It was 20 years ago that the first 40 members of the International Association of Conference Centers gathered at the Woodlands Resort & Conference Center near Houston. Until then, conference centers had no community, no forum for sharing ideas, and no universal standards.

Today, the St. Louis-based organization has an international membership, representing some 400 members. Besides its annual spring conference, IACC offers professional development programs and study tours and conducts a five-day professional development course at Cornell University.

Arguably the most valuable benefit to meeting organizers is the IACC “stamp of approval, if you will,” says Sam Haigh, COO of Benchmark Hospitality and a former IACC president. Facilities must meet specific criteria to qualify for membership — everything from having ergonomic seating to limiting their percentage of leisure business.

Those criteria were developed during the association's early years. “One of our goals was to develop a common understanding of what a conference center was, what it did, and how it differed from other institutions in the market,” says Charles Williams, IACC's first president and a founder of the group. Williams, now senior vice president with Eli Cohn Real Estate, Paramus, N.J., was a conference center manager at the time.

Since then, virtually all the major conference center companies have joined the organization. “It's interesting that during the first meeting, some people elected not to join, and some were major players at the time,” Haigh recalls.

IACC has gotten so successful that its annual meeting has outgrown most facilities that fit the conference center definition. Next year's meeting will be held April 6 to 10 at the Inverness Resort & Conference Center in Englewood, Colo.