Conference center managers have learned a new word: flexibility. For years, planners said that conference centers were outstanding meeting facilities but had two drawbacks--rates were too high and the Complete Meeting Package (CMP) forced them to pay for things they didn't want, need, or use.

Planners today tell a completely different story. Ask them what they like about conference centers and one of the first things they volunteer--unaided recall, here--is the pricing. What accounts for the turnabout? First, facility managers have realized that bringing in the business that really wants to be there means being more flexible in price structure.

"Conference centers have come a long way in their meetings packages," says Kathie Hallas, meeting planner in the Clinical Development Studies Program at Merck & Co., Whitehouse Station, N.J. "They're more flexible, more willing to switch around than they used to be. It's totally changed." Secondly, even as conference centers are becoming more flexible about the CMP, planners are at the same time recognizing the value that package pricing offers. According to Bernard J. Ripp, president of Events for All Reasons, Palm Springs, Calif., who plans meetings for the pharmaceutical industry, "Once you figure in everything, it's a bargain."

At Last: Negotiation The original idea of the CMP was a lot like the all-inclusive concept at resorts: Set a price that includes no surprises. Bundling the cost of meeting space, sleeping rooms, three meals, continuous refreshments, conference services, and basic audiovisual equipment into a single, per-person price makes it easy for planners to determine their total costs up front. Unfortunately, most meeting planners react to the CMP in about the same way as they react to all-inclusive resorts: They don't like the take-it-or-leave-it nature of anybody's package deal. If planners want to hold an off-site dinner, they want credit for the one they didn't have on-site. Or if they don't need all the AV included in the CMP, they don't want to have to pay for it.

These days, however, planners find that they can negotiate all kinds of variations to meet their needs, and that they encounter cooperation, not resistance, when they do so. Kathleen Sabatier, director, Institute for Johns Hopkins Nursing in Baltimore, has used Burkshire Guest Suites and Conference Center, Towson, Md., since 1996 for one-week training meetings that help nurses make the transition into their new role as nurse case managers. "This allows us to do everything in one place," she explains. "We don't have to move from a hotel to classroom space on our campus." But the nurses aren't confined; they do go to Johns Hopkins one day and to the Harborplace area (Baltimore's waterfront district) that afternoon. "When we do a lunch or dinner off-site, we get credit, so we don't pay for things we don't get," Sabatier says.

Elizabeth Hughes gets more than a meal credit when she takes her group off-site during a meeting at Chetola Resort & Conference Center, Blowing Rock, N.C. "They assist me in finding off-site restaurants," says Hughes, assistant to the president and CEO of the Mountain States Health Alliance in Johnson City, Tenn. Typically, Hughes goes off-site just for the arrival-day dinner for her board of directors meeting.

Sweet Reasonableness The Commonwealth Institute for Child and Family Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., has worked out an unusual arrangement with the Virginia Beach Resort Hotel and Conference Center. The Institute has held its annual Virginia Beach Conference, which focuses on issues related to the mental health of children and adolescents, at this facility for eight years. "Over the years, we've purchased a lot of audiovisual equipment that you'd usually rent," says Robert Cohen, PhD, vice chair of the department of psychiatry at the university and acting director of the Commonwealth Institute. "We bring it to the conference, so we have no AV costs." The conference center doesn't object, says Cohen, because his September meeting is held during low season. "We're bringing them customers at a time of year when they'd like to fill the space," he says, adding, "Their prices are quite reasonable."

That's becoming a common refrain. Ripp of Events for All Reasons planned a clinical investigation meeting for pharmaceutical company Alza Corp. at the Westfields Marriott in Chantilly, Va., recently. "My client considered the price a bargain," he says. The per-person rate includes room and board, one piece of AV equipment for every x-number of people, "and there's no charge for the meeting room," says Ripp. In his opinion, the continuous refreshment breaks, in particular, add to the value. "It's really one-stop shopping." That, of course, is what the CMP is designed to be.

Not only does the CMP offer one-stop shopping at reasonable prices, but also "It's predictable," says Sabatier. Some of Johns Hopkins Nursing's conferences are held at hotels. "Often, when we get the hotel bill, so many things were added that we end up going over budget," she says. "At Burkshire, either AV is included or you know right away what they'll charge. They take pains to go over the contract with us up front."

Space with No Distraction Even in the days when planners complained about conference center pricing, they still raved about the well- equipped, dedicated meeting space that met their special requirements and contributed to the success of their programs. Meeting space remains the key attraction for medical meeting planners.

