As senior manager of catering and conference services for the Boston-based law firm Goodwin Proctor LLP, Gia Casale plans many kinds of events. But when the agenda calls for a strong focus on taking care of business, she finds that conference centers are the best fit for her.
“A conference center is geared more specifically toward business meetings,” she explains. “The AV is in the room. Everything that you may need for that meeting room is set and ready to go. The snacks, the beverages, tend to be outside the meeting rooms. You’re sharing that area with other companies, whereas when we go to a hotel, we are ordering for our group only, so it tends to be a higher cost. I think you get a better value at a conference center.” She adds that not having to contract with an outside company for AV services, as she typically would have to do at a hotel, is another cost-saving advantage of using conference centers.
One conference center Casale has used many times is the Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa in Stowe, Vermont. The 120-room property, which is set on more than 60 acres, includes a 22,000-sf IACC-certified conference center that contains 15 meeting rooms. The resort also offers many recreational amenities such as a 50,000-sf spa, skiing in the winter, and hiking, biking and golf in the summer.
IACC (the International Association of Conference Centres) is a global professional association that represents small- to medium-sized venues that focus on meetings, training courses and conferences. The organization has 400 members in 21 countries, and each member conference center agrees to adhere to a set of standards designed to create an exceptional meeting experience. These standards cover elements such as soundproofing, technology, ergonomic seating, lighting, unobstructed interior views and continuous refreshment service. Companies that use IACC-certified conference centers also receive a 24-hour hold on their meeting space, so they can leave their materials, displays and other items in the room overnight. This saves the time and effort involved in re-staging the room in the morning because it had been used for another event the night before.
Conference centers also make the budgeting process easier by offering a package price that includes accommodations, meeting space, AV services, three meals a day and continuous breaks. This all-inclusive package is typically known as a CMP (Complete Meeting Package), but a survey completed in late 2013 by PHG Research, a division of Pompan Hospitality Global Inc., found that many customers now prefer to opt for an MMP (Modified Meeting Package) so they can customize the package to meet their needs.
When the survey was released, Neil Pompan, president and CEO of Pompan Hospitality Global, who previously served as North American president and global president for IACC, explained, “The data supports our belief that the market is moving away from the CMP in favor of the MMP, or a DMP (Day Meeting Package) with or without guest rooms. In our opinion, this shift is in no way an indictment of the conference center concept. Many meeting planners still seek the ease of crafting a total meeting experience based on the expertise found among conference center sales and service personnel. But at the same time, planners are looking for more flexibility in how they purchase this experience, given their organization’s perception of need, and of value. Therefore, flexibility in how packages are offered is critical for facilities that want to thrive.”
When asked where the market stands today, Pompan responded, “The pendulum is not swinging back. If anything, if I were to redo this survey this year, I would speculate that we’re going to find very similar findings or maybe even findings that are even more supportive of what we found last time.
“We call it a CMP or we call it a DMP, but to me that’s not what they’re buying,” he continues. “They’re really buying a meeting experience. They’re buying the ability to have a better outcome. At the end of the day, people want good outcomes.”
“A lot of times I’ll mix and match. I want this from this package, but I want that from that package.” — Gia Casale
Casale says that she generally modifies the basic CMP, for example, to add a better wine or to incorporate different types of hors d’oeuvres that aren’t included in the basic package. “A lot of times I’ll mix and match. I want this from this package, but I want that from that package.”
She adds that Stoweflake has been very accommodating in meeting her special requests. “I wanted everything Vermont,” notes Casale. “I wanted Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, I wanted Cabot cheeses, and they not only met my requests but were very, very accommodating to our budget.
“They’re very good at working with you,” she continues. “I feel like it’s a family-owned business and their goal is to make sure that your meeting is really a success and that your networking events are successful. The shuttle comes to take them to the mountain, and they help you with all of the ancillary things that you need to get done (like) the child care. Sometimes you call these hotels or these conference centers and they don’t have that piece set up, so you’re calling a DMC or you’re begging the hotel to call you about golf. It’s all done there (at Stoweflake). They’re taking care of you. It’s full service.”
She stressed just how important that is. “Service, no matter how much you spend, is something you can’t buy,” she explains. She adds that if someone asks her for a recommendation for a good property to use, she’s more likely to recommend one that offers great service over one that may be the most beautiful. “Service trumps everything,” she notes.
She also praised the Mt. Washington Conference Center located near Baltimore. The IACC-certified conference center offers 48 guest rooms and 10,500 sf of meeting space. “They have phenomenal service,” Casale notes. “They really care about the guests and the guest experience.”
Susan O’Dea, executive assistant to the president and CEO of Chicago Tube & Iron, has used another IACC-certified conference center, the Q Center, for the past five years for her company’s annual sales meeting that draws anywhere from 100–130 attendees. Located in St. Charles, Illinois, about an hour west of Chicago, Q Center is set on 95 acres and offers 1,042 guest rooms and 150,000 sf of meeting and event space. The property also offers Q Print graphic design and printing services, and Q Creative event production services.
“They’re wonderful,” O’Dea notes. “I love their technology. These are the pros. Their technology is very current where some hotels, if they don’t have a conference center attached to them, their technology is a little limited, at least in my opinion. The technology and the support for technology is top shelf at the Q. Another real plus is they have a wonderful dining facility. We still have a private dinner on Saturday night and an awards ceremony, and the food is phenomenal.” She also lauded the regular conference meals at the Q Center. “Their chef is just wonderful, so that’s another important thing.”
