The Farrington Boardroom at The Heldrich in New Brunswick, New Jersey, has floor-to-ceiling windows allowing natural light to illuminate the meeting room. Credit: The Heldrich
For Amanda Houston, director of corporate events at INNOVATX Events, when her clients consider utilizing conference centers today, she knows what they are looking for — namely flexibility and leading-edge amenities and upgrades in both accommodations and meeting spaces.
While the flexibility of conference center meeting space configurations and seating are paramount, many organizations are looking to also produce the best attendee flow for an event.
As well, more and more meeting planners are looking for conference centers that will provide them the freedom to select and use their own vendor sources and the ability to make dynamic networking centers or “downtime sanctuaries” for the attendees.
“Proximity to entertainment and hotel locations also is very important,” Houston says. “We also consider the AV and Wi-Fi technology capabilities of the center, as social media and technology installations have become more and more prevalent in today’s events. How a center has kept up on trends on technology integration and the need for attendees to be connected is a key point of review for these facility sites.” Amanda Houston
In addition to corporate entities and financial institutions, Houston says many of the organizations she works with who use conference centers include association conferences and annual user group events, although specific trade show events can also utilize these centers.
“The events are usually 1,000-plus attendees for small conference center usage and 2,500-plus for large conference center usage — or events open to the public that expect large daily traffic volumes,” Houston says.
INNOVATX Events has had the opportunity to work with conference centers that have taken into consideration attendees’ technology needs and have made social media networking pods that help facilitate networking for any conference that goes into the center.
“For the finance and insurance sector, the technology end is becoming vitally more important,” Houston says. “The ability for a conference to seamlessly integrate technology components and digital networking capabilities is important. More of our financial industry space is using digital applications to run business and these items need to be showcased in and around an event, so a center’s Wi-Fi capabilities, look and feel, and integration of a future-forward technology space is important in these meeting spaces.”
Event planners also are seeing a lean toward interest in “green meetings” and ecologically friendly conference centers. Houston is seeing importance being put on centers that are striving to reduce their ecological footprint through the use of solar panels, and natural light availability for rooms to reduce drains on electricity, systems to help conserve or reuse water, and catering that uses locally sourced food and provides options for community give back of leftover food resources.
“We are seeing more companies that are saying their company or organizations missions are in line with these environmentally friendly endeavors, and so these are key selling features for a location,” Houston says.
Indeed, the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Virginia, is seen as the leader in educational meetings for more than 30 years. Boasting 265,000 square feet of event space with 250 meeting rooms, the National also has made a name for itself by being Green Seal-certified by the International Association of Conference Centers. The National hosts eco-friendly events and sustainable meetings and has its own “Green Team” that takes proactive measures to save energy and protect renewable and nonrenewable resources for every meeting help at the National.
In addition, the South San Francisco Conference Center prides itself on its ongoing sustainable practices. The center’s recycling efforts began in earnest in 2002, when the conference center stopped printing promotional materials and instead directs visitors to its website for detailed information about the center. And the conference center’s exclusive catering company, the California Catering Company, implements a food composting program that captures all organic material from food service operations. Of course, the building’s energy efficiency is a source of pride for the conference center. In 2014, an energy audit conducted by Ecology Action documented energy efficiency gains relative to historic performance, resulting in an estimated cumulative equivalent reduction of 1,381,700 pounds of CO2 since 2008.
Steve Robertson, COO of Eventective, says today’s newest convention centers also boast impressive areas for attendees to come together and socialize and network. Just as social networking online has become a key part of meetings and events, networking in person is also paramount.
“In an increasingly disconnected world, people attending conferences are looking for great interpersonal experiences,” Robertson says. “Additionally, great public displays of artwork have become something that conference centers have been including for attendees.”
Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Virginia, recognizes the importance of connecting with attendees at its conference center. In addition to providing unique and personalized teambuilding experiences, Lansdowne offers tabletop escape rooms, iron chef competitions and wine and yoga classes. The resort offers more than 55,000 square feet of flexible meeting space with customized dining experiences. And with the addition of golf and spa, Lansdowne has many options for attendees to utilize in their downtime.
The team at Lansdowne is seeing an increase focus on technology, customized menus, local accents and meeting planners bringing offsite venues onsite, such as wine tastings, beer tastings and food trucks.
Evelyn Warren, a marketing strategist who owns The Strategy Group, Inc., recently planned an event in which her team of marketers, communicators and planners hosted a quadrennial event at a newly renovated and strikingly sophisticated center in Columbus, Ohio. Approximately 6,000 people, the majority being women, attended the event.
“When planning a meeting or event of this magnitude, a great deal of thinking goes into these decisions,” Warren says. Due to the fact the organization is highly social justice-minded, mission-based and very ecologically conscience, when choosing venues, Warren had to evaluate:
Four weeks out of the year, The Heldrich in New Brunswick, New Jersey, hosts a financial institution that holds training for entry-level employees of their firm. Their training is heavily internet-based, so the company requires strong Wi-Fi connections and four simultaneous general session rooms for the week.
In addition, the company sponsors one evening reception and one offsite group dinner while the rest of the evenings are open for the attendees to explore New Brunswick’s dining options.
In addition to its technology offerings, The Heldrich’s central location, easy access to public transportation and proximity to the surrounding Fortune 500 companies are certainly draws for the hotel.