Sabatier's week-long program includes one evening when the nurses break into smaller groups to do videotaped role-playing. This requires two adjacent rooms, one for discussion, one for the videotaping session. When the course was held in a hotel, she recalls, "We had two rooms separated by an air wall, and you could hear everything that was going on in the other room." In the three years or so she's used Burkshire, "We've used space on every floor, and wherever we've been, it's worked for us."

A distraction-free environment is vital for many medical meetings. "If you want to have a group really focused, Westfields is almost like a retreat," says Ripp. Even if there are other groups on-site, he says, "You always get the feeling you're the only ones there."

The ability to focus is also important to Brad Etheridge, North American leadership coordinator for pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co., in Indianapolis. He holds supervisory management development programs at the University Place Conference Center and Hotel in Indianapolis and has also attended a management leadership program at the facility. The conference center and hotel are connected, but the conference center is in its own wing, which Etheridge considers a plus.

Like Sabatier, Hallas at Merck & Co. needs a small room adjacent to a large one to do videotaping at her investigative meetings. "That's usually easier to find at conference centers than at hotels," says Hallas, who uses both the Millennium Conference Center in New York City and Hamilton Park, in Florham Park, N.J. Her presentation materials are another factor in her choice of facility. "A lot of hotels don't have LCD panels or rear-screen projectors."

In the opinion of Linda Hallman, administrative director of the National Procedures Institute, Midland, Mich., "Conference centers are set up to meet the needs of professionals, of businesspeople." Consequently, "They have AV people on-site, and they have all the equipment on-site." Hallman schedules between 12 and 20 office surgery skills courses annually at Ashman Court Hotel and Executive Conference Center, Midland, Mich.

Welcoming Business Hotels Don't Want Susan Potter, meanwhile, finds that she's persona non grata at many hotels. Potter, meetings manager for the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists, in Alexandria, Va., holds regional meetings that include tabletop exhibits, poster sessions, and concurrent sessions. She needs 10,000 square feet for exhibits, three or four breakout rooms, and space for a lunch for between 300 and 500 people. But because most of her attendees are local, she needs only about 60 sleeping rooms. "We're not welcomed by hotels because we're not a good piece of business for them," she says.

But a nonresidential conference center is exactly what she needs. At both the Rosemont Conference Center, in Rosemont, Ill., and the South San Francisco (Calif.) Conference Center, Potter pays a la carte for the meeting room and food and beverage. "We pay less at a conference center than we'd pay at a hotel for the same space," she says. "Most hotels don't even want this business."

On-the-Button Service Dedicated, distraction-free meeting space is one of the key reasons that medical meeting planners favor conference centers. Another plus is the staff--especially the conference coordinators--and the services they provide. At Westfields, says Ripp, "You're assigned a conference coordinator and you deal with one person for all phases of the meeting. From the planner's standpoint, that makes it much easier."

Ripp's liaison at Alza Corp., his client, felt the same way, he says. "Whenever she stepped outside the meeting room, there was always someone there to offer help." Ripp notes an especially useful tactic: "They give you a pin that looks like a presidential seal, for the designated point person in your group. That little pin commands a lot of respect."

At University Place, says Etheridge, "You're assigned a one-on-one coordinator. The person is always available by phone to help."

Even the Food Is Good This is all well and good, but what about the element that creates a lasting impression for attendees--the food? More rave reviews. "Dining services are phenomenal at both facilities," says Hallas of the Millennium Conference Center and Hamilton Park. Says Ripp, "We were very impressed with the dining room" at Westfields. "The breakfast buffet was like being on a cruise ship."

Conference centers have continually risen in ranking in our annual Physician Preferences Survey. In the just-released sixth annual survey (MM, January/February), they were solidly in second place on the list of physicians' preferred meeting venues. As conference centers come closer to meeting the preferences of meeting planners, too, planners are finding it easier to match their attendees' venue preferences.

Conference centers are looking to begin the third millennium fully equipped with all the high-tech gizmos their clients may need. A committee composed of audiovisual consultants, conference center operators, and staff members of the St. Louis-based International Association of Conference Centers studied the technical capabilities of IACC-member centers. "Our mission was to consider the universal criteria [for IACC membership] and how current and applicable they are," explains committee member Jeff Loether, a Rockville, Md.-based audiovisual consultant.

Last summer, the committee submitted a list of three recommendations to the IACC Board of Directors, and the board is currently transforming these recommendations into guidelines expected to be issued at IACC's annual conference in April at the Squaw Creek Resort in Squaw Creek, Calif.

