There’s nothing wrong with convening in a traditional hotel ballroom or meeting space. It can be a rewarding experience. But is it the optimum experience, especially for small and medium-sized groups? The answer to that is probably no, and that’s where dedicated conference centers come in.
Aimed squarely at the small to medium-sized meetings market, conference centers provide planners with venues uniquely designed and set up to meet the needs and support the goals of smaller groups, whether for full conferences, executive meeting, sales training or leadership coaching sessions.
Within the conference center milieu, IACC is the go-to organization providing standards and quality assurance in the physical design of meeting spaces as well as the food and beverage and service offered at its centers. Staff members at IACC are among the thought leaders in the industry, and not just in North America, but across the globe.
IACC recently rebranded and is no longer referring to itself as the International Association of Conference Centres — simply IACC, with the new tagline “Exceptional Meetings. Powerful Connections.” The rebranding was intended to better reflect the diversity of offerings of IACC’s nearly 400 members in 21 countries in the Americas, Europe and Australasia that include not just conference centers, but also seminar houses, day meeting venues, corporate universities, and meetings-focused hotels and resorts — giving planners plenty of choice no matter where they are headquartered or meet.
IACC’s new identity is centered on the four pillars of its brand: exclusive meeting venues, by design; at the forefront of meetings innovation; globally connected network of passionate members; and curators of exceptional meeting experiences.
IACC also offers continuing education and training for conference-center professionals, including global-exchange programs, ensuring that staff is always top-notch at IACC centers. And every member center can see how it stacks up against every other center, based on key benchmarks developed by IACC.
Whether the conference centers are stand-alone centers at or near universities or within business or research complexes; attached or adjacent to hotels or inns; or within resorts, what they all have in common is dedication to providing smaller groups with the optimum meeting experience, and that includes making sure planners and attendees have access to the most up-to-date, relevant technology.
“All members must demonstrate that they have up-to-date technology that is well supported in their meeting rooms,” says Mark Cooper, IACC’s CEO. He notes that technology requirements have expanded considerably in the past two to three years, and that a variety of technology elements are among the most requested and desired by planners.
“The boundaries have moved in terms of requirements in the room (AV) and outside of the room (delegate communications before, during and after the event), as well as in terms of collaborative technologies to engage and manage delegate interactions and communication during an event. The last two,” Cooper says, “are no longer the requirements of early adopter meeting organizers; rather, they are now pivotal to the success of the event.”
Cooper says IACC conference venues are well placed to serve this changing landscape. “Given their focus on meetings, they saw this coming some time ago and invested in stable, high-bandwidth solutions that are easy to access for delegates. It is not unusual for IACC venues to offer in excess of 100MB speeds, which can satisfy the most sophisticated of meetings. That means clients do not need to invest in additional bandwidth provision at the venue, which can be very costly.
“Live streaming is a lot more affordable,” Cooper points out, “especially for smaller meetings and training courses, and provides inclusivity for those not able to attend a meeting in person — an added value to those running meetings. There are examples of IACC members who are currently investing in non-obtrusive, multipoint ceiling-mounted microphones to pick up audience comments without the need for table-mounted or handheld mics. These are available as extensions to the meeting package or even provided as part of the standard offering in some venues.”
IACC recently launched the IACC Meeting Room of the Future initiative. The program’s goal is to annually predict and showcase a clear vision of what is new and what solutions need to be sought for tomorrow’s meeting rooms, to deliver what clients want and need for maximum productivity. That’s a tall order, but IACC brought together some of the brightest minds in the industry to create physical and virtual meeting environments. Contributors came from leading universities across the globe, meetings and technology companies and designers of office furnishings.
In another area of research, IACC found that customized meeting packages are becoming more the norm than the exception, with planners requesting customization in a variety of ways, from technology to F&B, and many conference centers are now able to provide that customization. Planners should no longer have to accept a standard package that doesn’t fully meet a group’s needs. If a venue isn’t flexible, planners can turn to hundreds of IACC conference centers that are.
Cooper says sustainability is another important element. “Delegates want to see the venue taking responsibility for the planet. It makes delegates feel good about being at the venue, it’s important!” He gives examples of venues having such options as onsite beehives producing honey to serve to guests, electric-car charging points and even staff uniforms made from recycled cloth.
The concept of food and beverage at meetings has changed dramatically in recent years and conference centers are in step with the trends. “Imaginative and well-presented food is a focus of our members at this time,” Cooper says, “along with the ‘theater of cooking,’ where chefs are on view and delegates use all their senses to experience food in meetings. Some of our venues have onsite food smokers and other ways of producing excellent dishes connected to the region.”
