Tight training and education budgets along with pressure to justify spending and boost ROI make it more important than ever to plan productive meetings — and planners are finding that purpose-built conference centers deliver the value and business-focused environment they need to do just that.
Demand for conference centers is rising along with the economy even as supply of the facilities remains flat. As a result, rates, revenues and profits are up. The average daily rate (ADR) for conference centers grew 2.9 percent, according to the “Trends in the Conference Center Industry 2014” report by the International Association of Conference Centres (IACC) and PKF Hospitality Research, LLC.
Training meetings are leading the way. According to the IACC report, 57.8 of meetings at residential conference centers were training/continuing education sessions followed by management planning conferences. In addition, the American Express Meetings & Events “2015 Global Meetings Forecast” projects a 9 percent rise in training meetings this year.
Financial firms are significant contributors to the growth in conference center usage. “Financial institutions have a lot of training delivered, given the high levels of legislation in their sector,” says IACC CEO Mark Cooper. “Many training courses that take place are required training for financial professionals to carry out financial services. There is also a high level of leadership and management development training carried out in this sector.”
Protective Life Insurance Company, based in Birmingham, Alabama, decided to hold their annual meeting at a conference center for the first time in 2014 after having used resorts for the previous seven years. They selected Atlanta’s Emory Conference Center Hotel, a newly renovated, LEED Silver-certified sustainable facility.
The insurer transitioned to a conference center based on feedback from attendees. “In the past, we would go to a great resort and give them a day of free time,” says Protective Life’s Lisa Ramsay, CMP, assistant vice president, event and meeting management. “But they told us they didn’t want to go to a resort anymore because it’s too distracting. They wanted to go to a venue centered (on) learning to get the most out of their time. They wanted to get to the meat of the matter and get out.”
Attendees lauded the change after meeting in the conference center. “Our post-meeting survey numbers were off the charts as far as people saying it was a fantastic conference,” says Ramsay. “They said they loved the new format and to keep doing it. We held the two-day meeting at Emory again this year for 180 attendees and we have asked for a contract for 2016.”
Ramsay chose the Emory conference center in large part because of its meeting space and 325 guest rooms. The center offers more than 32,000 sf of meeting space and accommodates groups of up to 500 people. Emory’s main amphitheater, one of the largest in the Southeast, seats up to 240 guests. “We really liked the amphitheater feel,” says Ramsay. “That works well for us instead of a regular ballroom. We held all of our functions there. We didn’t have any breakouts. It was mostly PowerPoint presentations and panels. One panel included financial planners for our company sharing their secrets of success.”
Value was an added plus. “Before changing, I was wondering if I would like the costing structure, but I find it very economical,” says Ramsay. “All the meals and breaks are priced into the CMP. So is the AV. You don’t need to bring in a big production company. It works well for getting value.”
The meeting also included motivational speakers, including one who spoke at a non-traditional time. “One night after we finished dinner, we went back into the amphitheater at about 8 p.m. and had another speaker,” says Ramsay. “It was a dynamic speaker that kept everybody engaged. That’s probably the only way you’d be able to do that after a group has met for the entire day and eaten dinner. It wasn’t mandatory, but more than three-fourths of the group came.”
IACC-certified conference centers are solely dedicated to the service and positive outcome of meetings, providing a variety of specialized and configurable meeting spaces complete with all the necessary meetings-related tools (see “The IACC Difference” on page 55).
The distraction-free conference center environment typically also provides plenty of open spaces outdoors, most of them nearby meeting rooms, where small groups can network and take walks during breaks.
Meanwhile, more properties are becoming IACC members. The organization recently reported its highest single-year growth in membership worldwide, with 58 new members, 54 of which are conference centers. The organization currently has 400 members in 21 nations.
The growth of conference centers compares favorably with that of hotel competitors. “Our members work incredibly hard to provide meeting environments that clients want to run their meeting in, and when the economy returns to growth, as it has in the last 18 months, we have seen a faster recovery than hotel benchmarks have been reporting, which is very encouraging,” says Cooper. “It is also worth noting that investment in creating inspiring meeting rooms has been rapid as members seek to differentiate from the more traditional, non-focused venues.”
