It’s the stuff of a planner’s nightmares: Maryellen Blette, director of business development for events by Travel and Transport & Ultramar, had a financial services client call and ask her to pull together a 50-person meeting — in seven days. Her first call after that went to a corporate hotel and a conference center.
“Both of them came back with relatively similar pricing, but with the conference center, there was no work involved on my part,” she says. “I know what would have happened with the hotel — I would’ve had to provide detailed specifications for everything I needed. While I had to do some of that with the conference center, it was so much easier because this is what they do.
“Seven days later the client had a great meeting, everything was perfect, and I looked like a star,” Blette says.
“Everyone wants to be in a space that looks more like an art gallery. …Conference centers are thinking about design. We’re developing more inspiring meeting spaces.”
— Mark Cooper, CEO, IACC
That’s one circumstance where a conference center offered a big advantage over other types of venues. There are many other occasions when they can shine. These smaller, meetings-focused venues have multiple tools and qualities that make meetings more affordable, educational, entertaining and memorable for firms in the financial and insurance sectors. Companies looking to create an experience as well as an event for their staff or partners will find conference centers offer just what they need.
Conference centers are distinguished by their focus on meetings above all else. “More than 50 percent of their business must be derived from meetings,” says Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC, a nonprofit that promotes, supports and sets quality standards for conference centers across the globe. “Since they’re smaller properties that concentrate on meetings and events, they’re all focused on creating great conference experiences. Meeting planners can be sure they get the best facilities, service and customer approach that they could possibly hope for.”
One thing that makes conference centers different is their design and configuration. To be IACC-certified, meeting spaces must include features such as natural lighting, good acoustics and hard walls between meeting rooms.
Another benefit of conference centers is the number of breakout rooms, says Julie Berry, director of sales and marketing for Eaglewood Resort & Spa — which features IACC-certified meeting space — in Itasca, Illinois. “If you’re showing videos or doing role-playing, there’s lots of private space.” They’re also dedicated to creating a nurturing learning environment. The center has a no-noise policy that prohibits groups from presenting loud programs, especially if they’re located next to meetings that need a quiet place for people to focus.
“Our meeting and function space really was put together in a way where there’s great flow and productivity for meetings,” says Jeannene Glenn, interim director of sales and marketing at Chaminade Resort & Spa in Santa Cruz, California. “Our rooms are all in the same area, so you don’t lose time with groups going to breakouts in other sections.”
“Conference centers provide some additional privacy in the sense that there isn’t the traditional foot traffic through property,” says Nancy Lindemer, director of sales and marketing for the IACC-certified Rizzo Conference Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. “There’s also an environment where people can spend quality time together. (Companies) aren’t going to lose them to the variety of distractions that are around a hotel. It keeps them really focused on the learning and agenda at hand.”
Looking to the future, Cooper expects flexibility and character will be at the top of the priority list for conference centers doing renovations. “No one wants to go to a boring venue and be in an uninspiring, dated space,” he says. “Everyone wants to be in a space that looks more like an art gallery. They want to have open spaces and meeting venues that help people have one-to-one discussions and network. They want to have spaces outside the meeting where you can go off and do business. There are a lot of meeting venues that don’t lend themselves to that, but conference centers are thinking about design. We’re developing more inspiring meeting spaces.”
One trend Berry sees are more lactation rooms. “Moms are in the work force, and these companies are making it comfortable for them to come back to work,” she says. Conference centers are responding to that need by converting breakout rooms or the old private phone booths to clean, comfortable spaces for new moms.
Conference centers’ smaller size and laser-like focus on meetings means the staff can be more attentive to customer needs. “At Chaminade, every group has a dedicated conference planner from the time a contract is signed,” says Glenn. “The planner is their point of contact to help with the meeting, but they also help to coordinate any offsite events and teambuilding. We’re trying to take that from the meeting planner so they can focus on the content and not have to worry about anything from a planning standpoint.”
