Conference Centers Have New AppealNovember 9, 2018

Destination Immersion and Recreational Offerings Deflect the ‘No-Frills’ Stereotype By
November 9, 2018

Conference Centers Have New Appeal

Destination Immersion and Recreational Offerings Deflect the ‘No-Frills’ Stereotype
Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs is an IACC-certified meeting facility with more than 40,000 square feet of function space and offers many engaging experiences. Credit: Kevin Syms

Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs is an IACC-certified meeting facility with more than 40,000 square feet of function space and offers many engaging experiences. Credit: Kevin Syms

Since Wyndham acquired Dolce in 2015, the company has welcomed four properties to the Dolce portfolio, the latest being last fall’s addition of Cheyenne Mountain Resort. The Colorado Springs property, distinguished by AAA Four Diamond status, exemplifies the conference center that promises an engaging experience well beyond the conference room. Participants can enjoy an 18-hole championship Pete Dye-designed golf course, Alluvia Spa and Wellness Retreat, five swimming pools and even a private 35-acre recreation lake. While the property is a sophisticated meeting facility with more than 40,000 square feet of function space and IACC certification, it is also an immersive Rocky Mountain experience across 200 scenic acres.

Indeed, the conference center stereotype is that of a devoted, “no-frills” training facility. Yet there is no reason why a full-fledged conference center can’t be coupled with robust destination appeal and recreational offerings.

Dolce underscores this point with its new “Trails of Discovery” program introduced at five of its European properties. Over four to five hours, the trails lead participants through vineyards, historic landmarks and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Examples include a treasure hunt-style adventure at the Hotel Dolce Frégate Provence, an equestrian challenge at Dolce Chantilly and a journey through the Torres Vedras region, former summer retreat of the Portuguese royal family, at the Dolce CampoReal Lisboa.

While destination immersion may be the focus of an incentive program, it is completely
ancillary for most conference center clientele. Still, “one can draw the conclusion that being in a location that is desirable for attendees to visit is not a bad thing. It helps the attendees be more engaged in the program,” observes Amy Durocher, director, global accounts, with Scottsdale, Arizona-based site sourcing firm Global Cynergies, LLC. A longtime client of the Dolce brand, Global Cynergies has brought corporate groups to the Dolce CampoReal (30 minutes from Lisbon, Portugal), the Dolce La Hulpe Brussels (La Hulpe, Belgium) and the Dolce Sitges Hotel & Spa (Barcelona, Spain). Durocher has found these properties ideal for executive education programs of 30 to 40 for Fortune 500 companies.

“We chose the conference center for its location, size, flexibility in space and setup. Vendors and guests can stay at the same location as the event, which is a huge draw for us.” — Kellie Dooley

The centers “have really been able to meet the needs of my clients, who need multiple breakouts for small group work and a general session room with typically built-in AV, which is conducive to faculty-led sessions,” Durocher explains. “The attendees are in such intensive sessions with programs that are five days long, and they’re doing advanced-level classroom work. So, the Dolce properties have the ergonomic chairs, lighting that isn’t a strain on people’s eyes and features that lend more of a classroom-type environment to the facility. It works well for those types of intensive groups.”

Another beneficial feature is classrooms with tiered seating. “That’s not something you’re going to run across in a standard hotel; it would be more the exception than the norm,” says Durocher. “Yet they also have great restaurants and locations that are conducive to getting out into nature and exploring the landscape. My clients also like that they’re close to major airports, but they’re not in the city center. For their type of programs, that works well because they are able to keep their attendees focused and not lose them to the distractions of being right on main street in an urban area.”

Located on the shores of the Mediterranean, the Dolce Sitges Hotel & Spa is about 35 minutes away from the Barcelona city center. Durocher highlights the Dolce Sitges as “an absolutely beautiful location that has ocean views and the town below. It has a spa and indoor pool, which are elevated features compared to a lot of properties in the conference center space. So if you have a particular client who is looking for meeting space in the conference center style but still wants to give their group a more upscale experience, then that particular property is a great match because it really does lend a sense of luxury.” The opulent aspect complements 23,400 square feet of dedicated meeting space.

The Dolce CampoReal is about 30 minutes from Lisbon, in view of the Socorro and Archeira Mountains. Property highlights include more than 23,100 square feet of meeting space, an 18-hole golf course, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a Turkish bath, equestrian center and garden terrace with F&B service.

