A recent meeting of conference centers and corporate planners underscored the importance of the “conference center difference” — especially in this competitive hotel market.

The panel, which met recently in New York City at the JP Morgan Chase Conference Center, included representatives of facilities that are members of the International Association of Conference Centers: Richard Keurajian, director of sales and marketing, Dolce Tarrytown House, Tarrytown, N.Y.; Geoffrey Lawson, general manager, IBM Palisades, Palisades, N.Y.; Laura Neumann, vice president, Benchmark Hospitality, The Woodlands, Texas; and Marlene Pellerin, vice president, conference centers, JP Morgan Chase, New York City.

The most significant difference between conference centers and hotels is the complete meeting package, or CMP, a bundled price for guest rooms, meals, meeting rooms, some AV equipment and services, and continuous coffee breaks. While the CMP offers the benefit of no-surprise pricing, some planners don't want to be locked in. But this is what makes conference centers different, and it's not something they should change, said the panelists.

“We hold our salespeople accountable for keeping the CMP intact — it's very profitable,” said Neumann. “We don't unbundle. We sell the value of the facility. But we do have a rate range.”

The other area in which many of these facilities excel is technology.

“Conference centers provide the best meeting environment and are committed to technology,” said Pellerin. “We include LCD projectors [in the CMP]. That's the key to meeting the competition. About 8 percent of our meetings are internal, so we have a lot of holes to fill, and we need to be competitive.”

Finally, there's food, which for years was not something conference centers were known for.

Guests are more savvy now, said Neuman, and “shuffling them through food stations won't seal the deal.” Now there are fewer buffets and more food that is imaginative or interactive, where guests can watch the chef prepare dishes. Keurajian agreed that food has been overlooked at conference centers. To develop menus that meet various client needs, “We run a two- to three-week training program with a diverse audience — people with different palates.”