Berry says her staff spends a lot of time understanding the profile of each group, then delivering an experience that’s customized to their needs. “Some of the strong feedback we get is that the staff was really in touch with what the group needed.”
The customer service at the Eaglewood Resort & Spa is one of the things that’s most impressed Leah Miller who works in event planning at Aon, a multinational corporation that provides risk management, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human resources and outsourcing solutions. The company has hosted two three-day meetings for top-tier company leaders at the facility and plans to do two more in the future. “Their staff does such a great job of knowing how to deal with high-level meetings like that,” Miller says. “They aren’t going in and out of the room and making a lot of noise.
“We’ve worked with Eaglewood for many years, and we renewed our partnership with them last year,” she continues. “I feel like they’ve made a big effort to come up to speed with what we need. The sales team and the onsite team have stepped up their game to provide top service for us. They’ve made sure our experience is what we’re expecting rather than just dialing it in.” Miller also appreciates the room layout at Eaglewood — the floor-to-ceiling windows make all-day meetings feel more manageable to attendees, she says — and the variety of eating options, from quick and casual to more formal.
Lindemer recommends that planners talk early and often with their contact at the conference center about the group’s needs and personality. “I want to know what’s going to be important to a group to feel like they have the comforts of home,” she says. “Whether it’s special foods or amenities in the rooms, work with your partnering conference center to bring that to life. Talk about the personality of the group, tied in with the goals they’re looking to achieve while they’re here. That’s important for us to know because we can bring that through in our service elements as well as our food and beverage presentation.”
One of the biggest benefits of conference centers is their ability to offer complete meeting packages. CMPs, as they’re known, bundle all of the expenses associated with a meeting — sleeping room, meeting space, meals and breaks, and more — into one fixed price per person.
“What’s nice about working with a conference center like Eaglewood is there’s not a lot of hidden costs,” Miller says. “You’re AV is included, your breaks are included, everything is included in that one price. Sometimes when you’re working with a hotel you’re dealing with a lot of individual pricing, and that can inflate your budget far beyond what you were originally planning.”
Says Berry, “Having one price makes budgeting so much easier for meeting planners and their procurement people. It also takes less time, so instead of picking menus, the planner can focus on their agenda.”
For planners who might not have used a conference center before, Berry recommends taking a close look at what’s included in CMP packages, and whether all of the elements must be in there. It’s possible certain groups don’t need some features and can have them removed, which will lower the price.
Many conference centers also have amenities planners won’t find at other types of venues. Eaglewood has its own spa, fitness center, bowling alley, bocce ball and tennis courts, golf course, even snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in the winter.
“It’s important for some groups not to lose people during their meeting, but it’s also important for them to feel like they’re getting off-property,” says Berry. Providing a range of entertainment options helps with that.
Chaminade Resort & Spa, featuring an IACC-approved conference center, is set on 300 partially wooded acres that overlook Monterey Bay. For groups looking for outdoor teambuilding activities, there are hiking trails, a high ropes challenge course and a geocaching course. The facility also boasts an executive fitness center with a lounge and retail shop, full-service spa, outdoor heated pool with a sauna and whirlpool, and tennis and volleyball courts.
With its urban setting, Rizzo Conference Center gives guests good access to Chapel Hill’s restaurants and attractions. But those who choose to stay onsite have plenty to do. They can swim in the infinity lap pool, work out in the fitness center, sit around the outdoor firepit, have a drink at the UNC-themed sports bar, or just enjoy the views from the 30-acre hilltop campus.
As technology becomes more integral to meetings, it’s also becoming a bigger part of the package offered by conference centers. “We continue to invest in technology and upgrades, particularly to our internet access and bandwidth,” Glenn says. “We do a lot of meetings for tech companies, so it’s important that we stay up-to-date and can meet the needs of those companies.”
In a recent survey that included a number of conference centers, IACC found that 89 percent of venues offer wireless internet services to guests free of charge. Many have their own onsite AV services to assist meeting planners, although Cooper finds that many meeting planners and participants prefer to bring their own technology.
