Cultivating the Learning Experience

Greg Knapp, director of conference management 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 Medical Meetings about the steps conference centers are taking to keep pace with industry changes and maintain their distinctive position as meetings-focused, learning-oriented facilities.

Pricing MM: 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.

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

GK:Is 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.

MM: 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.

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

MM: What other technology 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.

MM: Is IACC's venture onto the World Wide Web getting noticed?

GK: The Web site [] 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've also developed 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.

International MM: Is the conference center concept, as understood in the U.S., 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 U.K. 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.

MM: 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 MM: 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.

MM: 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.

MM: 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.

MM: 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.

MM: 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.

Alcon Laboratories has an elbow-room rule for its meetings. "We sit only two people per six feet of space," says Diane Smith, CMP, sales promotion manager and meeting planner for the marketer of contact lens care products. "These are intensive meetings," she explains. "People are in there for about ten hours a day. If they're going to maintain attention, they need their space." Conference centers can adhere to that rule, says Smith, who has met at the Peachtree Executive Conference Center, near Atlanta, and Westfields International Conference center, in Chantilly, VA, among others. Hotels, says Smith, put at least three people at a six-foot table, or two people at a five-foot table.

Conference centers do a better job of filling other Alcon requirements as well. At product launch meetings, for example, the Fort Worth, TX, company needs eight to ten breakout rooms so its salespeople can meet by district. "It's hard to get hotels to give you premium meeting space if there are only ten or 12 people in a room," says Smith. "Hotels can do that, but they won't if there's a large group in house."

Still another Alcon rule: "We use only hard-wall rooms, and conference centers have dedicated hard-wall meeting space," says Smith. "My last choice for meeting space is one-fourth of a ballroom. No matter what they say, there will be sound transfer."

Robert Kristofco fully agrees. "Conference centers are dedicated to the purpose of having meetings-you're not on the other side of the wall from the sax music or the Avon ladies," says Kristofco, who is director, Division of CME, at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

Space doesn't come any more dedicated than that at the Medical Forum in Birmingham. "It has capabilities for didactic teaching in a theater environment as well as a cadaveric workshop," says Kristofco. "We can do everything from the typical one-day meeting for 150 to 300 people to a high-end, live demonstration course in endovascular therapy or a sinus surgery course with the use of models or human material. It has wet labs that make it easy to do those things. This facility also has a collection of technological capabilities, so we can broadcast from the hospital to the medical suites."

Southwest Hospital & Medical Center in Atlanta also finds a conference center well suited to retreats. The facility has used Peachtree Executive Conference Center for board retreats for several years, says Deborah Bryant, assistant to the president. At the retreat, board members develop medical strategies for the following year. "We want participants off site, and at conference centers they're more relaxed and comfortable," she says. Another plus: If there should be a free half-day in the schedule, "there's golf and other activities."

Leisure is secondary, of course; learning is primary. And Bryant especially appreciates the facility's "comprehensive" capabilities. "During the last session, we had to change some of our transparencies," she says. "Because they have on-site word-processing support, we had the ability to redo the slides right there."

The latest entry to the dedicated conference space derby is the conference facility at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. It features a 5,400-square-foot auditorium with tiered seating for 265; a 3,600-square-foot ballroom that can be split into eight seminar rooms; and two additional meeting rooms, one with 520 square feet, the other with 800 square feet of space; plus the original 300-seat Anderson Auditorium. The conference center's unique selling proposition, however, is that it not only offers on-site support for audiovisual needs, but has a staff that will produce and distribute conference marketing materials, negotiate rates and dates with area hotels, and even help you find commercial support for your meeting.

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.