This is turning out to be a year of significant growth for conference centers. The International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) released a survey indicating conference centers experienced major growth in 2012.
The IACC’s 2013 “Trends in the Conference Center Industry” survey, compiled by PKF Hospitality Research, says conference centers are outperforming the broader hotel sector both in occupancies and profitability.
“Our results this year indicate that a long awaited recovery is taking place,” said David Arnold, CEO of East PKF Consulting, in a statement. “Corporate meetings have proven to be the last segment of the market to claw back to some semblance of former glory.”
The report shows how rising demand for conference centers brought average rates up, with executive-style conference centers outperforming with an average daily rate increase of 6 percent.
In a statement, IACC CEO Mark Cooper, said, “With improving margins and greater stability (in) the marketplace, we expect to see our members investing further in their conference environment for their clients.”
Insurance and financial companies are a mainstay of conference center business. Cooper explains why: “A lot of the training they do involves soft skills like management, leadership and sales. They also need constant education about changing government regulations and compliance. There is also significant training for new employees just out of college.”
Cooper suggests that conference center bookings are on the upswing for several other reasons: “Being a conference center is more a philosophy and a culture than it is about physicality and size of the meeting space,” he says. “Conference centers focus all of their energy on providing highly productive meeting environments, and all of their resources go into those areas rather than lots of other areas.”
In addition, conference centers offer considerable value. “Meetings are back on the agenda at corporations but they are procuring very sensibly, whereas in the past, price and value came a little lower on the list,” he says. “Our comprehensive all-inclusive packages are appealing because they provide value that includes everything in one price.”
Despite the movement to a seller’s market, planners continue to find value due to the range of customizable all-inclusive packages that satisfy both the needs of tight budgets and ROI requirements. What’s more, conference centers continue to upgrade their properties and add much-wanted services and amenities.
The popularity of conference centers also is surging because their sole purpose is to help make meetings productive and successful. The entire conference center environment from meeting space and furnishings to lighting and acoustics is designed specifically to host every and any type of corporate meeting including training and education sessions, general sessions, breakouts, board meetings, new product introductions, brainstorming sessions and much more
Conference centers do it all and have added or upgraded unique teambuilding programs, informal networking gatherings and casual and fine-dining options.
It’s no wonder that insurance and financial firms like Horizon Health Care Services Inc. are among the most frequent users of conference centers. According to Jeffrey Babey, senior manager, sales training and development, for the Newark, NJ-based Horizon holds at least 30 meetings annually at The Heldrich Hotel and Conference Center, located in New Brunswick, NJ. Attendance at the meetings ranges from 10 to several hundred, says Babey, who plans more than 15 meetings a year.
The Heldrich features a state-of-the-art conference center with 25,000 sf of space and Benchmark Hospitality’s signature meeting concierge services. Conference facilities include the 7,400-sf Livingston Ballroom with a built-in rear screen, an 80-seat amphitheater, boardroom and 21 meeting rooms.
The Heldrich’s flexibility and services were on full display during five meetings that Horizon held at The Heldrich in September. One of the meetings was a two-day affair for 125 salespeople, brokers, clients and executives. During the meeting, the group held general sessions, breakouts and dinners that included sales and new product training as well as networking.
The meeting was highly productive in large part because everything about The Heldrich is designed to meet the group’s needs, especially the facility’s technology and audio-visual services. “They have great AV and technology people that we have gotten to know well,” says Babey. “They helped us with the full AV for general sessions, projection screens, six lapel microphones, three hand-held microphones, Internet and wireless access and the ability to do WebEx conference calls.”
Babey raves about The Heldrich’s breakout capabilities. “We did six to eight breakouts following each session,” says Babey. “The Heldrich has fantastic breakout rooms that hold 10 to 12 people and are like mini training rooms with everything needed for a great learning environment. Each breakout room has a wall-mounted, high-definition flat screen, ports to plug in your laptop and other devices, and AV equipment we needed. The rooms also have a big box with traditional tools such as easels, scissors, markers, and dry-erase boards and markers. Some of our meetings have 16 breakouts per session, and The Heldrich easily meets that.”
