Over the past decade, the planning and execution of corporate meetings have been transformed, primarily by relentlessly innovative and far-reaching technologies, into something more sophisticated than what had preceded, almost unchanged, for a half-century. But throughout that remarkable metamorphosis, one element has remained virtually unchanged — the meeting room.
Now, ongoing breakthroughs in brain science and learning — combined with an ever-growing exploration of and commitment to attendee engagement and interactivity — have begun to have a profound impact on what the meeting room of the future will look and feel like.
But it’s an open question just how far along those considerations actually are.
“It seems to me that the issue is late in being discussed by the meeting industry,” says Samantha Meigs, Ph.D., director of experience design and associate professor of history at the University of Indianapolis. “I did a workshop for planners at MPI’s World Education Congress, which was held in Indianapolis in June. And based on what I heard there, and what I see elsewhere, it appears to me that the issue is being discussed in pieces and then only partly implemented. I also think, based on what I see and hear, that this is an issue that is really just now being discovered and talked about.”
The element of the topic that most interests Meigs is that in the long run, the ongoing and dramatic breakthroughs in brain science and learning will eventually lead to what she dubs a legitimate sea change in the way meeting rooms are designed and meetings are conducted.
But based on her direct observations, such considerations are currently in their early stages.
“What I have found, though, is that too many suppliers, partners and vendors have not been good resources to tell planners how to (change their meetings) and help them do it.”
— Michael Dominguez
Meanwhile, Meigs — who plans conferences in the history department at her university — believes that neither meeting planners nor vendors have yet approached the issue in a comprehensive or “holistic” way.
As evidence of that, she references the 2018 “Meeting Room of the Future” report released in June by the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), the organization’s third annual look at the issue. This year’s report focused on supplier and vendor perceptions, while last year’s reflected the views of meeting planners.
Meigs cites a key finding in the new report: Resistance to change among meeting planners is an obstacle to progress. “Mike Van Der Vijver of Mind Meetings notices,” the report says, “that while meeting planners discuss the need for creating memorable meeting experiences, creativity and co-working between delegates, there is a continuation of relatively traditional programming and often a resistance to changes in meeting formats.”
“That finding is something I also found to be true in the workshop I did at MPI,” Meigs says. “There are certainly some planners who are open to innovation, but a lot of the people were automatically defaulting to what they had always done before.”
Ellen Sinclair, the Brunswick, New Jersey-based senior vice president of major hotel and IACC-certified conference center operator Benchmark, A Global Hospitality Company, sees that longstanding criticism of meeting planners abating. “I see that shifting significantly now,” says Sinclair, who has chaired the IACC report team for each of its three years. “And one reason for that is that at Benchmark, we typically see a turnover of 30 to 40 percent per year among meeting planners we work with. So there is a new, younger generation of planners coming on board every year. And those new planners are embracing change. They’re willing to try new things.”
Michael Dominguez, chief sales officer at MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas, goes further. He categorically rejects the claim that planners remain resistant to change. “Candidly, I see the opposite of that as true,” Dominguez says. “Everybody is trying to change their meetings now. What I have found, though, is that too many suppliers, partners and vendors have not been good resources to tell planners how to do that and help them do it.”
Dominguez’s premise seems to be somewhat reinforced by what the 2018 IACC report touts as its most significant finding. “The report shows that high-quality internet will be the most important meeting element in the coming years, and that the success of meetings today depends on the quality of a meeting venue’s internet infrastructure,” IACC CEO Mark Cooper noted in releasing the report. “Some of those surveyed reported to have created ‘internet disaster recovery plans’ in the event of internet outages mid-event, a sure sign that venues and planners understand the important role that internet plays in meeting collaboration and connectivity.”
Widely respected, Bellingham, Washington-based meeting industry technology expert Corbin Ball, who served as a volunteer on all three IACC reports, reinforces that conclusion. He, too, cites the ongoing need for high-quality, consistent internet service as a vital interest in meeting rooms. “To me,” he says, “that ranks higher than anything else. And Wi-Fi is truly the lifeblood of meeting communications today.”
