Sometimes there is time to plan theme parties. And sometimes it's a matter of plug-and-play: You don't have time to sweat the details, you just need to get the bodies into the room and talking.

Consider CTG, Inc., a Buffalo, N.Y.-based information technology consultancy, where 85 percent of the firm's 6,000 employees work at some 1,000 client sites belonging to about 450 companies throughout the United States. One hundred thirty of those clients do enough business with CTG to merit one or more consultants stationed full-time at their office; the rest are served by nomad consultants. CTG itself has more than 55 offices across the U.S.

With personnel scattered across the country, face-to-face employee meetings are a luxury for CTG. Yet at the same time, the company can't rely on casual communication to keep key workers abreast of what's happening either in the information technology field or in CTG corporate policy. So, since April 1998, planning face-to-face communication has been the province of Pat Oxenholm, CTG's manager of facility, real estate, and administrative services, and Holly Damm, the company's meeting coordinator.

Among the most critical annual gathering of employees is the CTG Technology Conference, when the far-flung technical cadre gathers in one place for an intensive two-and-a-half day series of meetings. These gatherings aren't kaffee klatches or collegial reunions. "They are very meeting-intensive," says Damm. "There's very little time for socializing. The attendees have to do their networking during meals."

The Meeting Set amid the 3,200 acres of north Georgia lakes and woodlands that make up Stone Mountain Park, the Evergreen Conference Resort offers golf courses, hiking and biking trails, and its own paddlewheel river boat. As a practical matter, however, Damm didn't really care about the amenities when searching out a home for the Technology Conference. The 65 technical employees that CTG brought to this site in late July--about a half-hour's drive from Atlanta--weren't there for the fairways or a ride on the river boat, and, if they went hiking or biking, they did it very, very early in the morning. They weren't at the resort for their two-and-a-half-day meeting to relax; they came to conference.

And the conference was largely of the meat-and-potatoes variety. While Evergreen's 31,000 square feet of dedicated meeting space features videoconferencing capabilities and the latest in audiovisual technology, the CTG group avoided video entirely, and largely stuck with flip charts and overhead projectors for its visual presentations. Their philosophy: Keep it simple so the ideas would flow unimpeded.

Why a Conference Center? And yet, even though the meeting's design didn't take advantage of most of the recreational or high-tech features of Evergreen, CTG's planners wanted to place this information exchange forum in a conference center for several reasons:

A business-like setting.When you arrive at a conference center, says Damm, "you know you're there for a meeting."

Facilities that meet IACC standards. The St. Louis-based Interna-tional Association of Conference Centers (IACC), of which Evergreen is a member, sets performance standards for conference centers, including such important details as seat comfort (important for long, intensive sessions). Damm and Oxenholm say they like knowing what to expect from the venue.

Package deals. "They present you with a package price," says Damm, referring to the policy of many conference centers, and virtually every center that is a member of the IACC, to offer complete meeting packages. With a CMP, sleeping rooms, meeting space, and all food and beverage, including meals, snacks, and coffee breaks, are paid for at a single per-person rate. This prix fixe concept contrasts sharply with the a la carte system at most hotels, where meeting groups pay separately for sleeping rooms, meeting space, and each and every food function.

Frequently, some planners balk at CMPs because the plans give them little opportunity to save money by cutting corners. This, however, is not a problem for the folks at CTG, who say that they find the price of meeting at hotels comparable to that of centers.

Nonetheless, Damm does echo a second complaint many planners level at CMP policies: lack of flexibility. "If you want to modify the CMP--say, if you want to move a dinner from the dining room to poolside--there will be extra charges incurred," she says. "Conference centers are generally not as flexible as hotels when it comes to changing venues."

Comfort vs. Community But the CTG conference wasn't quite all work and no play, although perhaps it should have been. One evening the techies trekked over to Stone Mountain Park's most famous attraction, Stone Mountain itself. On the mountain, the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world--three acres of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, all on horseback--is carved into the largest piece of exposed granite that exists anywhere. From Memorial to Labor Day, the Confederate Memorial Carving is the scene of a nightly laser light show.

