The Oregon Convention Center’s Oregon Ballroom was refreshed with ceiling tiles to mimic looking up through a forest canopy.
When you think of the meeting rooms of a few decades ago, what comes to mind? Carousel slide projectors for presentations? Certainly. Poster-sized easel paper for brainstorming? Absolutely. A centralized speaker phone for collaborative discussion with those not in attendance? Definitely. Luckily, today’s meeting rooms have dramatically changed to become technologically advanced settings that help facilitate better engagement of meeting attendees.
According to Linda McNairy, global vice president, Americas – American Express Meetings & Events, the definition of meeting room has evolved over recent years to support various meeting types.
“With alternative spaces, indoor, outdoor, experiential, virtual, etc., the options are endless, based on ongoing demand from meeting organizers and attendees to deliver on event experiences and individual attendee personas,” McNairy says.
Although in-person meetings are still far and away the standard format, hybrid/virtual meetings are growing in some regions according to American Express Global Business Travel’s 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast.
And comparing last year’s survey results to the 2020 results of the percentage of planners who use hybrid/virtual meetings in more than 10% of meetings, North America has seen an uptick in that number, going from 43% to 58%. Europe has seen an even larger increase, jumping from 49% up to 66%.
“Adjustments like having cameras built into TV monitors or installing better audio systems improve the effectiveness of virtual/hybrid meetings by supporting more seamless communication,” McNairy says.
Indeed. As Jason Vossler, product line manager, Dell Large-Format Monitors explains, meeting rooms have evolved from being a physical space that only facilitate face-to-face meetings to one that allows for collaboration from anywhere in the world with participants joining meetings virtually.
“Modernizing the meeting space and simplifying the end-user experience is also necessary to attract and retain millennial talent in the workplace,” Vossler says. “This year, millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce. They’re drawn to environments with comfortable spaces, outfitted with modern technologies that will improve their productivity.”
Virtuality at Its Best
Today’s meeting rooms are all about the sights and sounds of the event. Visual attributes are vital components to engage meeting attendees but so, too, are the sounds within the space — whether it is an expansive meeting room that holds 200 or an intimate boardroom for 12.
As Peter Herr, associate director of Global Marketing, Systems Group, at Shure Inc. explains, meeting rooms have evolved to become virtual meeting rooms from multiple locations, bringing in participants from other parts of the world or co-workers who are working from home. This requires a reliable collaboration technology that allows for seamless sharing of information.
“While videoconferencing is popular, the most critical part of a virtual meeting is audio,” Herr says. “Seeing someone on the screen is nice, but if you can’t hear them properly, the meeting is likely not going to be productive.” Capturing the audio from a speakerphone on the table of a conference room has limitations, so many meeting rooms are being networked to include dedicated microphones that are placed on the tabletop or even mounted overhead to capture audio from meeting participants without picking up the shuffling papers, vibrating cell phones and sliding of materials that can disrupt audio on some tabletop microphones.
Shure recently commissioned a study of 401 business professionals and IT decision-makers with Illuminas, a firm specializing in market research in the tech industry and found that 87% said virtual meetings were critical and 86% confirming that they are growing in importance. In fact, three out of four said their businesses plan to allocate bigger budgets next year to accommodate virtual meetings.
As such, Herr stresses that virtual meetings are growing in importance and, as a result, there are four key areas that meeting planners need to focus on to make this virtual undertaking a success:
• Network — The first step is to ensure the meeting room is configured with a network and is ready to support networked audio.
• Security — Of course, when discussing the network, one crucial consideration is security. Many audio devices can be password protected, and it is also possible to encrypt the networked audio stream.
• Acoustics — Once you’re happy that everything is as it should be with the A/V gear and the network, it’s time to look at the meeting room itself. The importance of room acoustics should never be underestimated. After all, if you were designing a music studio, you wouldn’t just throw a pair of loudspeakers in any room and expect them to sound amazing; you’d want to make sure that the room was treated properly so that the loudspeakers sounded their best in the space. The same thinking should also be applied to conferencing systems. No amount of technology can fix your outbound audio if the room itself is acoustically poor, so invest time in this at the early stages. What makes a good sounding space depends on your needs, so it’s worth speaking to acoustic consultants if your budget allows.
• Microphone selection — Central to the quality of audio is the microphone being used. Meeting planners want to make sure everyone in that room has a voice. There are a number of different methods to cover everyone effectively, whether wired, wireless, table or ceiling arrays, and a number of innovations that can make achieving reliable, high-quality audio much easier.
