Conference centers have always been on the leading edge of meeting properties — the experts in small meetings and the most serious of learning environments. As trainees have grown more sophisticated and discriminating, facilities have become attentive to the shift. How, we decided to ask, is this industry evolving to better serve small meetings?

Several trends emerged at the late-March conference of the International Association of Conference Centers in Dallas, the largest gathering of conference center managers and operators in the world. Among them:

  1. TRAINING BUSINESS IS BACK — In a roundtable of meeting planners from financial services companies held at the IACC meeting, Kathy Berardi, meeting services, KPMG, Montvale, N.J., said 60 percent of her meetings are for CPA training. She has seen a 53 percent increase in requests for meetings since the beginning of her company's financial year in October.

  2. WIRELESS IS A MUST — Properties are pouring big money into going wireless. Harrison Conference Center at Glen Cove, N.Y., just added wireless access to all guest rooms, meeting rooms, and public spaces. “Most meeting attendees travel with their laptops, and after being in an all-day session, they want to check their e-mails,” said Steve Sackman, director of sales and marketing. “Now they can do that from their rooms or while having a drink in our pub.”

  3. THE OLD-STYLE BUFFET IS DEAD — Gone are the heaps of tuna and macaroni salad with mayonnaise. In are fresh choices, gourmet food, and healthy snacks. Most centers now offer low-carb choices as well.

    As if to prove this, IACC kicked off its first ever Copper Skillet Competition at this year's meeting, bringing in chefs from conference centers in six countries to compete in a live cooking competition using a limited number of ingredients and seasonings, with a 30-minute limit. (The winner, Chef Michael Pataran of Taboo Resort Golf and Conference Center, Gravenhurst, Ontario, whipped up a dish of crispy-skinned seared red snapper, eggplant crab nori roll, and Thai lemon grass coconut curry.) The event was followed by an Asian Fusion dinner, for which attendees shelled out $125 per plate to sample dishes from one of the hot-test culinary genres.

  4. PLANNERS MUST SET THE STAGE FOR CREATIVITY TO BLOSSOM — Conference centers realize that certain amenities — whether they are fun food, props, or even special furniture — aid in the creative process. At Summit Executive Center in Chicago, management learned about building a stimulating environment from a very creative client, Idealab, which often brought in its own props for brainstorming meetings. Summit recently invested in bright, colorful, comfy chairs with arms that fold out into desks — just the kind of furniture Idealab would have chosen.

    Along those lines, everyone at IACC was talking about the new “Resource Rooms” at the Embassy Suites New York, which are decorated with bold, colorful furniture and piled high with books and DVDs for guests. The guest rooms even have their own aromatherapy kits so attendees can get into a creative frame of mind.

  5. “BOUTIQUE” CAN MEAN A LOT OF DIFFERENT THINGS — Why can't seasoned travelers enjoy the elegance of a boutique hotel without the trendiness? A new concept created by conference center operator Benchmark Hospitality — “personal luxury hotels” — asks exactly that. The chain's Hotel ICON in Houston is a 135-room boutique-style hotel, but the focus in the guest rooms and public space is on comfort. Many of the rooms have their own Jacuzzis, with walls that open up to give guests a view of the TV from the tub.

    The ICON's restaurant, under legendary Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, is likely to be voted the best in the city this year, and the Whiskey Bar, created by nightlife czar Rande Gerber, is a concept that is brand new to conference centers. “F&B has come full circle in conference centers,” said Burt Cabanas, chairman and CEO of Benchmark Hospitality. “We started years ago with buffets, then cooking stations, then chefs cooking right in the dining room. And now we have a Jean-Georges restaurant.”

    Another big difference is service: Benchmark interviewed 2,700 people and hired only a couple of hundred to find the right staff for this new venture — people who are friendly and approachable, without an attitude.

  6. PLANNERS HAVE HAD IT WITH HIDDEN CHARGES — At the IACC roundtable, panelists were adamant about conference centers rolling more into the CMP. Diane Pearson, assistant vice president/event planner for US Bancorp, Minneapolis, recalled purchasing a printer on the way to a meeting so she wouldn't have to pay the business center for copies. Other planners complained about having to pay extra to use the computer in the business center or for attendees to use the fitness center. Other surprises included a $125 charge for a wireless mouse and a $3,000 tab for bottled water on the master bill.

  7. WEEKEND TRAVEL IS ON THE DECLINE — Several planners said their companies had moved to a Monday arrival and a Thursday or Friday departure pattern. “Our new leadership is insisting that we be the employer of choice, and one way of doing this is not to expect people to leave their families on the weekend,” said KPMG's Berardi. This trend will continue as the economy improves and companies work harder to retain employees.

  8. RECREATION IS BEST IN SMALL DOSES — The trend in down-time for small meetings is toward a five-hour recreation window. Companies are unwilling to devote a full day to fun, but will wrap up at lunchtime one day to allow people a free afternoon. The favorite activities: spa treatments for both men and women, or nine holes of golf instead of 18. Also, companies are organizing activities rather than letting attendees go off on their own.

  9. SERIES MEETINGS ARE BACK, AND THEY'RE BIGGER AND BETTER — The bread and butter for conference centers, series meetings are sales or management training meetings for small groups of 50 to 100 people held back to back over many weeks. But even these meetings are being booked close out. “Though they are making a comeback, we're still not getting companies with 20 training programs at the beginning of their calendar year,” reported Tom Bolman, executive vice president of IACC. Another trend, according to Berardi, is that companies are increasing the size of these training groups so that senior managers have fewer meetings to attend.

  10. SLIPPAGE IS STILL A STICKY ISSUE — Roundtable panelists called for conference centers to share the risk, to come together with planners when there is attrition and come up with a solution. The problem with this type of property is that attrition costs are higher because there is little to no transient business.

Booking Small? Go Online

Planners of small meetings — of up to 100 people — can click over to and access “Disney Meetings on Demand,” a new online planning and booking tool that allows you to book an entire meeting in as few as two hours at any Disney property, including The Contemporary Resort (board room in photo). In addition to rooms and space, planners can book Disney options such as private theme park events, F&B packages, and Disney AV/technical services.

The Web site can also help planners take advantage of special meeting/convention tickets for the four Disney theme parks. As the planner builds a program online, creates a proposed agreement based on the planner's selections. The planner can then review and print the proposal document and electronically submit it for a response within two business hours.