That said, Ball adds, the still unreached frontier on the ever-closer horizon is adequate bandwidth at every hotel, conference center and convention center in the country — and the world. “And the venues are definitely realizing that and stepping up now,” he says.
Sinclair agrees with Ball — and the IACC report — that the bandwidth required to facilitate flawless internet and Wi-Fi service is a critical consideration. “Most attendees travel with multiple devices these days,” she says, “so you have to have the bandwidth available to provide fast and reliable service for all those devices.”
Nevertheless, given the forward-looking issues that address genuine innovations in meeting room design based on brain science and learning, it seems that undue focus on something as fundamental as the quality of internet service confirms Meigs’ point about the relative level of the debate on the meeting room of the future.
A more enlightened discussion of the topic, rather obviously, goes to the
issue of the meeting room itself. And to IACC’s credit, the 2018 report addresses that factor.
“One of the things that both this year’s and last year’s report touched on was the flexibility of where the meeting takes place, where collaboration takes place,” Sinclair says. “And part of the issue now is not just what happens in the meeting room, but also what happens around the meeting room. That means those other spaces become just as important as the main ‘meat-and-potatoes’ meeting rooms where your sessions are taking place.”
As part of that evolution, now underway, Sinclair says, ancillary and alternative spaces will begin to supplant what has traditionally been just another numbered — and standard — meeting room down the hall, so to speak.
Dan Freed, an architect in the Coral Gables, Florida, office of global architectural and interior design firm CallisonRTKL, echoes Sinclair’s observation that an important evolution underway is how meeting space is perceived and used. Until recently, says Freed, who has designed more than a dozen major-flag hotels for brands including Wyndham, Hilton and Loews, a meeting room was a meeting room, and they also basically looked and felt alike. Now, thoughtful considerations of the adjacent space are being studied as a further way to enhance the attendee experience.
“What we see now is an interest in secondary spaces that are not what you would traditionally think of as meeting space,” Freed says. “For example, we’re seeing more interest in casual meeting areas, instead of a clearly defined — and confined — space. It’s sort of a new hybrid combination of what used to be called meeting space and pre-function space.” And, he says, the essence of the concept is the attendee experience the space engenders. “And the desire for more informality is what is driving the increase in demand for spaces like that.”
Beyond that, and proving more context for the discussion of the meeting room of the future, Freed says, is the simple fact that in research CallisonRTKL does, an increasingly high percentage of attendees — close to half — “do not want to be stuck in a boring old meeting room.” And, Freed adds, meeting planners and attendees are now much more interested in casualness and comfort, elements that until fairly recently were almost entirely ignored in the design of meeting space.
In turn, the evolution of the definition of meeting space now includes elements like the “event lawn” and “wellness garden” that are being incorporated into the new Callison-designed Hilton Miami Dadeland, opening in November.
One fast-moving change Sinclair sees today is demand for different kinds of seating. “We see more and more planners asking for that,” she says. “Some want people to sit at a high-top table. Others want them to be seated in soft chairs. And there can be a mixture. For example, in a room for 100 attendees, you could have four different types of seating in the same room, based on personal preferences. And in some cases, now we even see people who prefer to be seated on big pillows on the floor. I’d say that over the last year, that sort of flexibility and attention to personal preferences for comfort has become a genuine trend.”
Another trend is a changing meeting room landscape over the course of a day, Sinclair says. “For example, the room can be set up classroom style when you come in for the morning. Then you go out for a break and when you come back, it’s couches and soft chairs. So just by changing the layout of the room, you can stimulate creativity or collaboration. And in turn, some of the research into brain science and learning shows that different layouts and seating arrangements can contribute to attention and retention. At Benchmark, we’ve been paying a lot of attention to that sort of thing because we think it is very important.”
Another long-overdue consideration now becoming mainstream, Sinclair says, is natural light in all areas of the venue, including meeting rooms and ballrooms. “In the past, a lot of meeting planners did not want any natural light in their space because they thought it was distracting,” she says. “Now people won’t buy a room that doesn’t have natural light.”
Freed enthusiastically corroborates the view that natural light is currently among the most important changes in the design of meeting rooms. “There should be natural light in every meeting room we create,” he says. “Traditionally, the hotel industry has thought that you need sterile rooms with no natural light. But I think those days are in the past.”