Herr also thinks technology will play a greater role in overall ease of use within the meeting room environment. It has to be simple for the users to participate in the meetings without worries about setup.
“What we’re seeing now is technology really improving audio quality of meetings, so people are able to hear each other in a much clearer way,” Herr says. “Only 36% of business professionals surveyed believe their organizations have the right technology to support virtual meetings.”
Where Design & Functionality Meet
Connecting, presenting and collaborating effectively are universal business concerns. As Vossler explains, ease of use, quick start up time, on-screen annotation with data capture, wireless casting and remote collaboration capabilities are the top five requests within a 21st century presentation solution.
“Meeting planners and attendees are looking for easy-to-use technology that drives a seamless user experience in the meeting space,” Vossler says. “When we use our computers and smartphones, we expect a fast and seamless experience. This includes being able to instantly share information, chat over video and connect accessories that boost our experience or productivity.” And, yet, when it comes to conference rooms and other shared spaces, meeting planners often struggle to find the same straightforward, uncomplicated experience.
Recently, Vossler has seen companies moving from the use of traditional white boards and projectors to large-format monitors in meeting rooms and classrooms for their collaboration needs. “In today’s fast-paced workplaces, collaboration is paramount and central to the culture and workflow,” Vossler says.
And while connectivity is key within today’s meeting environment, high-quality meeting spaces play a big role in the overall meeting experience for meeting planners and attendees alike. As McNairy explains, if the business portion of an event takes place in a stuffy, windowless room, even the most engaging offsite activity cannot make up for that.
“This is an ongoing issue for meeting professionals. Many of our 2020 Global Meetings and Events Forecast survey respondents cited the need for more inviting spaces with natural light,” McNairy says. American Express’ Meetings Express platform, which provides users with a consistent global program for sourcing small, simple and recurring meetings, allows users to add specific filters when searching for a venue including accommodation and natural daylight.
Matt Woodburn, co-founder of ESP Presents and Exchange 312, adds that, with offices heading toward a more collaborative open seating community floor plan, it’s even more important now to have private spaces that exude creativity, comfort and flexibility, while keeping the meeting focus the top priority.
“We’re seeing an advancement in built-in-technology, improvement of sound treatments and overall a more creative approach to the design,” Woodburn says. ESP Presents is an event production firm that creates innovation-driven experiential events. The company works alongside national brands, creative marketing agencies and major nonprofit associations.
Take the Oregon Convention Center, which recently completed a $40 million renovation. Part of that momentous project was updating the venue’s meeting spaces. As Craig Stroud, executive director of the Oregon Convention Center (OCC) explains, the OCC team has found that meeting attendees today expect venue interiors to be design-forward with bright, updated surroundings, locally made artwork and plenty of natural light.
“Attendees want to be inspired by their surroundings, so a huge focus of the renovation was a design refresh inspired by Oregon’s natural beauty,” he says. “The focus included incredible ceiling installations, such as a reverse topographical map of the Cascade mountain range as well as separately hung honeycomb pieces in the Oregon Ballroom. The ceiling installation in the ballroom creates the effect of looking up through a forest canopy to those below.”
These design touches serve functional purposes as well. OCC leadership has also found that attendees and planners want technological flexibility from their meetings — namely flexible projection capabilities, various lighting formations and colors — but they don’t want to have to view the equipment itself.
So as part of the OCC renovations, state-of-the-art A/V, projection and lighting equipment have been expertly hidden behind the ceiling installations. OCC has also created hidden wall panels, adorned with upholstered wallpaper picturing a forest grove, that are able to open. “The unsightly equipment can then be hidden behind the panels until its needed, out of sight and out of mind,” Stroud says.
Coveted Design Attributes
With technological designs aside, the interior of today’s meeting rooms are also dramatically changing.
“The boardroom narrative that was iconic of meeting rooms in the past is being replaced by an inspirational turn that aims to create a more unique residential experience,” says Kellie Sirna, co-founder and principal of Studio 11 Design. “We’re seeing a shift toward residential-style furniture, plusher textiles and artwork, and we always design flexible configurations that can accommodate many different guest scenarios.”
Stacy Elliston, co-founder and principal at Studio 11 Design, also adds that meeting rooms should feel like collaborative work environments that are flexible to how peoples’ needs change throughout the day.