“They get really high marks on F&B and service levels from attendees,” Durocher remarks. “For the coffee breaks, they have hubs where they set up refreshments and make sure there are healthy options. That’s always something my clients are looking for.”

Durocher has partnered with Dolce since before its acquisition by Wyndham. “One of the things that’s been very attractive since Wyndham came in with Dolce has been the points program. That’s something that is a benefit to my client and was not in place when they were their own entity,” she says.

In addition, Dolce has “always been extremely collaborative in my dealings with them. If things haven’t gone the way my clients wanted them to, they’ve always been willing to jump in there and find a solution to keep the client happy.”

Rhonda Walton, program coordinator for Siemens Corporation, has also partnered with Dolce since before the acquisition. Among the brand’s properties she has successfully utilized for global executive leadership programs is the Q Center, set on 95 acres and featuring 150,000 square feet of IACC-certified meeting space.

“Q Center is a huge campus, but you don’t feel that, you don’t feel like there are 5,000 people at this location,” Walton observes.


And the transportation logistics are streamlined. Located about 45 minutes from downtown Chicago, the Q Center offers its own transportation service.

“So I can just tell my group, ‘Here is this number or here is the registration link — just go in and put in your request,’” says Walton.

The meeting rooms themselves offer many conveniences, she adds. “The Q Center has been a plus for me over other hotels because their meeting space has all these white boards, and we use a lot of posters. So, for me, that’s phenomenal because they have white boards with magnets that I use to hang up posters that connect to the wall, and it makes life so much easier.”

The size of the facility allows Siemens to run concurrent programs on two separate floors, and facility staff create company-branded signs with team names for the different breakout rooms. Between sessions, the Q Center offers various teambuilding events. On one occasion, the staff organized margarita- and nacho-making competitions for Siemens participants, Walton relates.

“A key thing for me is the food because our attendees are there for weeks, and I want to have food that’s high-quality, with a diversity in taste because it’s a program where we have a diverse ethnic group of people.” The Q Center meets all those requirements, she notes.

The Summit, A Dolce Hotel, is a new-build hotel and conference center located less than 10 miles from downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. The hotel offers 22,000 square feet of function space, including 16 individual meeting rooms. Groups also have at their disposal an eight-story atrium, a rooftop garden and a health club.

A reopening that is making headlines in the conference center world is the Monterey Conference Center. The California property debuted its $60 million renovation with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in January. Situated in downtown Monterey since 1977, the new facility is modernized, LEED-certified and houses more than 40,000 square feet of flexible meeting space. It is adjacent to the newly renovated Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay and connected to the Monterey Marriott. In total, the properties offer 85,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, 19,150 square feet of exhibition space and 700 hotel rooms.

Just a few years ago, The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center completed a $75 million expansion and renovation. The project replaced 206 lodge-style rooms with Fairway Pines III, added a new wing of 184 guest rooms and suites and renovated 222 existing guest rooms and suites in the Fairway Pines I and II guest wings.

In addition, the 60,000 square feet of meeting space was revitalized, the lobby was renovated using native Texas stone, and a 156-seat steakhouse and 1,005-foot lazy river were added. All wireless connectivity was upgraded to provide bandwidth internet speeds up to 1Gbps. A fine example of a conference center that is part of a diversion-rich property, the 402-room Woodlands Resort features four onsite restaurants, two golf courses, 21 tennis courts and more than 200 miles of nature trails.

In 2017, The National Conference Center, in Leesburg, Virginia, completed a multimillion-dollar renovation. The project redid the exteriors with a patriotic motif; refurbished the lobby, adding a “living room” for guests; redecorated the guest rooms and renovated the 900-seat dining room. Also last year, The National received the Hotel of the Year award from the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, and GM Geoff Lawson was named Hotelier of the Year by the VRLTA.

Teambuilding Activities

Located just 12 miles from Dulles International Airport and 35 miles from Washington, D.C., The National Conference Center houses 917 guest rooms and more than 265,000 square feet of function space, including a 16,552-square-foot ballroom. The facility prides itself on being at the forefront of teambuilding and leadership development, supported by its partnership with The Browne Center for Innovative Learning. The program “Challenge by Choice,” an experiential teambuilding program designed for participants of all physical abilities, was introduced at the 2017 Reston Herndon Meeting Planners (RHMP) Summer Camp.

