Corporate executives want not only to reduce their investment in meetings, but also to increase their return on that investment. Conference centers say they can help.

John H. Maddox, The Partnership Works: The room rate and all the other money you spend at the facility are a small part of the total cost. Taking people out of the office or the field and flying them to the meeting costs a lot. People can't be distracted by a poor-quality facility, where they can't hear the speaker, or the room is too hot or too cold, or the food is bad. Conference centers eliminate those distractions and create the right environment for getting the message across.

Charles D. Ocheltree, Peachtree Executive Conference Center: Our corporate clients today say, "We want this meeting to be effective. We want to be sure people have an experience they won't forget." We'd better be pretty well-prepared to help them come up with a theme event or something that allows that meeting to live on even after they get back to their office.

On the Seller's Market... The group discussed the state of the hotel business, which is having one of the most successful, profitable years in its history. This, in turn, has meant additional business for conference centers as companies decide to give them a try.

Peter Kacheris, Hickory Ridge Conference Center: Because there's such a demand for space, especially in major metropolitan areas, a 400-room hotel that might have allocated 200 rooms to transient business and 200 rooms to groups in down times might now hold 300-or even 350-rooms for the transient, midweek, higher-rated, non-negotiable business. We've seen that around Chicago, where many facilities are not taking group business seriously because their transient business is so strong, and that's really why their product was built.

Susan V. Morris, Marriott Conference Centers: People are experimenting with conference centers because they haven't been able to find space in a hotel. Once they've tried the conference center, they are hooked. Their standards are raised.

Kacheris: Displaced groups from traditional hotels that are first-time users of our product do become repeat guests. Once they experience the product, if we've done our job properly, they come back.

Ocheltree: We'd be fooling ourselves if we think hotels don't do a great job with meetings. They've been in the meeting business a long time. The difference is that conference centers specialize in meetings.

Bottom Line Still the Top Concern When asked to name their chief challenge, everyone agreed it was working within their budgets.

Maddox: My biggest challenge as a vendor is budgeting for our clients. When we deliver a budget, it must be complete-we're going to be held to it. So we have to ferret out all the little extra charges. Conference centers play into that very well because of their pricing package.

Leila M. MacFeeley, Leila M. MacFeeley & Associates: My clients don't have a clue as to how much money is allocated to a meeting. But I need to budget more than just the package that conference centers provide. It's the airfare as well.

Flexibility: Still the "F" Word? You can't discuss conference centers without mentioning the "F" word-"flexibility." Conference centers have been plagued by complaints about the inflexibility of their pricing-what's known as the complete meeting package (CMP). This includes meeting facilities, accommodations, meals, breaks, basic audiovisual equipment, and sometimes, recreational facilities, as well as the services of a conference coordinator-all for one price.

MacFeeley: In my other life [as a corporate meeting executive], I stayed away from conference centers because they were so inflexible with their packaging. They have come a long way. But there are still many people who feel their pricing is too high because they charge for things you don't need or use.

Diane DiNardo, Carquest Corp.: For example, we don't use two breaks in all our meetings-sometimes our groups don't need an afternoon break. So we end up paying for something that we wouldn't pay for at a hotel.

Maddox: I think conference centers are more flexible than any other product in the marketplace. I throw things at conference centers and say, "This is absolutely outrageous, but can you do it for me?" and they always get it done. And I've never had a conference center turn me away when I say we need a credit on the CMP because I'm going to an off-site event.

In Defense of the CMP Conference center representatives debated what they are really selling, and why it costs what it does.

Ed Burns, Doral Arrowwood: Companies today don't have the healthy meeting planning departments they had in the late '80s. Our responsibility to our customers is to take all the weight off a planner's shoulders-to package services properly, to offer different amenities, to recognize corporate needs. If a conference center does its job properly, participants will get twice as much out of their meeting because of the way it's structured and serviced.

Keith A. Woodward, International Conference Resorts: At conference centers, you get quite a lot of product in a place that's oriented toward groups, with a staff that's tuned in to corporate meetings. And you can always choose not to use every element of a package.

Jo Ann Swahn, Dolce International:I don't think our product is our package. The package can be copied and is being copied by a lot of hotels. Our product is meetings.

Maddox: There are two benefits to the CMP: the ease of budgeting because you know what you get in the package, and the knowledge that when you use a conference center, they'll know how to do it right. You won't have to worry about having a banquet waiter service your group when you really need an AV specialist.