Another consideration that Freed sees increasingly being raised in the design of new hotels is the personality of the local destination. “One of the interesting things about the ‘experiential meeting’ debate that has been going on for quite a while now is that whenever, as a culture, we talk about experience, we talk about local experience. So we are now seeing that reflected in the discussions about meetings. When an attendee goes to San Antonio, they want to feel like they’re in San Antonio and when they’re in Miami, they want to experience Miami. So as a hotel designer, it’s important to us to think about the things that really embody the destination. And then we translate those things to the meeting space we are creating. And the tools we use can range from something as simple as the color palette to the views that are generated from the meeting rooms.” Progressive design of meeting space, Freed says, now include elements that mimic cultural or geographical aspects of the local destination, as opposed to the relatively generic look and feel that major-flag hotels have displayed in the past.
While the debate goes on about what the meeting room of the future will look like, one hotelier in particular, Las Vegas behemoth MGM Resorts International, has significantly raised the bar with the development of two new facilities at its $550 million Park MGM, formerly the Monte Carlo, which made its debut in April.
Its Madison Meeting Center caters to meetings for 10 to 50 attendees. The 10,000-square-foot complex features 10 flexible rooms that can accommodate various layouts ideal for classroom-style training, certifications, product seminars and workshops. It also offers moveable ergonomic furniture, built-in audiovisual equipment and rolling whiteboards.
It incorporates the DELOS Stay Well Meetings protocol, developed in cooperation with health-and-wellness guru and DELOS board member, Deepak Chopra, and previously deployed at the MGM Grand and Mirage properties. The Stay Well program features state-of-the-art air purification, energizing lighting, science-based menu options, soothing aromatherapy and other wellness features designed to enhance the productivity and overall wellness of attendees.
“We have based the things we’re doing on the underlying science,” Dominguez says. “For example, a key question in the meeting industry is why attendees get tired in the middle of the afternoon. And the reasons are twofold. One is that you’ve been sitting in really crappy light all day long, which means a yellow hue. We have gone to blue-hued light in our Stay Well meeting rooms. And that’s important because blue light allows your body to suppress melatonin. And that allows you to remain alert and attentive.
“The second reason is that because you’re indoors all day, you’re not getting enough Vitamin D. So what we now know from the science is that it’s not just important that the food you eat at the meeting to be nutritious, but also for it to be Vitamin D-infused. So that is now a focus on our menus.”
The Park MGM’s new Ideation Studio, which will open this fall, provides spaces ideal for corporate retreats and brainstorming sessions, with eight unique environments and four distinctive room types that each can accommodate groups of six to 25 attendees. Each space has been intentionally planned with a wide array of workspaces to spur collaboration, productivity, creativity and innovation.
“The basic idea was to design a space that was specifically created for collaboration and consensus-building. And again, the facility is based on underlying science.”
From an academic perspective, the meeting room of the future will address factors that reach far beyond material considerations, such as seating, lighting or nutrition, although those things are vital to the final result, Meigs says.
The single most important factor, she explains, is what she calls a “minds on” level of attentiveness from attendees. “It’s the mental equivalent of ‘hands on,’ and it means a more in-depth way of talking about things and communicating,” she says. “It means having people be more actively involved in engagement with your material and with problem-solving.”
The inherent flaw in the current way meetings are conducted is that levels of attention and engagement among attendees range from minimal to meaningful and effective, along with everything in between.
How can that reality be overcome? “One way is to do anything that is unexpected and presents some kind of a challenge,” Meigs says. “The idea is to do something to get people involved in a way other than what they would normally expect. That gets them fully engaged, as opposed to just listening to somebody give a report or read a paper.”
Perhaps the most critical element of the larger discussion, Meigs says, is that her academic understanding of experience design differs quite sharply in one key respect from what meeting planners typically do. “True experience design, as I think of it, is all about sort of letting go of control. And meeting planners are typically very much in control of everything, which they have to be. But I think that control is also antithetical to the idea of a better experience. In the future, the most successful results are going to come from letting go of control, which seems to be a very difficult thing for people in the meeting industry to do.” C&IT