The conference attendees' enjoyment of this spectacle was marred by their expectations of the event. It wasn't that the light show, generally extremely popular with tourists, wasn't up to snuff. Rather, the consultants had expected to travel from Evergreen to the mountain together in a single bus. When the group had to be divided to make the trip in comfortable but separate vans, there was widespread disappointment. The attendees felt deprived of one of the few networking opportunities offered at the conference.

And, despite the obvious pent-up demand for more face time, the consultants are highly unlikely to find themselves given a longer--or, even less likely, semi-annual--conference. "It's difficult enough for us to get our clients to let them go for the three days of the conference once a year," explains Oxenholm, "even though the conference works to our clients' benefit. The consultants come back with more knowledge."

Selling Meeting Services Founded in 1966, CTG was pretty much present at the creation of the information technology universe. The company came to the world of professional meeting planning a good deal later--April 1998, to be exact. That's when CEO Gale Fitzgerald gave Oxenholm the task of adding meeting planning to her portfolio of responsibilities, centralizing the planning of meetings and hiring a full-time planner.

The centralization policy called for all domestic meetings with 10 or more attendees to go through the new meetings department. This has been accomplished in its first six months more by salesmanship than executive fiat. "We have to sell ourselves to our users. It has not been without its bumps," admits Oxenholm.

"We are asking that people adhere to the guidelines. Do they like it? Not always. Are they getting used to it? Yes. Do we bend rules? Yes. Do we like it? Absolutely not. Change is very hard for people. We try to work with our executives to come up with a solution that will bring them and us to a happy medium."

Making It Seamless Damm was brought aboard as CTG's one-person planning department, although she's not exactly flying solo. The content at a gathering is the responsibility of the meeting's sponsor, that is, the executive who called for the session. The sponsor is also charged with inviting speakers, usually internal experts, although occasionally outsiders are invited as well.

Damm's responsibility is to handle the logistics, to make sure that the sponsor doesn't have to negotiate accommodations, meeting space, or transportation. Here, too, she has help. For the past three years, when a CTG employee travels, The Travel Team, Inc., a Buffalo, N.Y.-based travel management firm negotiates prices and makes the reservations.

What does Damm bring to the meeting? "My job is make sure that the entire operation appears seamless to the people at the meeting," she says.

No small order for someone in her first full-time meeting planning position. Before April 1998, she was a speech therapist at a school for disturbed adolescents. Since then she's been planning meetings as fast as she can.

Not that Damm was an absolute beginner when she got the job. She had done some volunteer planning for charity events. She also believes that she was able to transfer many of the skills she honed as a speech therapist to the meeting business. "You have to have very effective communication skills," she says, "and you have to be able to figure out quickly what's not effective. You also have to be able to interface with different people at a variety of levels."

The biggest difference Damm has discovered between planning part-time as a volunteer and full-time as a professional should come as no surprise to anyone who's spent some time in the meetings world. "The hours are a lot longer," she says.

Last year was a very good year for conference center companies. As planners struggled just to find hotel rooms and meeting space when they needed it, some happily discovered conference centers, which have always catered to group business. No wonder 1998 found the major players in an expansive mode, one that will continue into 1999.

* International Conference Resorts (ICR), based in Colorado Springs, Colo., more than doubled its size in 1998, taking over four properties: the 326-room Carefree Conference Resort in Carefree, Ariz., which underwent a $13.5 million upgrade that added a 10,000-square-foot meeting room; the Ocean Place Hilton Resort in Long Branch, N.J., with 254 rooms and 29,000 square feet of meeting space; the Palm Springs (Calif.) Conference Resort, with 264 rooms and 50,000 square feet of conference space; and the Hastings International Conference Center in Hartford, Conn., with 55,000 square feet of meeting space and 271 guest rooms, which has undergone an $8 million renovation.

"Especially in this age of new technology, which tends to isolate employees from the company and each other through the use of e-mail, voice mail, and virtual offices, meetings at full-

service, no-distraction environments are required increasingly to focus and connect corporate organizations," says R. Davidson Parriott, vice president, marketing, ICR. "There truly is a difference in the services you receive and facilities you find at a dedicated conference resort versus a traditional hotel or resort property. Informed business people are beginning to recognize the tremendous impact meetings can have on their company's market position and bottom line.