“We’ve had a lot of meeting technology that’s come into the industry,” he says. “We’ve seen meeting apps come of age and audience participation coming in really cool ways. As tech becomes a lot more mobile, the delegates are bringing their technology with them with their iPads.”
Cooper cautions that meeting planners shouldn’t assume conference centers can meet all of their IT needs without some prior arrangement, especially if they plan to stream large quantities of data. “They need to really understand the requirements they have for internet and bandwidth,” he says. “A lot of people have an idea of what they’re going to be using but they don’t know specifically what their requirements are. So know what you want and be sure the venue can offer it before you commit to it.” The last thing planners want, he points out, is for IT problems to distract attendees or interfere with their ability to learn.
Blette encourages meeting planners to remember conference centers for overnight meetings, not just one-day gatherings. “Our natural way of doing things makes us point to hotels immediately if we hear ‘sleeping rooms,’ ” she says. “We may look at conference centers only for day meetings. My suggestion would be not to forget them when we have sleeping rooms included, because they do a great job.”
The Rizzo Conference Center recently underwent a $42 million renovation. The venue now has 183 guest rooms and 30,000 sf of meeting space that includes 43 breakout spaces and three amphitheaters. Sleeping rooms have new amenities such as showers with glass doors and more data ports. A 25,000-sf courtyard has an infinity lap pool, deck and firepit with soft seating. The expanded fitness center received brand new equipment. An onsite sports bar was renovated with a UNC-Chapel Hill theme, complete with a trophy from the school’s past Peach Bowl win.
Chaminade Resort & Spa did a complete guest room renovation valued at nearly $8 million in 2016. The décor reflects the resort’s desire to create a thoughtful, creative place for companies to gather, says Glenn. Each headboard has an abacus, and the room number on each guest room door is created by large dominos instead of numerals. Yard sticks serve as coat hangers, and the artwork includes reproductions of old photos showing the famous Santa Cruz boardwalk. The light fixtures have multiple data ports to accommodate a variety of devices.
Eaglewood Resort & Spa completed a $7.5 million renovation of its main facilities in 2015, followed by a facelift of the spa in 2016. Renovated rooms have new beds and carpeting, full-length mirrors, and light fixtures with multiple data ports. The resort also renovated the fitness center, added a “grab-and-go market,” refurbished the bowling alley and resurfaced balconies and patios.
The spa now contains what director of sales and marketing Julie Berry calls “the Rolls-Royce of pedicure chairs.” Other updates to the spa include a new water features and updated carpeting, wallpaper and upholstery.
The Spanish colonial-inspired Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, located on 220 acres an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, offers a tranquil, distraction-free option for business-focused meetings or incentives. The AAA Five Diamond “retreat within a resort” boasts a broad menu of meeting and event venues to keep attendee engagement and interest high, from the elegant Hacienda and Anacapa ballrooms (6,000 sf and 4,800 sf respectively) — whose foyers are warmed by fireplaces — to outside terraces and courtyards with views of the Topa Topa Mountains. For smaller gatherings, there are a variety of intimate rooms and the 3,600-sf Shangri-La Pavilion, which overlooks the Ojai Valley.
Two other inspiring venues are the Big Red Barn — complete with hayloft and saloon — for Western themes that can include bull riding and barbecues; and Casa Elar, a 10,000-sf private estate on the property that is ideal for an opening reception for 200 or small to mid-sized group of 120 for dining. The estate also has a one-acre event lawn.
Through its partnership with Destination 360, Ojai offers customized meeting and incentive itineraries, which can include everything from welcome receptions to tours and activities, dine-arounds, CSR, final night dinners and more.
Alternatives to the traditional meeting room can work to facilitate business in different and sometimes more effective ways. Ojai’s unique group programs that keep engagement going strong include a ropes course, custom aromatherapy classes, guacamole and salsa challenge, interactive cooking classes, golf tournaments and executive golf challenges, scavenger hunts and offsite options such as Reagan Presidential Library events — including dining under Air Force One — and many more inspiring possibilities. I&FMM