The dark clouds are lifting. The outlook is brighter and meetings are back. For the first time in a number of years, the Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Business Barometer report reveals significant, uplifting shifts in the meeting and event industry. During the last few years of budget cuts and poor economic conditions, savvy meeting professionals not only learned how to adapt and persevere but emerged leaner, meaner and equipped with “new expectations, new tools at their disposal and new opportunities to address the strengthening meeting and event market,” according to the MPI February 2013 barometer.
During the worst of times, new solutions were sought for small meetings and executive retreats. Always a staple of the meetings industry, these events were transformed as meeting professionals created innovative and imaginative ways to get the most out of fewer and smaller meetings. Nowadays, staid and boring meetings are being replaced with innovative events accompanied by daylight and fresh air, healthful snacks and beverages, intimate and relaxed meeting environments, casual attire, as well as flexible meeting agendas — resulting in greater attendee engagement.
“21st Century Meeting Space is Different” declares Benchmark Hospitality International as the No. 4 item in their 2012 Top 10 Meeting Trends.
“Meeting space isn’t what it used to be,” states the Houston, TX-based hospitality management company report, which is based on information derived from their 39 award-winning hotels, resorts and conference centers. “It’s more creative! Today’s planners are looking for properties with outsized meeting rooms out of doors, inspirational and non-traditional nooks and crannies for small gatherings and breakouts inside. …Meetings today are just as apt to conclude around the campfire, fire pit or bonfire, as they are at the bar.”
Also, Benchmark’s newly released 2013 Top 10 Trends offers information of particular interest to planners of small meetings. Trend No. 7, “What’s New in Meeting Room Demand,” notes that “Planners need extra breakouts in order to accommodate more “intimate attendee interface options.”
Hal Powell, Jr., vice president of sales and marketing, Benchmark Hospitality International, told Corporate & Incentive Travel, “We have noted an increase in demand for additional breakout meeting rooms and boardrooms for smaller sessions. While programs that are typically meeting space intensive, such as accounting or consulting firm executive training and larger sales meetings, are on the rise, we also are seeing an uptick in retreats and board meetings.”
Benchmark is addressing the issue and has already added new boardrooms at its resorts and hotels, starting with two new boardrooms at Costa d’Este Beach Resort in Vero Beach, FL.
The story doesn’t stop there. In August, a small group of senior level conference executives met in a relaxed, intimate environment for a conference about the dynamics and the future of conferences. Conducted by host Robert B. Tucker, president and founder of Innovation Resource, a consulting and executive development firm located in Santa Barbara, CA, 14 professional conference producers met at the exclusive Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara for the first-ever Elite Retreat. Each executive was asked in advance to consider, “what is the future of the conference industry” and come prepared to discuss key challenges and best practices. The group discussed changing demographics, new business and delivery models, new technologies, budget pressures and heightened competition for attendee loyalty.
Graham H. Scott, vice president of business development, Innovation Resource Consulting Group, says innovation is necessary to reinvent conferences. “Even successful group organizers need to fundamentally rethink the entire conference experience in order to deliver greater perceived value and return on investment,” says Scott. “This requires revitalization and rethinking of education, as well as networking. It entails creating events that surprise and delight because they are immersive and multi-sensory, rather than merely informational and predictable.”
Furthermore, Scott emphasizes that the conference of the future, particularly small events, requires the meeting professional to think “ahead of the curve,” he says. “A tremendous amount of creativity, collaboration skills, innovation, experimentation and risk-taking are the ingredients to success here, as was demonstrated at the Elite Retreat where we provided opportunities for personal growth while sparking transformative ideas.”
Illustrating how outside-the-box this small, three-day summit was, Elite Retreat had no formal itinerary, but rather encouraged a free-flowing conversation and exchange of ideas among the participants, which manifested itself at a dinner downtown, during a tour of Santa Barbara, at a wine tasting at Tucker’s home, or in an intimate conference room at the Four Seasons.
Participants deemed the retreat a success and all came away with great ideas to take back to their organizations. One attendee said the conference came together seamlessly both in its intimacy and exclusiveness, and was “something we would never have the opportunity to do.” While another called the conference “a right-brain experience with music and storytelling to cement the cognitive learning that was going on.”
Another form of small gatherings celebrates the accomplishments of top performers.
For example, Steve Spokane, vice president of marketing and customer retention at McKesson Corporation in Alpharetta, GA, one of the largest and oldest health care services companies in the country, specializes in incentive programs. Last year, Spokane arranged an incentive program for the firm’s Summit Club of 13 top performers in Napa Valley. Spokane, who often books large brands such as The Westin and Marriott for sales meetings, needed an exclusive and very private retreat in an attractive, unique destination for this event. “Our sales kick-off meetings are somewhat larger — up to 250 attendees — so we needed a different type of property than a brand-name hotel due to the small size and nature of this event.”
Spokane and his team selected the Napa Valley region because of the unique, intimate experience it could provide for the small group of top achievers.
While in Napa, the incentive winners engaged in extraordinary experiences starting with a hot-air balloon ride over the valley. “It was probably the most memorable activity of the meeting and something the attendees may not ever get to experience again,” he says.
After a welcome reception the first evening, the attendees spent the next day touring wineries, enjoying a private dine-around in Yountville, and choosing from among a multitude of activities such as golf, spa services and biking.
The Napa Valley Wine Train, a three-hour, 36-mile journey on restored dining cars through the world’s most well-known wine valleys to the quaint village of St. Helena and back provided attendees with another memorable experience.
