Greg Knapp, director of conference man- agement services for university housing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in January began a two-year term as president of the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC). In his first interview as IACC president, Knapp spoke with Insurance Conference Planner about the steps conference centers are taking to keep pace with industry changes and thus maintain their distinctive position as meetings-focused, learning-oriented facilities.

Pricing ICP: How is the hotel seller's market affecting conference centers?

GK: The hotel seller's market is helping to create a conference center seller's market. The last 12 to 18 months have been the best in the history of our industry.

It's not that space isn't available in hotels-it isn't being made available unless planners give hotels what they want. Planners get turned off when hotels tell them, "Take it or leave it." But planners find that conference centers are still interested in meeting their needs. Everybody wants to make a profit, but conference centers are not designed just to put heads in beds.

ICP: the CMP (Complete Meeting Package) still standard, or have facilities become any more willing to unbundle their rates?

GK: The CMP is still very strong because we have a solid product. We're not seeing unbundling so much as properties being willing to customize the CMP.

ICP's : How is customizing different from unbundling?

GK: If a group wants one day off property, or doesn't need three meals on arrival or departure day, the property can take that into consideration. In customizing, rather than dealing with a specific credit, the center deletes the item from the total and creates a new, customized daily rate.

ICP: Some hotels offer all-inclusive pricing that is similar to the CMP. How does IACC differentiate its members' properties from such hotels?

GK: The CMP doesn't make a hotel a conference center. An all-inclusive hotel has merely simplified its pricing, but it hasn't changed its mentality or provided an infrastructure that is dedicated to the particular purpose of the meeting. And the planner gains nothing in terms of what attendees will get from the meeting.

Technology ICP: Conference centers have long been known for their comprehensive, in-house meetings technologies. How are they maintaining that position?

GK: One of our strengths has always been providing the highest quality facilities in order to enhance the learning experience. [Conference centers offered] LCD panels years before they were standard in hotels. Properties continue to invest in infrastructure, for example, installing high-speed T-1 and ISDN phone lines to facilitate communication. Hamilton Park Executive Conference Center, in Florham Park, NJ, brought in high-tech equipment to improve its operations. And the AT&T Learning Center, in Basking Ridge, NJ, is especially well equipped.

Now industry is wrestling with how to pay for all that. Usually it's a surcharge, not part of the standard package, because not every planner needs it, and operators don't want prices to be noncompetitive.

ICP: What other tech trends are affecting the conference center product?

GK: Conference centers have always had good, solid work space in guest rooms, but the rooms weren't designed to facilitate communication. Today, executives are expected to produce more while they're on the road, so they need more connections back to the office. They're tired of crawling on their knees to find a data port or to see what they can unplug so they can plug in their computers. So now conference centers have desk-height configurations, with plugs actually built into lamps-or, at least, at a more comfortable height on the wall.

ICP: Has IACC's venture onto the World Wide Web getting noticed?

GK: The Web site [http://www.iacconline.com] is designed to help planners find the best properties to query for a meeting, and for our members to use as a resource for their properties. In the week ended September 8, there were 5,855 hits. In the week ended Oct. 27, there were 10,861. And in the week ended December 3, there were approximately 12,000 hits. So in three months, we more than doubled our hits. Of those 12,000 visitors, 20 percent have been from outside the U.S.

We're now developing a standard RFP to put online for planners to fill out and send to a property or properties via e-mail. The planner could request a full response, an e-mail, or a fax.

Top-drawer technology has always been a hallmark of conference centers. Today, as meeting support equipment advances with dizzying speed, insurance planners are finding that conference centers still lead the pack.

"Our company is definitely moving into the future, installing fiber optics and developing a multimedia department," says Lisa Rousseau, director, corporate events, for Penncorp Financial in Raleigh, NC. "I don't want to go to a hotel that's not in the 20th century. I never know what my company will want to incorporate into the program. So I want to know the facility has it, or can get it for me."

For Tom Joyal, CMP, technology also figured prominently in his decision to book a general agents' planning session at The Conference Center at Inverness, in Englewood, CO, for October 1997. "A lot of what we present now is video graphics or computer delivery, so we need the technology," says Joyal, who is assistant vice president, meetings and events planning, for the Lutheran Brotherhood in Minneapolis. "Inverness had much more up-to-date AV equipment, and more of it, than the other facility I looked at." The other facility hemmed and hawed over Joyal's requests, he says, but Inverness's responses were immediate and on the order of, "You want this? We have it. You want that? It's built in." Says Joyal, "It's all part of the package. That gave me more flexibility and lowered my costs."

Sometimes even the most basic technology is lacking in a hotel, Joyal notes. "I'd be amazed if I went to a conference center and couldn't immediately plug in my lap top. But that does happen in hotels, because this isn't their normal stock in trade."

International ICP: Is the conference center concept, as understood in the USA, interpreted the same way by international properties?