However, the biggest draw for the property is the Benchmark Conference Plan (BCP).
The BCP is an all-inclusive conference package which includes: overnight guest room accommodations, meeting space, up to three meals per day, continuous refreshment breaks, basic audio-visual, gratuities and dedicated conference planning support. By utilizing the Benchmark Conference Plan, meeting planners are able to focus on the content and execution of their meeting while the Heldrich’s conference team plans and coordinates onsite logistics.
Customization is also a “hot” button for many meeting planners. That’s why the National Conference Center is presented as a “blank canvas” that can be molded, shaped and designed specific to each client’s unique requirements.
The National currently serves or has recently served a wealth of financial and insurance market clients, including Accenture, EY, GEICO, Grant Thornton, Navigant and PwC. The meeting planners with these financial and insurance entities are primarily looking for a conference centers to deliver what cannot be delivered at traditional hotels, such as a feeling of “exclusivity” or total devotion to one client at a time without the distractions of transient guests.
And the financial and insurance meeting planners are looking for creative culinary programming that is sensitive to the personalization of menu design and variety — from vegetarian to vegan to gluten-free and the many cultural concerns of those attending meetings or participating in multiple-day training programs.
As new convention centers emerge and existing centers undergo updated designs to meet the new needs of convention center attendees, there are a few things meeting and event planners should evaluate when selecting a convention center.
“Think outside the box about how you can transform a center’s locations to produce the best traffic flow for your attendees,” Houston says. “Also, ensure there are several branding opportunities for your event not only for messaging your own conference materials but also for supporting sponsorship branding opportunities within the space.”
When Robertson and his team at Eventective hold annual conferences of up to 800 people at convention centers, he considers key factors such as nearby things to do, accessibility, proximity to the airport, professional environment and appropriate comfort level of the amenities.
“Don’t be shy about including a lot of conference centers in your initial search,” Robertson says. “Then whittle it down by the basic things (headcount, budget, etc.). Finally, identify something unique that folks will remember.”
The Mansion at Glen Cove, located on Long Island’s Gold Coast, recognizes the importance of making memorable impressions on conference attendees.
Nestled amidst 55 sprawling acres, the Mansion exudes an air of timeless elegance at every turn. In addition to providing 27 conference rooms within 30,000 square feet of meeting space, the Mansion offers a wealth of activities to allow conference attendees to work some and play some. These activities includes scavenger hunts, game show nights, casino nights, spin classes, wine tasting, bowling tournaments and cocktail academies.
And while St. Charles, Illinois-based Q Center’s 150,000 square feet of IACC-certified space is ideal for meetings and events of all sizes, the conference center’s sprawling 95-acre landscaped campus allows groups and individuals the space to enjoy organized activities or individual time away from meetings. From basketball tournaments to sand volleyball matches, from biking trails to disc golf, the Q Center has worked hard to incorporate elements that enhance attendees’ productivity with relaxing, fun activities aplenty.
Updates in the accouterments and amenities of a conference center are also something that meeting and event planners pay attention to.
The Woodlands Resort in Texas has a new design and interior, featuring Texas architectural elements including steel, wood and stone. The goal of the redesign of the conference center is to offer modern luxury with a relaxing and inviting environment. Located on 28,000 acres of natural forest also means The Woodlands Resort can provide unique outdoor venues for meetings and conferences.
When it opens in 2020, CAESARS FORUM, a $375 million, 550,000-square-foot conference center in Las Vegas, will accommodate more than 10,000 attendees. Caesars Entertainment Corporation recently announced the setting of the first steel truss for the construction of CAESARS FORUM. The more than 300-foot-wide and 200-plus-ton truss marks the first of more than a mile of trusses that will be used in the construction. Due to the large scale of each truss, they are built by the manufacturer, cut into several pieces and then driven to the site, where they are rebuilt via crane.
Additional one-of-a-kind features of CAESARS FORUM include:
“This is an exciting step toward the development of CAESARS FORUM which will redefine the offerings for meetings and events in Las Vegas,” says Michael Massari, chief sales officer for Caesars Entertainment.
CAESARS FORUM will provide direct access via skybridge to Harrah’s Las Vegas and The LINQ Hotel and Casino; be connected by pedestrian bridge to LINQ Promenade and Flamingo Las Vegas; feature 300,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, including two 110,000-square-foot column-free ballrooms, two 40,000-square-foot ballrooms and six state-of-the-art boardrooms; offer more than 100 breakout rooms; feature FORUM Plaza, a 100,000-square-foot outdoor space, ideal for outdoor events, wellness breaks, opening cocktail receptions, meals or entertainment and be located within walking distance to eight of Caesars Entertainment’s Las Vegas properties.
When Jackie Warner, administrative assistant at American Woodmark Corporation, recently planned a national sales meeting for nearly 350 people at Lansdowne Resort, one of the areas that she evaluated was the flexibility offered in the planning states, included changes in the meeting set-up, breakouts and the overall meeting space available.
“Listen to your gut instinct when you are touring properties,” Warner says. “If you aren’t receiving a good vibe from the staff, such as friendliness vs. pushiness, chances are you’ll butt heads later on in the planning stages. Lansdowne has been a wonderful property to work with. Their staff truly cares about the success of your meeting, and they ensure that your job as a lead meeting planner goes as smoothly as possible.” I&FMM