The three-day meeting culminated in a private awards banquet at Cakebread Cellars — a celebrated family-owned vineyard. The feast was not only delicious but high up on the healthful, good-for-you chart, too, as the vintages were paired with local, fresh produce and food.
DMC Grapes on the Vine Events helped Spokane and his team meet their objectives by selecting the property and planning their activities in Napa, including their invitations, gifts, dinners and wine-tasting trips.
Another unique destination, Foxwoods Resort Casino, located in Mashantucket, CT, offers inspirational experiences for all types of meetings. In only her sixth week as executive assistant to the senior vice president of sales at Rapid7, a Boston, MA-based provider of IT security risk management software and cloud solutions, Julie Bertolino earned plaudits from her small group of sales representatives during their first incentive at Foxwoods. The sales team was rewarded with “praise that they deserved for 2012” as well as “the expectations for 2013.” Bertolino’s goal was to find a high-energy destination, something totally different from past incentive programs. A first-time user of Foxwood Resorts Casino in February, Bertolino says she can’t wait to get back there soon.
No wonder, the event was cut short by a severe snowstorm. However, in typical fashion, the staff at MGM Grand at Foxwoods helped manage the entire event and the weather-related crisis without a hitch, says Bertolino. She explained that the staff was completely supportive and got them in and out of the conveniently located resort quickly so they could return to Boston before public transportation was shut down.
Small groups receive personalized attention, says Bertolino who had high praise for Kim Simone, sales manager, Foxwoods Resort Casino, from the beginning to the end of the event. “Usually when you meet with the salesperson they hand you off. This time they worked together,” says Bertolino. She adds that the food and beverage staff also were wonderful and responded immediately to an attendee who had both gluten and lactose allergies.
Foxwoods provided both Native American inspiration and built-in entertainment, which provided great opportunities for Rapid7’s sales representatives to have fun on their own and let loose after business meetings. The attendees were thoroughly impressed with the venue, the chips provided by the company for the casino, and the food and beverage at Foxwoods. An executive dinner also was held at chef Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak, one of several fine-dining restaurants onsite. Bertolino says the group was very energized when they returned to the office in Boston, and the experience also gave them a positive, exciting outlook for the future.
Foxwoods Resort Casino, the largest casino resort in North America, has perfected small meetings within its vast spaces. In fact, the resort says nearly 70 percent of their meetings business is comprised of small meetings (75 people or fewer). The resort boasts 37 smaller meeting rooms, including the 20-seat MGM Grand at Foxwoods Boardroom, which features 10 LCD pop-up monitors, a smart board, and a 65-inch TV for displays and videoconferencing. Foxwoods has 137 suites, in both The Grand Pequot Tower and MGM Grand at Foxwoods, which are ideal for smaller meetings, private breakfasts or cocktail hours.
Laurie Brewer, a junior event architect at TCG Events, a meeting and event planning company located in Charlotte, NC, says her company’s mantra is “to event differently.” TCG Events’ website describes the company as “allergic to the typical, expected, conventional and banal.” Instead, they “aspire to have each client engagement be an evidentiary experience of the integrity, expertise and necessity of the event planning industry.”
Last May, Brewer orchestrated a 40-person event for a corporate client at the Grandover Hotel & Events Center in Greensboro, NC. The event’s objective was to gather employees who work in offices across the state for teambuilding and bonding, and, at the same time, provide classroom opportunities for CEU credits.
Brewer says Grandover was selected because it is an easy drive from Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. Also, the price point was right, and the resort offered a spa venue and golf course onsite, which was important to the group. The 1,500-acre old-world estate was designed as a corporate conference center from the beginning and has solid block walls designed to block out distractions and ensure security and privacy.
“This is a great spot for a small, two-day meeting and was an easy drive for our attendees,” says Brewer. “While we had our education sessions, there also were plenty of other activities including horseback riding. All meals were onsite, and guests had a choice of spa services or golf lessons.”
The 273-room Inn of the Mountain Gods Resort & Casino, located in the mountains just south of Ruidoso, in Mescalero, NM, has an abundance of flexible meeting space and accommodates small meetings and executive retreats well with 14 different meeting rooms ranging in size from 655 sf to 7,322 sf. The property boasts a state-of-the-art business center, smart boards, conference call capabilities, professional staging and an outdoor patio perfect for hosting pre- and post-events.
For true inspiration and an unforgettable small meeting, the inn provides meeting attendees with an abundance of recreation options such as an 18-hole golf course, an indoor pool and workout facility, horseback riding, as well as paddle boating, kayaking and fishing on Lake Mescalero. Exciting Las Vegas-style gaming action and world-class entertainment are always on tap as are the resort’s sumptuous selection of dining establishments.
Planners who need an exotic, luxury destination for their small meeting may consider the Preferred Hotel Group (PHG), which boasts more than 650 destinations in more than 85 countries around the globe. For example, an incentive or executive program would be right at home at Cambridge Beaches Resort & Spa, located on a 30-acre peninsula in Sandys, Bermuda. Inspiration and great ideas flow easily from attendees working out of the executive boardroom or one of three historic cottages. Four beaches, three tennis courts and a spa surround the 94 cottage-style accommodations, which face the Atlantic Ocean and pink-sand beaches. Activities include moonlight cruises, beach parties, offsite lunches at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club and dinners at the Bermuda Aquarium.
In summary, perhaps Steve Spokane said it best: “Small meetings provide a unique experience for attendees — one with many opportunities for the group to not only get to know each other on a deeper level but also to share experiences that aren’t often possible with larger meetings.” C&IT