She adds that another advantage of using the Q Center is that her attendees are more comfortable there, since many of them come from more rural areas and aren’t comfortable in big cities. “The other plus is we can afford an individual room for every person. There was a time when we shared rooms.”
O’Dea also modifies the standard CMP package but adds, “it’s not modified very much. Or they make it easy enough to make it seem like it’s not out of the ordinary. They are willing to do whatever we ask them.”
Like Casale, O’Dea places a big emphasis on service. “It has to do with the clientele that you work with at these places, and there is no one better than Kimberley (Mercado) at the Q. I’ve been doing this a long time. She is really good at her job.”
Q Center is one of 10 conference centers included in the Dolce Hotels & Resorts portfolio. Others are located in Connecticut, Georgia, New York and Texas in the U.S., as well as in Germany, Belgium and Ontario, Canada.
Dolce also offers flexibility in its meeting packages through its program called CMP 3.0. Under this program, planners can choose The CMP Traditional, which includes accommodations, three meals per day, continuous breaks at Nourishment Hubs, fast wireless Internet, use of a business center and a dedicated meeting concierge, among other services. The CMP Select package includes the same services with two meals per day, and planners can upgrade any package to include Signature Events such as a chef’s table, teambuilding activity or golf.
The PHG survey also found that day meeting packages (DMPs) are popular. One-third of the properties responding to the survey reported that day packages represent 40 percent or more of their business. However, DMPs are not only used for single-day events. Some clients find a greater value in purchasing a DMP with a separate guest room rate.
“From a competitor’s standpoint, I’m seeing more and more hotels offering day meeting packages,” Pompan notes. “They not only include the food and beverage, but more and more I’m seeing them include basic audio-visual and other related meeting support, for example, the meeting room. That’s a very powerful thing. One of the biggest things that meeting planners hate to pay for after high-speed Internet is meeting room rental. (The hotel might offer) lunch, break service, a meeting room, a projector and a couple of flip charts. That’s a very watered down version of what IACC does, but to the large majority of meeting planners, that’s what they want. It’s a big step up for the hotels and very appealing to the majority of customers.”
In an effort to encourage best practices in sustainability at its member conference centers, IACC has developed a Code of Sustainability that includes 60 tenets in areas such as education and awareness, waste management, recycling, reuse, water conservation, energy management, air quality, and food and beverage. Based on their level of participation in these tenets, IACC-certified conference centers can achieve status as an IACC GreenStar facility at the Silver, Gold or Platinum Levels.
IACC continues to add more conference centers to its membership base, and most recently, the organization welcomed its first member in Ukraine, the UBI Conference Hall in Hlevakha, as well as additional conference centers in the UK, Sweden, Scotland and Australia. In the U.S., some of IACC’s newest members include the Kingsgate Marriott Conference Center in Cincinnati; the Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa in Mount Prospect, Illinois; the Laureates Conference Center at Franklin Institute in Philadelphia; and the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp, Maryland.
In 2014, Benchmark Hospitality International announced the introduction of Benchmark Conference Centers. The company now uses this designation to classify properties that are purpose-built and offer personally tailored service, locally sourced and customized cuisine, and four-diamond lodging to provide what the company describes as “the most productive, rewarding and authentic meeting experience in the industry.” All of these properties conform to IACC standards, although IACC membership is not a prerequisite.
There are currently 12 Benchmark Conference Centers in the U.S.: Bonaventure Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Chaminade Resort & Spa in Santa Cruz, California; Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Downtown Conference Center in New York City; Eaglewood Resort & Spa in Chicago; Edith Macy Hotel & Conference Center in Briar Cliff Manor, New York; Hotel Contessa in San Antonio; Scottsdale Resort and Conference Center in Scottsdale, Arizona; Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, West Virginia; The Chattanoogan Hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee; The Heldrich in New Brunswick, New Jersey; and the Inn at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Two additional Benchmark Certified Conference Centers are located in Tokyo.
Pompan explains why it’s so important to create the right environment for a meeting. “It’s the difference between service and hospitality,” he notes. “Service is delivering a technical thing. Hospitality is making people feel good about it while you’re doing it. Meetings are the same way. Most hotels can provide the service of providing a meeting to a customer very well, but conference centers are in the meeting hospitality business as opposed to the meeting service business, if I can draw that distinction. The customer is buying an environment that supports the need for them to change the behaviors of the people who are attending. If they are successful in changing their behavior, they will have a better outcome.
“When you think about it, what’s the purpose of a meeting?” he continues. “A lot of times they’ll say ‘we’re doing training or having a board meeting or going over strategy or we’re rolling out a new product.’ But really, the purpose of the meeting is not any of that, even though that’s what you’ll be doing in the meeting. The purpose is to change the behavior of the people attending the meeting. (When they leave) most people are going to be smarter, they’re going to be more knowledgeable, they’re going to be more productive, and because of that, your organization is going to be more successful. So therein lies the deep subtlety that, in my opinion, conference centers understand better than other meeting providers. They understand that they need to provide an environment that will help your attendees leave differently than when they came.”
He offered an interesting analogy. “It’s the difference between going to Macy’s to buy a suit or going to a tailor who only sells suits. Where are you going to get a better suit? Most people don’t care. They just say, ‘I just need a new suit,’ but there are people who do care.
“Conference centers get it,” Pompan sums up, “and they need to continually punctuate that point of differentiation. They provide an environment that enables you to have a better outcome.” C&IT