GK: Planners benefit from IACC's initiative to have conference center operators visit facilities around the world-the exchange of ideas improves the industry worldwide. I've toured about three dozen conference centers in France, Italy, Norway, Denmark, and the UK. The consistency is phenomenal. There are cultural variations, of course. For example, the food is different in the continuous coffee breaks. But they all have continuous breaks, and they all have buffet dining.

And the quality of the meeting space is outstanding. In Europe, the meeting environment will probably vary more in hotels than in conference centers. We can be ethnocentric in thinking the best centers are in North America. But what European members were most concerned about in joining IACC was whether the global standards would meet their standards.

ICP: What's the status of IACC's international membership?

GK: Our membership includes 265 properties; five years ago, there were 168. North America accounts for almost 70 percent of our global membership: There are 171 properties in the U.S., seven in Canada, and one in Curacao.

Facilities designed around the principles that IACC supports have been in business for years. Our international membership is growing because we've worked hard to identify such facilities around the world and educate them to the benefits of belonging to a global entity. We now have chapters in several European countries, Australia, and Japan.

Trends ICP: Which types of conference centers are showing the greatest strength?

GK: Every type of conference center venue is now very strong. Corporate training centers are becoming important. Years ago, corporations used those facilities exclusively for their own executives. Now, many are opening to outside clients, and that effort has been very successful.

University conference centers are doing phenomenally. In fact, universities of all sizes are talking about building new facilities or upgrading existing ones. Organizations that want heavy programming often look at university centers. We offer a broad portfolio of programs at the University of Michigan, but organizations also ask us to design programs to meet their needs.

ICP: Do planners still want the lavish continuous coffee break?

GK: They absolutely still want it. We know that because all centers routinely analyze what is or isn't eaten at coffee breaks-that's sound business practice. The continuous break is one less worry for the planner, and it adds to the ambience. The timing of the break doesn't interrupt the educational process.

ICP: What about mealtime menus-can planners make specific requests?

GK: Attendees are becoming much more aware of nutritional content. So properties continue to improve items and offer a good balance. Properties do an outstanding job of watching eating patterns and trying to accommodate requests. There are also menu variations at different venues. For example, at a resort conference center you'll see items that are more extravagant than at a corporate training center because clients have higher expectations.

ICP: Hotels often add "and conference center" to their names. How do you differentiate conference centers in a way that is meaningful to planners?

GK: I wish we had been smart enough to copyright the term "conference center." Properties still add it to their names because they see the value in it. Those facilities might have some of the features of a conference center, but the entire facility does not meet the IACC criteria that we promote. IACC can't prevent facilities from using the name-but we realize that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

ICP: What are your goals for your term as IACC president, and how do you intend to accomplish them?

GK: The IACC board revisited our strategic plan and has formulated three key objectives: (1) Continue our efforts to differentiate conference centers from hotels. (2) Strengthen our efforts to communicate the benefits of IACC membership, and identify new opportunities to add value to that membership. (3) Expand the professional-development programs for our members. The better we do our jobs in those areas, the more facilities will meet the standards, the better the service in facilities will be, and the clearer the picture will be in planners' minds.

Both Joyal and Rousseau find that meeting space in conference centers is especially well suited to continuing education sessions and seminars, and clearly differentiates conference centers from hotels. "Conference center meeting rooms are meeting rooms," says Joyal. "They're designed more like a classroom than a ballroom. And there's usually one theater or auditorium as well." When Rousseau held a meeting for 300 to 350 persons at Westfields International Conference Center in Chantilly, VA, she scheduled a multimedia presentation in the facility's amphitheater. "We do a lot of breakouts and need a lot of space." she says. "Conference centers can handle these large groups."

Meanwhile, planners continue their love-hate relationship with the Complete Meeting Package (CMP). While it can be restrictive and expensive, the price, planners say, is justified when meetings require high-tech equipment. "We look at conference centers because they offer these packages," Rousseau says. "If you do it a la carte, it eats into your budget." At the same time, she stresses that "if conference centers want to be competitive, they can't just stick to their plan, " and she believes management is waking up to that fact. "Conference centers want to become better known, so they are really trying to work within planners' budgets."

A conference center, as defined by the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), must be geared primarily to conferences and maintain the following standards.

Meeting rooms should be available to the group around the clock and provide

* ergonomically designed chairs (rated for six hours of comfortable sitting),

* acoustics and lighting that support the classroom experience,

* tables with hard writing surfaces,

* walls that can be used to tack up flip chart sheets,

* unobstructed views.

Sleeping rooms must also provide adequate study space and the meeting planner should be assigned one contact person to deal with throughout the meetings.With few exceptions, IACC members quote all-inclusive, per-person, per-day rates that cover everything from meals and accommodations to meeting equipment and continuous coffee breaks.