The Heldrich’s food and beverage services also were fashioned to meet the needs of attendees. They dined at Christopher’s, The Heldrich’s elegant conference center restaurant that accommodates 200 guests and can be subdivided into three areas for smaller groups. “The restaurant is phenomenally flexible and ready for us like clockwork when we are running late,” says Babey. “When you have a speaker that goes long, you really can’t give the person the hook, and we might run over 20 or 30 minutes, but they are always ready for us and never let us down.”
In addition, attendees enjoyed refreshment stations with fresh fruit, yogurt, beverages and other snacks placed throughout the conference center, including outside the doors of meeting rooms. “The food isn’t placed in the back of meeting rooms, taking up space in the training areas and being a distraction,” says Babey.
Overall, Babey swears by conference centers largely because of the value they offer. “I like the all-inclusive pricing. It makes planning and budgeting easier,” he says. “I recently booked a three-week training session at a hotel in another state. It was ‘Here’s our price for the room, food and AV.’ In the end, the $500 per person fee for 90 people turned into almost $1,000 a day. With conference centers, we have one fee per person per day that includes meeting space, breakout rooms, meals and AV. You can’t go wrong with that.”
Conference centers are prospering because of companies like NY-based Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (GLICA). According to Brian Brown, CMP, one of 11 event planners for GLICA, holds at least 20 meetings per year at The Inverness Hotel and Conference Center in Denver, a Destination Hotels & Resorts-managed property. The meetings, which average about 60 attendees, involve training for new hires, executives and new products; and education on government regulations and policies, says Brown.
Brown uses conference centers such as The Inverness because meetings are their specialty. “They are extremely meeting-focused from the way they have been built to their staffs to the equipment they have and pricing structure. It’s easier to learn and concentrate on the training we provide. And we save about 15 percent on meetings. The ROI is tremendous in terms of what we invest in training people to sell our products to the public,” says Brown.
Brown planned an intensive four-day sales training meeting at The Inverness in April and planned another meeting, which is coming up in October. The April meeting consisted of general sessions followed by breakouts of up to six per day.
The Inverness excelled at meeting every need, including AV and technology. “They have the latest equipment and an AV department that can deal with any situation,” says Brown. “They have the latest tools to hook up anything such as an iPad or other device to a monitor screen and sound system. They can handle speakers’ presentation needs whether they use a flash drive, iPad, laptop or other device. A speaker can use an iPad and monitor to show salespeople how to use our online sales tools.”
The breakout rooms were well-equipped. “Each breakout room has a phone line, speaker phone, AV equipment, flip charts and everything else needed. On the last day of the meeting, they broke into groups of five or six in different rooms. We provided video cameras and instructions on how to film each other doing role playing. They sent copies of the films to their sales managers online after the meeting.”
Brown also raves about The Inverness’s food and beverage service. “Rates are more affordable and easier to budget,” says Brown. “Food and beverages are available not only during meals but during breaks, which are set up under the meeting package plan. The quality and quantity of food are tremendous. It’s all-inclusive so you don’t have to make head counts and try to shave off counts to save money. You don’t have to select meals and breaks separately. It’s one less worry for the meeting planner.”
While conference center business is growing, hotels are still a magnet for corporate meetings. According to Catherine Chaulet, newly named president of GEP Destination Management, a worldwide partnership of destination management companies headquartered in Washington, DC, the type of meeting and its goal help planners determine whether a company should choose a conference center or a hotel. “Conference centers are growing mostly for certain types of events, mostly mid- to small-size groups that are focused only on meetings,” says Chaulet. “Some hotels don’t have the meeting layout desired, and conference centers may be ideal. On the other hand, some companies that want to do much more than meet may choose hotels (located in specific destinations),” adds Chaulet.
Chaulet observes that the competition between conference centers and hotels is causing both to increasingly offer many of the same services. In the end, that is good for planners, she says. “With a lot of clients I deal with, if all things are equal, some meetings can be done just as well in a conference center or hotel because a lot of them are very aggressively providing these types of services,” says Chaulet. “Either way, planners are focused on costs and whether there are additional costs incurred. They consider things like transportation, offsite activities, quality of food and flexibility.”
Conference centers are prospering because they continue to offer new services and amenities to corporate groups. Here is a rundown of some of the latest trends at conference centers:
There is more demand for unique, informal meeting settings that allow attendees to interact comfortably with each other. The trend includes ergonomic, living-room-like furniture and meeting rooms with outdoor patios. For example, Eaglewood Resort & Spa, located in Itasca, IL, managed by Benchmark Resorts & Hotels, has meeting rooms with patios and a boardroom-style table overlooking a fire pit and the golf course. Attendees can gather in the room, on the patio or flow back and forth.