“By integrating technology into the design approach, we’re able to create spaces that feel intuitive,” Elliston says. Examples of elements that create this sense of ease and modernity include dimmable lighting and furniture with built-in charging convenience.“It has become important to provide a place or places for those that must step out of a meeting to take a call be able to do so in a more private, quiet area,” Elliston says.
Carol Galle, CMP, president and CEO at Special D Events, says meeting planners know it’s a challenge for properties to be all things to all people. “We have some clients that respect the uniqueness of a historic property, for instance, and so we help them incorporate that vibe into their event. Other clients prefer a blank slate and consider a property’s uniqueness to be a distraction if it carries over to the meeting space,” Galle says. “Hotels have adapted by keeping their character in the open spaces but ensuring meeting rooms are sleek, flexible and have natural light. Natural light, by the way, is something that most of our clients cannot live without. It’s not a trend. Our clients are never going back to meeting rooms with four solid walls.”
It’s a fine line to walk because Special D Event’s clients, for example, expect the venue to provide a true experience and/or be a destination that authentically represents the area. Galle and her team share their clients’ frustration with large cookie-cutter type hotels where you could fly in, meet and fly out without ever getting a sense of the community. “But,” Galle says, “as much as we love the creativity and style of boutique hotels, sometimes we simply need a larger property that offers multiple meeting rooms of different sizes.”
She adds, “Successful evolution for larger properties means incorporating character into the building design and open spaces while offering meeting rooms that are modern, high tech and have natural light.”
When it comes to the technology gracing today’s meeting rooms, Galle says the affordability and flexibility of flat screen displays allows planners to configure the meeting room set any number of ways.
“Even when the monitors are built in, which we love because it saves our clients money, the look is much cleaner,” Galle says. “Years ago, we worried that windows in a meeting room would compromise A/V. But, now, the exceptional brightness of the newer flat-screen monitors eliminates any concerns about daylight. The intersection of monitors that tolerate daylight with a global interest in healthy work environments changed the conversation about meeting space.”
On the Horizon
Engagement within the meeting room environment is still the central theme of the meeting industry today. As McNairy explains, meeting planners are tasked with making sure that attendees are fully engaged with an event so they are using a variety of strategies. “Whether that means choosing an outside-the-box venue, introducing local culture and food to attendees, or incorporating wellness into the meetings program,” McNairy says.
“Also, many clients are requesting sustainable choices across all elements of their meeting, so I’d say this is something that is certainly being expected of the meeting room environment,” continues McNairy.
In addition to sustainability, security and data privacy will continue to be a focus area for the meetings environment, especially elevating venue privacy, and having secure Wi-Fi for meetings and events where confidential information is being shared. “I believe technology will also drive meeting room design and enhancement, as engagement and technology are closely linked,” McNairy says. “For example, meeting rooms will have to support growing utilization of augmented reality and holographic technology.”
McNairy recently presented to a room with more than 800 attendees via holographic technology, and could both hear the audience and see them so that she could interact naturally even though she was in a capture studio outside of the general-session room.
“Other elements in meeting rooms will have to evolve,” McNairy says. “For example, the holographic technology carried very specific lighting and connectivity requirements. We would not have been able to utilize this technology if our meeting space was not equipped to support these requirements.”
According to Sarah Neukom, co-founder of ESP Presents and Exchange 312, technology will continue to advance as more companies are exploring remote work environments. So coming together from various locations will remain at the forefront. “And making sure that creativity can be inspired through productive conversations and tools to get there — digital white boards, comfortable chairs, easy access to healthy snacks and drinks,” Neukom says. “A successful meeting is when everyone is engaged, productive and leaves with more inspiration than they started with. The environment that’s created is what fosters all of that.”
Moving forward, Vossler foresees meeting rooms will evolve to include frictionless technology that is more intuitive and user-friendly. “Imagine walking into the meeting space and the display technology automatically detects that you’re in the room through the use of proximity and biometric sensors so your presentation is automatically cued up to start without fiddling with the settings,” Vossler says. “Coupling this with analytic data capture allows administrators to tailor their presentation environments based on the user experience, providing valuable ROI data to justify their investment.”
As technology evolves, more meeting rooms will be better synced with other elements. “A key thing to remember is that achieving high-quality audio in rooms of different shapes and sizes doesn’t have to be a difficult task,” Herr says. “By following a number of guidelines, both technical and non-technical, it’s possible to improve the acoustics of a room and create a space that is not only comfortable but fit for a purpose — facilitating communication and collaboration, sharing information and making decisions.” C&IT