Adding Air The group brought up the idea that one way conference centers can help clients keep their costs down is to assist with travel negotiations.

Woodward: We don't bundle air-conference center packages, but we do try to find group fares to lower the cost of travel for our clients. That way, we are able to make a site in Arizona as attractive as a site in Florida for a group that might come predominantly from the East Coast.

Ocheltree: We take the consultant approach. We talk about planning and budgeting, and ask if clients would like to talk about travel arrangements. We also let them know that there is the opportunity to negotiate airfares.

Maddox: If conference centers get more involved in the travel side of business, it can benefit them as well as planners. You can get involved with the airline to develop a volume of business. The key is showing the airlines that you have people flying in and meeting with you all the time-that you are a focal point through which business flows. The savings won't come directly to you, but it will make your destination more attractive because you can drive airfares down.

AV Answers Conference centers have always promoted their state-of-the-art audiovisual technology-and that's still the case.

Jack Kealey, Harrison Conference Centers: Conference centers have always offered next-generation technology. We now get calls from clients asking whom we know to help them use this technology to develop programming. For example, one of our clients wanted a course on international expansion for its top 100 executives. We referred them to an independent company that designed a program using a computer game to show them the fundamental steps in starting a business in Europe.

Sue Potton, The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre: We are known within London and throughout the United Kingdom for having very high-spec technical facilities incorporating satellite links, ISDN lines, TV studios, a trained camera crew, and video editing suites. An important point is that we have this expertise on site. We also have a team of technical salespeople working alongside our salespeople.

Morris: We have established a new position at our Westfields conference center in Virginia. When someone books a meeting, a representative from Marriott Visual Presentations calls that person and asks, "Do you know what your needs are going to be? Do you want to discuss them? Or do you want me to contact your speakers directly so you don't even have to get into the technical conversation?" We'll be your one-stop shop and take the pressure off.

Experiential Wanted Everyone agreed that experiential learning is a way to vary the agenda and make meetings more effective.

Morris: At the recent meeting of the American Society for Training & Development, many attendees asked about experiential or out-of-classroom training. Bonding and teambuilding are becoming a major goal of meetings, especially as more employees are beginning to work from home and come together only for projects.

Ocheltree: It even goes beyond teambuilding or the social aspect. Diversity training, problem-solving skills, and leadership skills can all be introduced or reinforced through experiential learning, such as ropes courses.

Swahn: We have seen the demand for experiential learning courses triple. Such activities can be used for everything from a simple teambuilding exercise to a major corporate culture overhaul.

Our annual roundtable discussion between corporate executives and conference center representatives covered everything from unbundling the CMP, to the "F" word (as in "flexibility"), to the many ways conference centers can respond to changing corporate needs. The roundtable was held at Tarrytown House Executive Conference Center, Tarrytown, NY in June and moderated by CMI's Editor-at-Large, Connie Goldstein. A list of participants follows: (Please note: Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.)

The Panelists Lawrence Barbir, general manager, Del Lago Golf Resort & Conference Center, Montgomery, TX

Ed Burns, general manager, Doral Arrowwood, Rye Brook, NY

Diane DiNardo, meeting planner, Carquest Corp., Tarrytown, NY

Peter Kacheris, general manager, Marriott Conference Centers, Hickory Ridge Conference Center, Lisle, IL

Jack Kealey, senior vice president, Harrison Conference Centers, Tarrytown, NY

J. Randal Kolls, vice president and general manager, Lansdowne Resort, Lansdowne, VA

Leila M. MacFeeley, president, Leila M. MacFeeley & Associates, Chester, NJ

John H. Maddox, CMP, director of conference & incentive management, The Partnership Works, White Plains, NY

Susan V. Morris, brand executive, national director of sales and marketing, Marriott Conference Centers, Washington, DC

Charles D. Ocheltree, director of sales and marketing, Peachtree Executive Conference Center, Peachtree City, GA

Sue Potton, sales manager, The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London, England

Ross H. Powell, director of sales & marketing, Evergreen Conference Center and Resort, Stone Mountain, GA

Jo Ann Swahn, vice president, marketing, Dolce International, Park Ridge, NJ

Keith A. Woodward, director of operations, International Conference Resorts, Scottsdale, AZ