and we thought all we needed was to rent some space and then do it. But when we arrived at a couple of the hotels I remember specifically they had forgotten we had an appointment to tour the space, and that kind of set the tone before we got to The Chattanoogan, which was a conference center-type environment. We walked into the main auditorium, and they had our name and company logo (displayed). They knew all the details about our conference and were there as a partner in making our first conference successful, not just a company we were renting space from.”
Besides the meetings-focused attitude of the staff, the 199-room hotel offers meeting facilities that excel in both variety and quality. More than 25,000 sf of high-tech conference space includes a 16-seat Executive Boardroom, five general session rooms, 12 breakout rooms, a 7,752-sf newly renovated ballroom and an 85-seat amphitheater. “The amphitheater is built exactly for (meeting groups) with all the lighting and sound options and comfortable seats,” Johns remarks. “We’ve all been to places where the space is not inviting for the attendees to listen to sessions for hours.” And given the property’s Benchmark management, planners can be assured their group will enjoy all the services that “high tech” entails, including videoconferencing, webcasting and complimentary wireless Internet throughout the hotel.
Similarly, Dolce enjoys a strong brand recognition and reliability in the conference center industry, and that was a motivation for Wyndham Hotel Group to acquire Dolce Hotels and Resorts’ portfolio of 24 properties back in February 2015. “Dolce is a terrific strategic fit for us,” said Geoff Ballotti, president and CEO, Wyndham Hotel Group, in a statement at the time of the acquisition. “With over three decades of established brand equity, Dolce is a respected leader in the group space with outstanding destination properties and some of the best meeting product offerings available in the market today.”
Among the clients who respect the Dolce brand is Roshan Bharwaney, associate director for worldwide training at WPP, a major advertising and marketing services group with agencies in 112 countries. His team runs training programs for WPP’s leaders and high potentials globally. “I’ve been working with Dolce since I started in my role a little over 10 years ago,” says Bharwaney, “and where possible we do try to use Dolce properties in the U.S. and in Europe.”
In the U.S., for example, WPP has brought groups of 20–70 participants to properties such as Dolce Norwalk, Dolce Basking Ridge, Silverado Resort & Spa, Dolce Hayes Mansion, Q Center and IBM Learning Center. Dolce is the pioneer of the CMP (complete meeting package), and Bharwaney finds that it “simplifies things so much for me when I know how many people are attending and how much the total cost is going to be just by multiplying it with the CMP. And then if there’s anything we need to add on to the program, it’s just easier to reconcile that with the total budget. We have almost never had unanticipated extra charges.”
But the real conference center difference, as Bharwaney describes it, is a stronger focus on the meetings aspect. That includes the nature of the other events in-house, not just the facility and its staff. “When we go to these kinds of mixed (use) hotels, we tend to get a lot more distractions, more noise, parties and weddings going on,” he relates. “When we’re at Dolce it’s quieter, and we can focus on what we’re there to do. (Other groups) are also there to work, to discuss ideas, to learn if it’s a training program, so it’s all a similar kind of sensibility.”
In addition, the meeting rooms lend themselves to the training style of his groups, which is very display-oriented. “One of the things I really appreciate is that all of our breakout rooms are very well equipped; they’re very close to the main meeting room, and they’re very versatile. You can write on the walls or stick things up on the walls; it’s very easy to work there,” Bharwaney explains. “But when we’re at a regular hotel, usually they don’t have enough breakout rooms for us, so we have to convert guest rooms, and it’s more limited. There are not as many wall surfaces you can work on because of the guest room furniture.”
Such advantages result from the fact that “conference centers put a lot of focus on the place where you spend most of your day, which is in a meeting,” notes Randy Turner, director, marketing communications with Walker and Associates Inc., a national distributor of network products. The company has utilized the 86-room Graylyn International Conference Center for more than 15 years for product training and sales meetings. “The meeting rooms are much more comfortable; more thought is put into the seating and positioning of AV, which is normally installed permanently so nothing has to be brought in,” Turner observes. “And stations for cell phones and laptops are everywhere in a conference center, whereas in a nonconference center, you’re often going to struggle to have them in convenient locations or without significant additional costs.” Thought is also put into breaks that will support productivity: Graylyn “constructs breaks so that they are conducive to effective meetings rather than distracting from the meetings,” Turner observes, and offers F&B that is light and nutritional “to keep attendees more alert and engaged.”
In terms of customer service, Turner finds that “it’s much more seamless” at conference centers than at the typical hotel. “There tend to be fewer people to deal with, one or two contacts vs. four or five.”
Glynnis Judy, corporate meeting event specialist at Touchpoint Energized Communications, also has observed a high level of customer service at these facilities, specifically Lansdowne Resort, a Destination Hotel, in Leesburg, Virginia. Last year, Judy staged two client-facing meetings at Lansdowne for a multinational developer and marketer of networking products. The staff at Lansdowne, Judy recalls, has the motto, “We don’t do customer service, we are customer service,” and that attitude came across in their performance.
“When you work with a large client there are always going to be last-minute changes. For example, we planned an event offsite and Lansdowne was wonderful in taking care of the transportation for the group. And you always have people at the last minute who have changes in their travel arrangements. Then you wonder if the bus is big enough, and when you call (your contact) they don’t send you over to the transportation person; they just say, ‘Tell me what you need and I’ll take care of it.’ ”
The best staff not only take requests, of course, but fulfill needs without being asked, when possible. Johns gives a case in point from his experience at The Chattanoogan: “I made an offhand remark at a session that I had lost my nametag, and within 30 minutes (the CSM) had a heavy-duty vinyl Chattanoogan-branded nametag for me. Without my asking for it, she just heard that and (responded). That shows that not only are they listening when you know they’re listening, but they’re listening all the time.”
That staff proficiency transferred to WordSouth’s offsite reception and Mediterranean buffet at the nearby Tennessee Aquarium, which has a partnership with The Chattanoogan. “It was like they were a part of the aquarium staff and really made the whole event seamless for us,” Johns recalls. “An event like that makes a strong impression on folks coming in from the rural areas we serve.” It also illustrates that conference centers are not just meeting facilities; they are destinations with a variety of dining and recreational resources, both onsite and off. Graylyn, for example, offers more than 25 teambuilding opportunities on its expansive grounds, from a scavenger hunt to a chili cookoff. The Lansdowne boasts 45 holes of championship golf and lies at the gateway to Virginia wine country.
Speaking of wine, Bharwaney recalls a very distinctive offsite event WPP held as part of its meeting at the Dolce Frégate Provence, a 133-room, IACC-certified property located in the South of France. “We had a very nice group tour and dinner at a nearby vineyard. That part of the world produces some of the best rosette in the world.” While the conference center difference lies in optimizing business meetings, those meetings need not be all business. C&IT
The International Association of Conference Centres recently polled 378 member conference center properties regarding CMP (complete meeting package) trends influencing meeting planners and venue operators. Some findings: