Whether you're looking for high technology or an escape from the wired world, conference centers offer a meeting environment customized to your needs.

What do conferences run by Schering-Plough and Women in Medicine have in common? On the surface, not a whole lot. When organizing a meeting recently to test a new Web site with physicians, Schering-Plough's top priority was finding a venue with high-technology capabilities. For Women in Medicine's upcoming annual conference, technology isn't even on the radar screen when selecting a site--privacy is the first concern. And for MGI Pharma, Inc. sales meetings, superior service is the deciding factor.

All three organizations have found that conference centers are the best venues to accommodate their highly individualized needs. It's taken some time for the conference center industry to convey to meeting professionals the ways in which a conference center differs from a hotel. But gradually, more and more planners have come to realize that a conference center offers a focused, distraction-free environment in which every element--from meeting room design to amenities to staffing to technology--has a single purpose: to help planners hold meetings that achieve their objectives. Here, three medical meeting planners discuss why conference centers are the best choice for them.

Split-Screen Savvy Who says technology replaces face-to-face meetings? It can actually generate the need for more in-person meetings. Case in point: When developing its new Web site, the Asthma & Allergy Support Center of Schering-Plough knew that for the site to succeed it, had to be user-friendly and not intimidate or confuse patients, or frustrate physicians. Consequently, input from physicians who had been using the beta version was vital.

"We wanted their honest feedback on what they liked and disliked, and we also wanted their opinions of the new version," says Maura Zazenski, field operations manager for the Support Center. The best way to get feedback was to bring the physicians together, have them work with the new site, and get their reactions on the spot. Zazenski booked that critical meeting last July at Hamilton Park, the Dolce conference hotel in Florham Park, N.J.

She was familiar with Hamilton Park, having used it for about a year and a half for small meetings. "But this was our big technology meeting, when we used everything they had," she says.

In fact, technology was Zazenski's primary reason for selecting Hamilton Park this time. Computer workstations had to be set up, and she needed printers networked to the computers, Internet access, background projection from the Internet, an audience-response system, and a split screen to show the Web site and the audience response to questions about it.

It was difficult to find a place that could accommodate these needs. Zazenski says that when asking about Internet service, "The typical hotel people look at you as if you have two heads. But Hamilton Park's AV people are incredibly Internet savvy. It's very impressive."

Even though Hamilton Park is well wired and well staffed, some outside contractors were needed. One company helped with the split-screen projection and audiotaped the meeting, and another brought in the audience response pads. At the time of Schering-Plough's meeting, Hamilton Park had not yet installed high-speed Internet access, so an Internet service provider was also needed.

"Those companies all had to work with Hamilton Park and their technical capabilities," says Zazenski. "Hamilton Park pulled it all together for us. I wanted it to be turnkey, and it was."

The outside contractors also were impressed with the facility, she says. "They said Hamilton Park was the best place they'd ever worked. They talked about the ease of the technology and the way the staff bent over backwards."

Pre-Dawn Alert Setting up Schering-Plough's audience response system required special efforts from the staff, says Amy Wickenheisser, conference director at Hamilton Park. The front of the meeting room, where the presentation would be made, was to be set in a U-shape. "All 38 seats in the U-shape had to be wired, and that involves a lot of prep time." And there was a prep-time crunch. Schering-Plough was booked into Hamilton Park's most popular meeting room, and another group was in that room the preceding day, when set-up would normally have been done. "We brought our shifts in at 4 a.m. so they could set up the room by 2 p.m.," says Wickenheisser.

Hamilton Park has undergone extensive technology upgrades in recent months and now offers high-speed Internet access in all meeting rooms and guest rooms, as well as in its new Technology Resource Center, where laptop and desktop computer stations and laser and color printers are available around the clock at no charge to clients. Hamilton Park also now includes an LCD projector as part of the basic AV in its Complete Meeting Package (CMP) rate.