Conference centers offer an all-inclusive Complete Meeting Package (CMP), which provides accommodations, meeting space, AV services, three meals a day and continuous breaks. But these days, planners are asking for flexibility with CMPs. The more customized versions are known as MMPs (Modified Meeting Packages), and conference centers are more willing than ever to oblige, says Cooper. “The core ingredients — meeting room, technology, refreshments and dining — are still there. But the style of lunch, the equipment packages, Wi-Fi and other items are available in flexible meeting packages that suit the client’s exact needs. There is anything from culinary teambuilding to zip-wire and team development pursuits. We are seeing some unique ways of packaging these activities into delegate rates to help clients manage costs effectively. It’s no different than ordering a car and adding the extras that make it your car.”
Carol Gillenwater, founder and president of Woodlands, Texas-based Corporate Meetings Unlimited, agrees. “All-inclusive is usually a better deal,” she says. “At a hotel you usually need a food and beverage minimum to have the meeting space, and you have a variety of choices. Most conference centers have a pretty standard approach. A conference center usually has pre-established packages, but there is a lot of customization involved based on the group’s needs. They know there isn’t a formula that works for everyone in terms of price.”
Although conference centers can be a very good deal, planners must do their homework to take full advantage of pricing. Gillenwater suggests that planners take the following approach when considering conference centers: “Tell them how much space you need and for how long, and the type and number of meals needed,” says Gillenwater. “Then run the numbers. Do the same for hotels. Remember that a hotel could very well, depending on its occupancy, charge you more for its meeting space than would a conference center. If you don’t need hotel services and people are booking their own reservations at different properties, then a conference center may be a better bet.”
Last year, Gillenwater held a four-day education meeting for 600 people at a conference center after comparing it to hotels. “When we ran the numbers, the size, accessibility and package were very affordable versus a hotel. It was an easy decision to make. The package included space for the general session, five or six breakout rooms, and exhibition room, food and beverage, and basic AV. The size and layout of the space was attractive. And the food was very good.”
According to Cooper, the value that conference centers offer remains constant despite the rise in demand. “In the PKF conference center trends report, compiled from data from IACC members and compared to similar hotel reports, the sharper increase in occupancy and general demand did not transcribe into sharper increases in rates when compared against the hotel sector,” Cooper explains. “One reason for this may be the longer term pricing approach taken by conference centers and the fact that their client relationships are also long-standing with a realization that delivering value for money and approaching pricing in a non-volatile way, leads to better long-term client relationships.”
“The sharper increase in occupancy and general demand did not transcribe into sharper increases in rates when compared against the hotel sector.” — Mark Cooper
When the focus is on training or education, conference centers excel. “They are designed for learning and there is often no compromise,” says Cooper. “Multifunction venues that are not focused on meetings often have to provide a room, which can accommodate all types of events and purposes such as dining, social events and meetings. This compromises the overall design and decoration of a room. There is a saying, ‘jack of all trades, master of none,’ and this applies to many other (non-conference center) venues.
The rate of growth in new conference center construction lags behind that of hotels. However, conference centers are investing to maintain state-of-the-art facilities. “With improving margins and greater stability in the marketplace, we expect to see our members investing further in their conference environment for their clients,” Cooper said in a statement.
In addition, conference centers are acquiring new facilities and rebranding current properties. For example, last year Benchmark Hospitality International introduced benchmark Conference Centers (BCC), properties specially designated to provide a productive meeting experience. Benchmark Conference Centers meet IACC standards — although IACC membership is not a prerequisite — and offer four-diamond lodging as well as customized cuisine.
The certified BCC properties include: Chaminade Resort & Spa in Santa Cruz, California; Cheyenne mountain Resort in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Downtown Conference Center in New York City; Eaglewood Resort & Spa in Chicago; Edith Macy Hotel & Conference Center in Briar Cliff Manor, New York; Hotel Contessa in San Antonio; Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, West Virginia; The Chattanoogan Hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee; The Heldrich in New Brunswick, New Jersey; and the Inn at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Two additional certified Benchmark Conference Centers are located in Tokyo.
Wyndham Hotel Group, a subsidiary of Wyndham Worldwide, recently acquired Dolce Hotels and Resorts and its portfolio of hotels, resorts, conference centers and day meeting centers. Dolce’s properties offer a combined total of 750,000 sf of meeting space that hosts about 4 million attendees each year. Many Dolce properties are IACC-certified and offer the all-inclusive Complete Meeting Package.
As rates rise at hotels and convention centers, conference centers are competing head-on with attractive packages that offer value and specialize in catering to every detail of a group’s needs. Customized packages, the latest facilities and technology, great service and availability make conference centers the smart choice. I&FMM