Finally, Cooper notes, IACC venues are seeing an increase in planners wanting teambuilding options as part of the meeting package, but it’s not just about a menu of activities. “We believe a reason for this is the current drive for planners to be more what I call an ‘experience creator’ rather than a planner. A meeting needs to do more now than deliver content to delegates. It needs to bring people together, help build relationships and foster collaboration.”
One IACC member venue is family-owned Stoweflake Resort & Conference Center in Stowe, Vermont, a perfect example of a conference center focused squarely on the business of meetings but within a full-service resort. Stoweflake offers a spa and a host of recreational activities, making it perfect for meetings at which family comes along or one for which attendees tack on relaxation time after business concludes.
Michael Mercer, vice president of business development with Transamerica Affinity Markets as well as president of the Professional Insurance Marketing Association, brought his daughters along to the group’s four-day July meeting. They were able to enjoy Stoweflake’s leisure amenities — especially the spa — while their dad and his colleagues accomplished their business goals at the conference center.
“The term of president is one year, and we get to choose the location of our two annual conferences,” Mercer says. “I specifically chose the Stoweflake because I had stayed there as a guest several times and knew it would be a perfect fit for our organization. Its easy access from the Burlington airport made it very accessible, and the conference center was large enough for the 220 members who attended the event and our exhibitors.”
Because Stoweflake has so much to offer, the group stayed almost exclusively on the grounds and used both indoor and outdoor venues. “Our opening cocktail reception was held on the great lawn in the middle of the resort, and the location was perfect for the attendees and their spouses and guests,” Mercer says. “We left the resort on two occasions for dinner, but the rest of our meals and refreshments were served at the resort, and the food and service were outstanding, as expected. The last night we also had our refreshments on the lawn with rides on Stoweflake’s hot air balloon, which was a great photo opportunity and a terrific final event for the conference.”
Mercer has high praise for the conference center staff. “The staff and IT crew did an exceptional job of meeting all our needs and providing seamless transitions from one speaker to the next and allowing our exhibitors ample time and space to present their services and products.”
Business sessions were held each morning from 8:30 to noon and included four or five speakers per session or a panel discussion. “The tech support consisted of PowerPoint (two large screens on stage), lavaliere mics, remote clickers to forward slides, a teleprompter, remote mics for questions from the crowd and various lighting schemes,” Mercer notes. “We had about 18 exhibitors and they obviously had access to electricity, internet, curtains dividing the exhibit booths, and there was ample space to walk through the exhibit hall. There were snacks and refreshments during the breaks, and lunch was served at noon in the exhibit hall to encourage traffic from the attendees.”
The group also enjoyed two of Stowe’s restaurants Idle Time and Michael’s on the Hill. Although Idle Time is across the street from Stoweflake, conference staff offered to provide shuttle service if the weather was not good. Michael’s on the Hill is about 10 minutes away, so the resort provided transportation, which was added to the master bill.
Mercer says Stoweflake’s variety of lodging worked well for his group. “The lodgings at the inn are varied and very comfortable. I was fortunate to have one of the houses on the property, which are well appointed and quite large. There are smaller lodges on property and guest rooms in the inn that are also very well furnished and very comfortable. I heard many positives comments on all aspects of the Stoweflake and not one complaint on any of the services or the lodging,” he says.
The same holds true for the entire experience. “We were fortunate to have outstanding weather, but we had discussed the possibility of inclement weather, and the space and options available would have been outstanding for our group as well,” Mercer says. “Our conference was a huge success and a great deal of the credit goes to Scot Baraw (one of the family owners of Stoweflake and V.P. of sales) and his exceptional team. This is the second time this group has been to the Stoweflake and I am sure it will not be the last.”
It comes as no surprise that at Stoweflake’s last IACC inspection, it scored a 99 percent — 345 out of a possible 350 points.
The Woodlands is a master-planned community in the Houston, Texas, metro area. It’s home to businesses, dining and entertainment venues, a transportation system that includes trolleys as well as cruisers floating along the area’s signature waterways and, of course, hotels and a resort.