The committee's three recommendations are

* IACC members should offer access to high-quality, high-speed voice and data lines in every function room;

* IACC members should have a projection system that readily accommodates the display of computer-generated images; and

* the IACC board should clarify and improve its requirements for acoustic isolation between adjacent function spaces.

The issue of sending e-mail or surfing the Internet from one's guest room was outside the scope of the study, according to Loether.

Last year was a very good year for conference center companies. As planners struggled just to find hotel rooms and meeting space when they needed it, some happily discovered conference centers, which have always catered to group business. No wonder 1998 found the major players in an expansive mode, one that is continuing into 1999.

* International Conference Resorts (ICR), based in Colorado Springs, Colo., more than doubled its size in 1998, taking over four properties: the 326-room Carefree Conference Resort in Carefree, Ariz., which underwent a $13.5 million upgrade that added a 10,000-square-foot meeting room; the Ocean Place Hilton Resort in Long Branch, N.J., with 254 rooms and 29,000 square feet of meeting space; the Palm Springs (Calif.) Conference Resort, with 264 rooms and 50,000 square feet of conference space; and the Hastings International Conference Center in Hartford, Conn., with 55,000 square feet of meeting space and 271 guest rooms, which has undergone an $8 million renovation.

"Especially in this age of new technology, which tends to isolate employees, meetings at full-service, no-distraction environments are required increasingly to focus and connect corporate organizations," says R. Davidson Parriott, vice president, marketing, ICR. "There truly is a difference in the services you receive and facilities you find at a dedicated conference resort versus a traditional hotel or resort property. Informed businesspeople are beginning to recognize the tremendous impact meetings can have on their company's market position and bottom line.

ICR plans to continue to expand into major regional markets, adding three to five full-service conference resorts in 1999. It also manages centers in Scottsdale, Ariz; Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.

* Marriott Conference Centers heads into 1999 with big expansion plans. "We are aggressively trying to grow our brand. There is increasing demand for what conference centers provide," says Todd Sherstad, newly named director of sales and marketing for the brand, based in Washington, D.C.

With 20 properties now in its portfolio, the company is looking to expand in "10 to 12 major markets in the U.S. with strong demand for small and midsize meetings," Sherstad says. The "prototype" Marriott Conference Center is a "conference resort" with 200 to 325 rooms, dedicated dining space, fiber optics connecting all rooms--and compliance with all standards of the International Association of Conference Centers. Marriott Conference Centers include Chateau Elan Winery & Resort in Braselton, Ga.; Evergreen Conference Resort in Stone Mountain, Ga.; the Westfields Marriott in Chantilly, Va.; Hickory Ridge Conference Center in Chicago; MeadowView Conference Resort and Convention Center, Kingsport, Tenn., and the Wye River Conference Centers at The Aspen Institute in Queenstown, Md.

* In 1998, Dolce International, based in Montvale, N.J., took over management of Oak Brook Hills Conference Resort in Chicago and Spencer Hall Conference Center in London, Ontario, and acquired Fregate, A Dolce Conference Hotel and Golf Resort in Provence and Hotel du Domaine de Chantilly, A Dolce Conference Hotel and Golf Resort outside Paris. With its current portfolio at 12 properties, the company intends to add four more each year for the next three years, according to Chairman and CEO Andy Dolce. To be considered for acquisition or conversion into a Dolce conference center, a property must be 35 to 40 minutes from an international airport, have 200 rooms (or 150 rooms in Europe), and offer recreation (golf, spa, or fitness center). Locations under consideration: London, Milan, Germany, Boston, Florida, and Arizona.

* Benchmark Hospitality, the Woodlands, Texas-based conference center management company, entered into an agreement in 1998 with Redstone Capital, a Houston-based investment firm, creating a joint venture, according to Burt Cabanas, chairman and CEO of Benchmark. Benchmark opened the U-Thong Inn and Executive Conference Center in Ayutthaya, Thailand, Benchmark's first center outside the U.S. Benchmark designed and built the conference center, which has 220 rooms. The company also opened the Beaufort Hotel and Conference Center on Sentosa Island, Singapore, in 1998. A dedicated conference center was added to the existing hotel. It has 214 rooms and is a five-star property. Sites in Japan; Milan, Italy; Monterrey, Mexico; Bogota, Columbia; Venezuela; Dubai; United Arab Emirates; and Cairo, Egypt are also under consideration. And Cabanas isn't neglecting the home front. Benchmark was named to manage the White Oaks Conference Center in Charlotte, N.C., and the Founders Inn and Conference Center in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1998. There are plans for at least two other new U.S. centers.