The reason for this "overequipping," as it were, is that "our vision is to be the global leader in learning, so we have to be the leader in learning tools," says JoAnn Swahn, senior vice president of marketing for Dolce International. "And those tools speak to technology." Eventually, all Dolce conference centers will emulate the Hamilton Park model.

Penchant for Privacy But not every group needs, or wants, to be wired. When Joan E. Wurmbrand, MD, was asked if high-speed Internet access or other high-tech capabilities were considerations when selecting meeting sites for Women in Medicine (WIM), she quipped, "My answer will give you a lot of insight: I don't know." Then she added, "Other than individuals who might like Internet access to connect with their businesses and families at home, we have not yet had that need."

For this group, the conference center environment is key, says Wurmbrand, who is chairwoman, WIM Organizing Committee, for the 17th Annual Women in Medicine Conference, scheduled for this April at the Coolfont Resort, Conference Center and Health Spa in Berkeley Springs, W. Va. The meeting is "a retreat for lesbian physicians with continuing medical education that includes educational materials appropriate for physicians caring for lesbian patients," she says. WIM's physician planning group is organizing the conference, with administrative assistance from the University of Vermont Medical School's continuing medical education department.

Over the years, WIM has met at both hotels and conference centers. "Meetings at hotels have not been entirely satisfactory," says Wurmbrand. "In a setting that is shared with all types of other businesses and with vacationers, [there's a] lack of cohesiveness." But WIM is taking over the entire Coolfont property for its 250 to 300 attendees, "which gives us the privacy we like." Consequently, there are opportunities for "networking among professional women with similar issues in a relaxing environment where lesbian physicians can be themselves, yet have the support of other physicians." A rustic resort, Coolfont is set in 1,350 acres in the Appalachian Mountains.

Wurmbrand notes that "Coolfont can accommodate 250 people for plenary sessions, and that many or more for our community meals." WIM chooses to include three meals daily for all participants, which makes Coolfont's CMP pricing a plus.

Kid-Friendly Venues Another issue is that the attendees bring their families--many children attend each year--and "hotels are less kid-friendly." Wurmbrand herself brings her daughter, Abby, to the meeting.

Wurmbrand points to yet another reason for the choice of facility. "Hotels do not have the outdoor facilities, in general, that resorts have. These recreational opportunities help us achieve our 'retreat' goals very well." Coolfont offers an array of activities, including tennis, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, cross-country skiing, and swimming, plus a spa with 24 treatment rooms.

In fact, more and more planners are choosing to meet at conference resorts (see "No More Monasteries", page 74). They're finding that the activities, rather than being a distraction, offer both a chance to let off steam and an additional opportunity for teambuilding.

Now, I See You...Now, I Don't For Jenny Kolstad, booking a meeting at a conference center means that her life is easier and she looks good to top management. "I like to meet with my coordinator [at the facility during a meeting]," says Kolstad, sales service coordinator for pharmaceutical company MGI Pharma, Inc. But at a recent meeting at a hotel, she says, the coordinator's attitude was "You check in, and maybe I'll see you, maybe I won't." As luck would have it, there was a problem with the food at that meeting, says Kolstad. "I had some upper management people around and it reflected badly on me."

Consequently, she chooses The Northland Inn & Executive Conference Center, a Benchmark Hospitality property, in Brooklyn Park, Minn., whenever meetings can be held near her company's Minneapolis headquarters. "I can't tell you how much work that saves me," she says emphatically. "The people there work with me unbelievably. If I have a problem in a meeting, I just make a phone call and someone's there in 10 minutes. Things run so much more smoothly there."

Kolstad, who has held sales training and product introduction meetings for anywhere from 30 to 60 people at Northland, appreciates the buffet meals. "At a hotel, it can be a nightmare to try to get the right food for people. I'm planning a meeting at a hotel now and will probably spend a couple of hours on menus. If a group has special needs, I have to order a special menu. But at Northland, I don't have to order anything."