The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center is an IACC-certified facility that sits near the community’s waterways and within the Texas Piney Woods, giving it an away-from-it-all feel though it’s just 30 minutes from Houston proper. The resort competed a $75 million renovation at the end of 2014, which included upgrades to rooms, the addition of a 1,005-foot lazy river, a new high-end steakhouse restaurant and a total revitalization of the resort’s 60,000 sf of meeting and function space. There’s also a golf course and spa, and miles of biking and walking trails through the Piney Woods, giving attendees plenty to do once business concludes.
In February 2016, 100 attendees gathered at the resort for the annual sales and marketing conference of American Financial & Automotive Services Inc. The company, which helps auto dealers nationwide maximize profits, uses the resort for several of its conferences and meetings during the year. While the company is headquartered in The Woodlands, conferences bring in attendees from across the country.
Laura Hetland, senior vice president with the company, says the area works well for meetings in part because of its easy proximity to the Houston airport and all of the local amenities available. But a primary reason is the quality of the resort itself. “We use The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center because of its staff and facilities,” she says. “The recent investment into the property makes it one of the premier conference venues in the Texas market.
“Our guests utilize the lodging at the resort. The conference/event team always works to make sure our guests can stay onsite. The resort’s staff is very helpful, responsive and friendly, making it a great experience for our guests.”
Hetland says that their meetings here often include the resort’s Complete Meeting Package program. “The package allows our guests to eat at their leisure for breakfast and dinner. The Woodlands Dining Room (one of several options on the property) provides great buffet options as well as menu selections.
“We also utilize the banquet facilities quite often,” she adds. “The resort’s catering and event planning teams always do a great job. They are attentive to every detail. I find it very impressive that the catering manager who helps plan the event is always there to see it kicked off. In addition, the culinary team always pleases the guests. The food is always served warm, regardless of the number of guests, and we often receive compliments about how tasty the meal is.”
Hetland has no reservations about recommending The Woodlands Resort & Conference Center to other meeting planners. “We have worked with several properties for our events, and this conference center is at the top of the list. From the contracting of the event to the final bill, every person you come in contact with is knowledgeable, helpful and does what’s required with a smile on his or her face. The conference and audio-visual teams are always quick to respond and to assist with changes, needs, etc. In addition, our guests enjoy the amenities offered by the resort and always have positive comments. The Woodlands Resort has always exceeded our expectations.”
There are hundreds of excellent conference centers already in place across North America and beyond, but new centers are also in the pipeline, facilities being built from the ground up with the latest in technology and design.
The new UCLA Meyer & Renee Luskin Conference Center opened in August on the UCLA campus. Designed with today’s ultimate technology in order to enable productive and inspiring conferences, the Luskin Conference Center is thoroughly modern yet evoking the university’s original Romanesque Revival buildings of 1929. In addition to smart technology throughout the IACC-certified 25,000 sf of meeting areas, public spaces and 254 guest rooms, the center will have a 162-seat restaurant and lounge. In answer to planners’ desire to book sustainable facilities, the Luskin Conference Center is working toward LEED Gold certification.
Debuting this past spring in the Denver metropolitan area is the IACC-certified Hyatt Regency Aurora-Denver Conference Center, directly across from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and just 16 miles from Denver International Airport. In addition to more than 31,000 sf of conference and event space and 249 guest rooms, the new Hyatt offers a fitness center, pool, full-service restaurant, complimentary wireless internet, onsite car-rental desk, banquet space for up to 800 and in-room safes large enough to accommodate a laptop.
A distinctive meeting experience that’s integrated with environmental stewardship is front and center at Lied Lodge & Conference Center at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska. Meetings held in this Adirondack-styled property, constructed with plantation-grown Douglas fir timbers, support the Arbor Day Foundation through educational programs and group activities centering on tree planting and conservation practices. The 160-acre Arbor Day Farm yields produce used in the lodge’s Timber Dining Room, orchards producing 165 different varieties of apples, a hazelnut research field and more. The property subscribes to rigorous green lodging practices such as linen and towel reuse, Green Seal-certified detergents, comprehensive recycling, hybrid vehicles and non-toxic building materials. Even the coffee served is part of the Arbor Day Foundation’s Rain Forest Rescue program. The Lied Lodge & Conference Center recently completed a $9 million renovation of its 140 guest rooms, 14,000+ sf of meeting and banquet spaces, and the grand lobby.
There are many reasons to choose a dedicated conference center for your next meeting, not the least of which is that conference centers are likely to be nimble enough to accommodate customized meeting packages and to adapt as trends and meeting requirements change. They’re also focused on one market — small to medium-sized groups — and know exactly how to best service those clients. I&FMM