Conference centers continue to update technology, increasing bandwidth for speedier online connections. Properties also are adding more electronic charging stations for portable devices throughout properties because many attendees carry two or three units. They are also providing more touchscreens, smart TVs and smart technology to control meeting room functions such as AV, sound systems, lighting and temperature.
Technology that allows groups to interact also is more popular. Attendees at some conference centers can use an application to type words into their smartphones that describe a strategy, marketing position or idea. The technology then creates a collage of the words projected onto a screen that features the most frequently mentioned terms in larger and bolder text.
In addition, some conference centers offer planners online portals to plan meetings. For example, Dolce Hotels & Resorts is testing a portal that permits planners to plan every aspect of a meeting and communicate with conference center planners.
Conference centers also are adding more teambuilding activities such as scavenger hunts, treasure hunts, wine-tasting, cooking and cocktail-making competitions.
• Benchmark Resorts & Hotels
In June, The Chattanoogan in Tennessee completed a renovation that included new carpets, wall coverings, furnishings, AV equipment and flat-screen TVs. Public areas were also upgraded. The property includes a 25,000-sf conference center.
The Bonaventure Resort & Spa near Fort Lauderdale, FL, announced the resort’s 60,000-sf conference center, including a 175-seat amphitheater, will be completely refurbished. The ballroom, individual meeting rooms and communal spaces also will be updated this fall. Installation of wooden flooring in all guest rooms is planned for a future time.
Benchmark also recently completed renovations of Cheyenne Mountain Resort in Colorado Springs, with more than 40,000 sf of conference center space; the Snow King Hotel (more than 10,000 sf of meeting space) and the Grand View Lodge (more than 7,500 sf), both in Jackson Hole, WY; and The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, that features 12 meeting venues.
• Dolce Hotels & Resorts
The Alexander, with 16,500 sf of event space and a state-of-the-art conference center, opened earlier this year in downtown Indianapolis. Silverado Resort and Spa in Napa, CA, with 12,000 sf of meeting space, is renovating all 415 guest rooms and suites. Dolce also added to its overseas properties with the opening of the Dolce CampoReal Lisbon in Portugal.
• Destination Hotels & Resorts
Skamania Lodge, 45 miles east of Portland, OR, improved its meeting space, public areas, the restaurant and bar, and recreation spaces. The property also added a zip line for teambuilding activities and expanded the outdoor jacuzzi area. In Arizona, the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel and conference center added a small ballroom, and renovated its lobby, bar, restaurant and dining area.
The Inverness Hotel and Conference Center in Denver remodeled the dining facilities, pool, spa, tennis courts and recreation area. The Inverness offers 63,652 sf of meeting space and a PGA championship golf course.
In downtown Seattle, the Red Lion Hotel on Fifth Avenue, a new Destination property, is undergoing a major renovation that will be completed in three phases by spring 2014. The Red Lion provides 17,715 sf of meeting and ballroom space.
Meeting planners would do well to choose IAAC-approved conference centers, which adhere to strict guidelines. For example, at least 60 percent of meeting space must be dedicated, single-purpose conference space, and at least 60 percent of revenue must derive from meeting space, food and beverage, conference technology and services that are related to conferences.
They must promote a package plan that includes guest rooms, meeting rooms, three meals, continuous refreshment services, and conference center technology and services.
The facility must have dedicated conference rooms (at least one must be a minimum 1,000 sf), ergonomically designed chairs, individual climate controls, specific acoustical rating, high-speed Internet connections and phone.
Properties must have skilled conference planners, a designated conference planner for each group, office supplies, computer work stations, photocopying, digital media flash drives, computer rental and other services.
There must be at least one dining area specifically for groups that provides flexible dining areas.
Conference rooms of at least 1,000 sf must include at least one built-in remote-input computer/video-image display system, and at least one projection screen mounted from the ceiling or on the wall. Skilled technicians are also required.
The guest rooms must have a desk or table, comfortable chair, lighting separate from overhead illumination, high-speed Internet and a phone.
Overall, an IACC-approved conference center is surely a win-win way to meet! I&FMM