"ICR plans to continue to expand into major regional markets. Most corporate planners resist having attendees travel more than 30 to 45 minutes to the facility after arriving at the destination."

ICR expects to add three to five full-service conference resorts in 1999. It also manages centers in Scottsdale; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.

* Marriott Conference Centers heads into 1999 with big expansion plans. "We are aggressively trying to grow our brand. There is increasing demand for what conference centers provide," says Todd Sherstad, newly named director of sales and marketing for the brand, based in Washington, D.C.

With 20 properties now in its portfolio, the company is looking to expand in "10 to 12 major markets in the U.S. with strong demand for small and midsize meetings," Sherstad says. The "prototype" Marriott Conference Center is a "conference resort" with 200 to 325 rooms, dedicated dining space, fiber optics connecting all rooms--and compliance with all standards of the International Association of Conference Centers. Marriott Conference Centers include Chateau Elan Winery & Resort in Braselton, Ga.; Evergreen Conference Resort in Stone Mountain, Ga.; the Westfields Marriott in Chantilly, Va.; Hickory Ridge Conference Center in Chicago; MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center, Kingsport, Tenn., and the now-famous Wye River Conference Centers at The Aspen Institute in Queenstown, Md.

* In1998, Dolce International, based in Montvale, N.J., took over management of Oak Brook Hills Conference Resort in Chicago and Spencer Hall Conference Center in London, Ontario, and acquired Fregate, A Dolce Conference Hotel and Golf Resort in Provence and Hotel du Domaine de Chantilly, A Dolce Conference Hotel and Golf Resort outside Paris. With its current portfolio at 12 properties, the company intends to add four more each year for the next three years, according to Chairman and CEO Andy Dolce. To be considered for acquisition or conversion into a Dolce conference center, a property must be 35 to 40 minutes from an international airport, have 200 rooms (or 150 rooms in Europe), and offer recreation (golf, spa, or fitness center). Locations under consideration: London, Milan, Germany, Boston, Florida, and Arizona.

* Benchmark Hospitality, the Woodlands, Texas-based conference center management company, entered into an agreement in 1998 with Redstone Capital, a Houston-based investment firm, creating a joint venture, according to Burt Cabanas, chairman and CEO of Benchmark.

Benchmark opened the U-Thong Inn and Executive Conference Center in Ayutthaya, Thailand, Benchmark's first center outside the U.S. In addition to designing and building the conference center, Benchmark increased the rooms from 96 to 220. The company also opened the Beaufort Hotel and Conference Center on Sentosa Island, Singapore, in 1998. A dedicated conference center was added to the existing hotel. It has 214 rooms and is a five-star property

Sites in Japan; Milan, Italy; Monterrey, Mexico; Bogota, Columbia; Venezu-ela; Dubai; United Arab Emirates; and Cairo, Egypt are also under consideration for conference center development. And Cabanas isn't neglecting the home front. Benchmark was named to manage the White Oaks Conference Center in Charlotte, N.C., and the Founders Inn and Conference Center in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1998. Plans for at least two other new U.S. centers are also in the works.

Conference centers are looking to begin the third millennium fully equipped with all the high-tech gizmos their clients may need. A committee composed of audiovisual consultants, conference center operators, and staff members of the St. Louis-based International Association of Conference Centers studied the technical capabilities of IACC-member centers. "Our mission was to consider the universal criteria [for IACC membership] and how current and applicable they are," explains committee member Jeff Loether, a Rockville, Md.-based audiovisual consultant and TM columnist.

Last summer, the committee submitted a list of three recommendations to the IACC Board of Directors, and the board is currently transforming these recommendations into guidelines expected to be issued at IACC's annual conference in April at the Squaw Creek Resort in Squaw Creek, Calif.

The committee's three recommendations are: * IACC members should offer access to high-quality, high-speed voice and data lines in every function room;

* IACC members should have a projection system that readily accommodates the display of computer-generated images; and

* The IACC board should clarify and improve its requirements for acoustic isolation between adjacent function spaces.

The issue of sending e-mail or surfing the Web from one's guest room was outside the scope of the study, says Loether.