At the earliest conference centers, accommodations were somewhat Spartan. Facilities like that continue to be available for groups that prefer them. But groups looking for a little luxury can definitely find it. Kolstad says that she found it at Northland, which is an all-suite property. "The sleeping rooms are fabulous. There are Jacuzzi tubs in each bathroom. Our group loves it. They always ask, 'Are we having this meeting at Northland?'"

Connectivity Update There's no question that technology is the area where the biggest changes in conference centers are taking place. For instance, conference center management company Dolce International, which regularly surveys its customers, has found dramatic increases in customer demands. "More than one-third of our customers want videoconferencing [capabilities]," says marketing vice president JoAnn Swahn. "Two years ago, just a few people mentioned it. About 90 percent of our customers want two phone lines in guest rooms; that's up from 50 or 60 percent."

Managers at other conference centers have also noticed the need for more advanced equipment. However, they also recognize that not all companies require such things as videoconferencing capabilities or Internet connections. If conference centers include too much meeting room equipment in the Complete Meeting Package (CMP) price, they hear that old familiar complaint that planners are being charged for items they don't want and can't use.

Wired Wish List The International Association of Conference Centers is dealing with this dilemma by differentiating between requirements and recommendations. The "Universal Criteria" formulated by IACC's Quality Committee spells out the technology standards that a conference center must meet in order to be a member of IACC. On the audiovisual side, member facilities must include in their conference package "standard A/V," typically "overhead projectors, flip charts, 35mm slide projectors, microphones, and video playback equipment."

Meanwhile, IACC's Technology Committee has issued its "Recommended Guidelines," sort of a wish list of higher tech features. These include providing computer image projection equipment, having printers available for guests' use, and providing Internet connections in conference rooms, guest rooms, and some public areas. Because differentgroups have different needs, the guidelines are strongly recommended by IACC, but not required.

IACC's Technology Committee chairman, Robert Johns, general manager at The Center for Executive Education at Babson College, Wellesley, Mass., says, "Our first goal is to provide the best possible meeting environment. That means Internet connectivity in every room."

Despite his own support of increased technology, Johns fully acknowledges the other viewpoint. "If you're coming to a conference center, part of the purpose is to get away from your office. It wouldn't surprise me if some facilities take the approach of being less technologically advanced and position themselves as the 'concentration environment,'" he says.

While the required-vs.-recommended debate continues, some conference center companies choose to outrun even the recommendations. One such facility is Hamilton Park conference center, in Florham Park, N.J., which Dolce International is positioning as the model for all its conference centers .

Meanwhile, Marriott Conference Centers recently opened the impressively equipped Kingsgate Conference Center at the University of Cincinnati. Kingsgate's features include a fiber-optic backbone, interconnected T1 lines running into all function space, and Category 5 cabling to every guest room. Thus groups can link guest rooms and meeting rooms for simultaneous data transmission.

As conference centers continue to upgrade their technology capabilities, another change is occurring that might at first seem to be a contradiction: conference resorts are becoming increasingly popular. Marriott may have just opened a super-tech conference center, yet "almost everything we're doing now is a conference resort," says Terry Harwood, vice president, Marriott Conference Centers. "We're breaking ground on five in the next six months."

But if the rapid pace of change in the business world is making meetings more intense, shouldn't the "distraction-free environment" be more important than ever? Resort activities "are not distractions, they're enhancements," Harwood replies. "That's what planners are looking for. People today won't go into a monastery for an education. They also want things like ropes courses, golf, swimming, tennis--a kaleidoscope of experiences."

People themselves have changed, Harwood explains. "They expect experiences and amenities, they feel entitled to them. They won't be distracted when they're in the meeting room. But when they want experiences, we can provide them."

Attendees' expectations of guest rooms are changing, too. Says JoAnn Swahn, marketing vice president, Dolce International, "In the past, the guest room wasn't as important. But now it's the office on the road. After the meeting, people work. So they demand more comfort."