A wide selection of teambuilding activities is also available at Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center, set on a 150-acre estate. Options include a scavenger hunt, basketball free throw, putting contests and a golf simulator competition. Participants of intensive conference sessions can also benefit from a 15- to 30-minute stretching or light exercise routine, led by a SMART Golf & Fitness Instruction staff member.

The 386-room Hilton Chicago/Oak Brook Hills Resort & Conference Center features more than 42,000 square feet of IACC-certified event space, including a 13,432-square-foot Grand Ballroom and 36 meeting rooms. Other property features of note include the Audubon-certified 18-hole Willow Crest Golf Club and a 145-seat amphitheater and outdoor pavilion.
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Emory Conference Center Hotel in Georgia is home to what is billed as the largest amphitheater in the Southeast, seating up to 240 attendees. That facility complements more than 32,000 square feet of conference space, including a 5,376-square-foot ballroom.

During their free time, attendees can explore 26 acres of forest preserve, or stay inside and play at Wisteria Lanes — an onsite bowling alley. Located near downtown Atlanta, the 325-room property is connected to the Houston Mill House via a short walking bridge. The 1920s Georgian fieldstone manor makes a quaint setting for a special event, surrounded by gardens and oak trees.

Conference centers like the Woodlands, Oak Brook Hills and Emory take full advantage of their natural surroundings in order to both foster a sense of seclusion and afford attendees recreational activities. While the South San Francisco Conference Center does not offer acres of nature, it ranks among the most environmentally conscious centers in the nation. Certified LEED Gold for Existing Buildings in 2015, the South San Francisco Conference Center is a model of sustainable practices and would appeal to groups who prioritize green meetings.

For example, the facility diverts and recycles high volumes of materials, does not print brochures, maintains a food composting program and green cleaning program and features water stations with reusable water containers.

The South San Francisco Conference Center is located 15 minutes from San Francisco and 20 minutes from Silicon Valley. Featuring complete wireless connectivity, the meeting space spans 20,500 square feet, including a Grand Ballroom divisible into 10 meeting rooms.

Another conveniently located conference center out west is the IACC-certified Conference Center of Las Vegas (CCLV), rebranded from IPEC Las Vegas in 2016. Located just five minutes from McCarran International Airport and the Las Vegas Strip, this sleek, modern facility offers more than 20,000 square feet of flexible function space suitable for groups of 50 to 720 attendees; onsite overnight accommodations are available for up to 190 attendees.

Highlights of the function space include a 10,000-square-foot ballroom and 5,000-square-foot reception foyer with a 29-foot-high ceiling. Events are supported by state-of-the-art AV (including two 22-foot-high LED screens in the reception foyer and south lobby) and a 2,500-square-foot kitchen.

Given resources like these, the CCLV can host a variety of events, and it’s worth bearing in mind that a well-equipped conference center may be ideal for corporate events beyond the training or education session.

For example, Queen Bee Market, a San Diego-based artisan market, held two events at the CCLV over three days, says company co-owner Kellie Dooley. The first one was craft night, “a ticketed event for 50 guests that included a catered dinner and dessert, swag bags, raffle items and three crafts done onsite and led by a renowned craft leader. The second one was Queen Bee Market, a handmade and vintage shopping experience that was open to the public. It featured 70 vendors that sold handmade and vintage goods, as well as food trucks and live music. More than a thousand shoppers attended the event.”

While an IACC-certified venue typically does not host events such as these, the CCLV had advantages for the Market. “We chose the conference center for its location, size, flexibility in space and setup,” Dooley explains. “We require a surround-sound system and liked the ability to display our logo in their many AV screens throughout the facility. We also loved that it serves as a private hotel, as well. Vendors and guests can stay at the same location as the event, which is a huge draw for us.”

From a service perspective, the CCLV went the extra mile: Sales & Operations Director Catherine Price and her staff “were there every moment for any request we had.”

In addition, “they provided a free continental breakfast to the guests staying at the hotel, which was very nice,” Dooley notes.

Today’s conference center market is so diverse that planners do well to eschew stereotypical ideas about how they can be utilized. They may be suitable for customer-
facing events, or perhaps internal meetings where a recreation and reward aspect is an important complement to learning. And as Dolce’s European properties are demonstrating, destination immersion is within the scope of today’s conference center, as well. C&IT

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