In the old days, they were known as demo rooms. And that's basically what they were — nicely appointed (perhaps) in-house conference rooms for showing off the latest products.

Today, briefing centers are a reflection of the company in every way, from their sleek architecture to their snazzy features. The 1990s saw a pronounced escalation of the concept, most notably in technology companies. Though that slowed in 2001 and early 2002, the past two quarters have seen a resurgence in renovations and new centers, according to Roxanne McCreery, executive director of the Association of Briefing Program Managers, Dallas (www.abpm.com).

How They Work

Most briefing rooms have program managers, the event planners' close cousin, who not only run the centers but also work with sales hosts to create a customized agenda, using experts from the company who understand the client's specific business issues. While their function used to be sales support, it has evolved into, as McCreery puts it, “telling the corporate story.”

In some centers, such as the one at HP's corporate campus in Cupertino, Calif., the briefing room has become downright experiential. This center was rebuilt just after HP split, spinning off the measurement piece of the company as Agilent and retaining its computing and imaging divisions. The company was rebuilding the center as it was rebuilding its brand.

“We had a chance to really focus our messaging, to really think about our position in the marketplace,” says Sara Lautenbach, HP's briefing program manager.

“Similar to what an event planner does, it's not just about a meeting; it's about creating an experience,” she explains. “The thing that was exciting here was to be able to create an experience that illustrated our vision, our strategy, both from what we're offering as well as our values and how we do business with people.”

With a generous 40,000 square feet to work with, the HP vision plays out on many levels in the center, which opened in August 2001. “First of all, there's an overall style,” Lautenbach says, “an architectural language in terms of the finishes and the materials and the building. The combination of the warmth and the innovation and the sort of ‘with it’ feeling that we want to convey.”

The HP vision is also expressed through the center's interactive exhibits. One example: “There are things we call crib toys: a set of blocks with pictures on one side and words on the other where you can make your own collage.”

Before a briefing, customers are directed to a personalized Web site that includes an agenda, directions, maps, and so forth. At the center, they interact with the exhibits with a personal digital assistant. If a guest wants more information about an exhibit, he or she can use the PDA to beam the exhibit's “beacon” and capture a Web address. “If the exhibit talked about our partners,” Lautenbach says, “you would get a URL to a Web site that talked about our partner program.”

The Web remains prominent during the presentation. “In the meeting room, the agenda is on the screen as you would expect,” Lautenbach says. “That's a Web page as well. You just click on the agenda item to launch a video or presentation.” The rooms also include wireless high-speed Internet, audio- and videoconferencing, electronic white boards, digital cameras, and printers. Briefing managers keep an eye on things with a Web cam room-monitoring system, and if anyone needs anything, there's a one-button phone to call for assistance.

On a Smaller Scale

Norcross, Ga.-based OFS, the former Optical Fiber Solutions division of Lucent Technologies, opened a 5,000-square-foot briefing center in 2001. OFS worked with Cincinnati-based Jack Rouse Associates, a design and production company, to define and execute the company's vision.

Linda Suvalsky, customer showcase manager, was in on the project from the start. “It was essential to us to first define the major elements of our corporate story — we built the facility around that story.”

OFS narrowed its message to four themes: the history of optical innovations and corporate history; the manufacturing process; end-to-end solutions; and global reach. It then created permanent displays to reflect those ideas. “We didn't invent this conference center with a lot of static product displays,” says Clyde Laughlin, director of global customer care and technical support for OFS. “What we're trying to do here is allow the facility to be an experience with customers and then cultivate an expression of our product offerings through the video and the multimedia opportunity, using customized, high-tech presentations in the meeting rooms.”

The space housing the permanent exhibits also ties into the themes. “The pillars used in the space are an artistic representation of optical glass preforms, which are used in the [fiber-optic cable] manufacturing process. The designers wrapped the columns in a copper patina finish to tie the story to our beginning, when this factory opened as a copper manufacturing plant,” Laughlin says. “The lighting coming through the columns represents going from the past to the future.”

In addition to its exhibit area, the OFS Customer Showcase has a state-of-the-art theater and two briefing rooms, plus its ace in the hole, the manufacturing facility. A manufacturing tour is typically on the agenda for guests, but for those who can't spare the hour for that experience, the company is looking into producing a virtual tour.

While the briefing center was important to Lucent, Laughlin sees it taking on an added dimension. “With the spinoff, we are a whole new company. This is the vehicle to tell that story and promote our brand recognition.”