WAR AND A POOR ECONOMY notwithstanding, conference centers have seen a good deal of training and strategy meetings during the first half of 2003.

“I believe that good companies talk about learning and training when times are good. Great companies have a value system that stresses everyone is learning and they train all the time,” says Mike Fahner, vice president, sales and marketing, for Aramark Harrison Lodging, Philadelphia, a conference center company that operates more than 50 centers in the United States and Canada. “I think the Enron issues and the current focus that the New York attorney general has on Wall Street firms have caused many companies to re-evaluate how they do business. And if changes are taking place, then the message is being spread through meetings.”

With conference centers the hub of much of this corporate learning, we spoke with center executives and their meeting clients about the trends they see affecting today's corporate education.

Trend 1

Let's Meet … Now

Just like their hotel counterparts, conference centers are seeing incredibly short-term bookings, says Burt Cabañas, chairman & chief executive officer, Benchmark Hospitality, The Woodlands, Texas. “New meeting activity for the first quarter 2003 is stronger than the same period in 2002,” he says. “Booking lead-time, however, remains very short-term, as companies delay commitments to maximize pricing advantages.”

Chris Pentz, CMP, president of Levittown, Pa.-based Pentz Group Communications, sees conference centers' all-inclusive pricing as a way to manage today's last-minute frenzy. Planning the details of meals and coffee breaks takes time, she says, so avoid it if possible. “You know there will be breakfast, lunch, dinner, and continuous breaks, so you don't have to fuss with menus.”

“It's true,” says Bob Johns, general manager, The Center for Executive Education at Babson College, Wellesley, Mass., and area director of Aramark Harrison Lodging's New England properties. He says that the complete meeting package at Babson, which is the standard package at most conference centers, includes the meeting room rental, conference supplies, standard audiovisual support, continuous breaks, and three meals.

Trend 2

That's Intense

Conference centers are seeing training days that are long and intensive, with fewer frills. Many companies are cutting back on the number of days they spend in meetings or training, from four to three or three to two, and packing more into every day. And it's not just because of budget reasons.

“The priority is business, so meetings must be effective and focused,” says Bruce W. McIntosh, general manager and vice president of operations, The National Conference Center, an Aramark Harrison Lodging property in Lansdowne, Va. “We also see reduced social activities. Instead of having a band on that first evening, a group will do a short cocktail reception. It's because people have to be up at 7:30 the next morning. Budgets have been reduced, but it's more the philosophy behind it that's changed. It's all about the ROI.”

“It seems like training sessions are more intense than ever,” echoes Bridget Tyler, director of sales & conference services, The Villanova Conference Center, Aramark Harrison Lodging, Radnor, Pa. “In the past, groups would have more breaks, more elaborate dinners, more pomp and circumstance. Now meetings start at 8 a.m., they break for dinner at 6, and then come back for more training from 7 to 9 p.m. It's because of budgets, but also because people don't want to be away from their business or their families for so long.”

Trend 3

Double Time

Multitasking is in. Multitask training sessions — at which a company schedules two separate training programs (with completely separate attendees) to run simultaneously at a property, perhaps overlapping a two-day with a three-day session — are becoming increasingly common. Multitasking consolidates planning and facilitating, and may also offer economies of scale.

“Instead of just holding a sales training meeting, a company now might also have a soft-skills session for another group of attendees,” says Gianna Trinitapoli, sales manager at Harrison Conference Center at Lake Bluff (Ill.). “It promotes the mixing and mingling of people who normally wouldn't be communicating with each other.”

Trend 4

Break It Up

Breakouts of breakouts are becoming the norm, a testament to the interactive style of learning that many adults prefer.

Tyler, of The Villanova Conference Center, says, “We're seeing smaller to midsize groups, of seven to 10 people, or sometimes up to 15, broken out within breakout rooms, with flip charts plastered all over the rooms. Mostly brainstorming and strategic sessions use these.”

Trend 5

Educate the Execs

Although there may be a drop-off in training for lower-level employees, senior-level training is going full-steam ahead. “Our open enrollment training and our executive retreats continue to grow,” says Lynn Oddenino, senior manager for client services at Bell Leadership in Chapel Hill, N.C. “With so many changes happening in the economy and in individual businesses, companies are seeing a tremendous need to keep their senior-level people motivated because their attitudes filter to everyone else.”

“We definitely see a trend in training toward teaching multitasking,” says Richard Keating, vice president of marketing for Millennium Hotels and Resorts in New York City, which includes the Millennium Broadway Hotel New York Conference Center, a six-floor conference center within the larger hotel. “Companies are doing a lot more with less. We're seeing professionals and managers being trained in their own industries, or to do things they didn't do before, because there are many fewer layers in corporate America,” he says. “It's all about how to do business in today's challenging times.”

Trend 6

Build the Team

“We have a challenge course and a facilitator on campus, and he does a lot of teambuilding activities, both outdoor and indoor,” says Villanova's Tyler. “The group might make a makeshift lava river that you have to cross, or a human spider web. It helps bring teams together for half a day. A facilitator meets them, learns the group's objectives, and customizes a program. Or, of course, many groups bring in their own facilitators.”

McIntosh of the National Conference Center says that teambuilding “has become a very important and interesting part of our repeat business. Again, it's about being focused. How can we make the meeting better? Role-playing plays a much bigger part. There are always innovative trainers out there, building an esprit de corps. Even our food court is about teambuilding, because everyone eats together. It's not about going off to some white-tablecloth small table and eating on your own. We actually build the entertainment in our bar and grill to complement that. On Sundays and Mondays, when a group first arrives, they're disgruntled, but the lounge is packed on Thursday nights. We start with a DJ on Tuesday, and build to karaoke on Thursdays.”

Johns at Babson says the meeting rooms at Babson are designed for teambuilding. “Our breakout rooms have been designed with wireless keypads and 42-inch plasma screens on the wall so that people aren't craning their necks to see … and they're using them just as we designed and envisioned them to! Technology is user friendly; therefore, collaboration is much more of a component at meetings. More groups are coming together to come to consensus.”

Trend 7

Keep the Flip Charts

Technology is increasingly important at training meetings as well as strategic meetings, say conference center operators. Computer hookup in meeting rooms, wireless Internet, PDAs as teaching tools: Clients are demanding these upgrades. Fortunately, many conference centers have listened and integrated technology into their facilities. At the CEE at Babson College, a $32 million, 85,000-square-foot expansion that opened last fall offers computers with wireless keyboards and plasma screens in all breakout rooms. A videoconferencing suite for up to eight has also been added, and a multimedia menu in each room allows the facilitator or instructor to control all audiovisual and technology by touching a computer screen.

Interesting enough, though “people still use flip charts. PowerPoint can put people to sleep. With flip charts, there's a people dynamic,” adds Johns.

No need to import a cyber café at the Babson center. Laptops are situated throughout the center, allowing people to check e-mail regularly. “The key to any conference center is to ensure that the client stays connected,” says Johns.