A roundup of conference center originals whose inventiveness or unusual features remind us that learning environments don't have to be boring.

Conference centers promise a certain welcome uniformity. Meeting planners appreciate knowing that when they walk into a facility that meets the standards of the International Association of Conference Centers, they will find distraction-free learning environments, with dedicated conference coordinators, complete meeting package pricing, nonstop refreshment breaks, and ergonomically appropriate furniture.

Conference centers' common purpose, however, can be misconstrued as a cookie-cutter formula. Nothing could be further from the truth. Around the country and the world, conference centers are finding unusual ways to market their spaces and set themselves apart. Here's a look at just 10 facilities that are implementing exciting innovations or whose particular circumstances are worth a special mention.

Creative Environment Culture at the Summit "Our purpose is to promote education and inspire personal and professional growth," says John Potterton, director in charge, business development, for the Summit Executive Centre in Chicago. That's true of many conference centers. But what's different at the Summit is the way music and art have come to support that purpose.

When attendees step into the corridors and lounges, they see works by local artists who have received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts or from the state of Illinois. Summit management commissioned a consultant to find the works, in an effort to create a thought-provoking environment.

Along a similar vein, Summit staff recently began turning on background music in each meeting room, even before the instructors arrived, "just so people would feel that something was already going on," says Potterton. "We experimented with different types of music. People's responses amazed us. When we played Mozart, they'd say they liked it. When we played other music, they asked us to turn it off.

"There's been some scientific research proving that listening to Mozart helps you learn and enhances productivity," says Potterton. "We now consider music by Mozart a tool to create a better learning experience. People feel that they're in a setting where serious learning is taking place."

Training Acting Out at the Millennium When the folks at the Millennium Conference Center got together to brainstorm training formats for groups at their facility, they realized that they had a built-in angle. The 33-room conference center is part of the Millennium Broadway hotel, in New York City's theater district - so why not do something related to the theater?

Planners can arrange to have John D. McNally, a professional actor and teacher, guide their attendees in customized role-playing sessions. McNally has appeared in more than 200 theater, film, and television productions. Perhaps you saw him in "Scarecrow," with Al Pacino.

Before McNally works with a group, he confers with the meeting planner to discuss the training objective, then creates role-playing scenarios geared to those goals. He begins each session with warm-up exercises intended to put attendees at ease and, he says, help them "begin paying close attention to the underlying communications that will take place later on in the more complex role-playing." And then - places, everyone!

Connectivity Kingsgate: As Wired as You Want The original idea was to develop a conference center on the University of Cincinnati campus that would meet the demands of the university's medical school. A biomolecular research facility was being built, and the physicians working there would need meeting rooms with advanced technology, says Kathy Larrance, area director, sales and marketing, for Marriott Conference Centers. But when Marriott opened the super-wired Kingsgate Conference Center in late 1999, the corporate world was as enthusiastic as the physicians, says Larrance.

"The amphitheaters are a huge attraction," she says. "They have plug-and-play desktops." In the two-tiered amphitheaters, each seating 60 people, every seat has a power source, microphone jack, and Internet connection. Another plus, notes Larrance, is the built-in LCD/video projection system: "People aren't tripping over wires." A touch-screen panel gives the session presenter control of tech functions in the amphitheater. There's also capability for video conferencing, point-to-point satellite teleconferencing, and Web conferencing.

All 23 meeting rooms, including the ballroom and amphitheaters, are wired into each other and into the 206 guest rooms with T3 Ethernet connections. T3 is 30 times faster than T1, speeding data at 45 megabits per second. Guest rooms have two phone lines with data ports and CAT 5 connections for high-speed Internet access. Personal printers, fax machines, and copiers are also available.

Architecture Graylyn: Estate of Mind How many conference centers can boast of having a room with handcarved, gilded wood paneling from a mosque in Istanbul? Or a 15th-century French carved-stone doorway? Or a bathroom with 17 shower heads? But all that is just the beginning for the Graylyn International Conference Center of Wake Forest University, an International Conference Resort.

The 55-acre Graylyn estate was the residence of Bowman Gray Sr., who eventually became chairman of the board of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. His son donated the estate to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., which opened it as a conference center in 1984. The estate's four buildings now house 25 meeting rooms and 98 guest rooms. Many of the Gray family's original furnishings remain.

Design features that caused so much buzz when the estate was built in 1932 have the same effect on today's conferees. The stone-walled, slate-roofed Manor House is modeled after buildings in the Normandy region of France. Everyone talks about the swimming pool area, which Gray had designed to resemble one he'd seen on an ocean liner, with porthole-style windows, Art Deco murals showing mermaids, and a railing with wrought-iron pelicans and fish. The men's dressing room is decorated with tiles depicting the original "Old Joe" on the Camel cigarette package.

Security Wye River's Presidential Seal of Approval "We do a lot of business with the CIA and the Defense Department; they're comfortable with the environment," says Ray O'Mara, general manager of the Aspen Wye River Conference Centers in Queenstown, Md. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is also a repeat customer. But what really solidified the high-security reputation of the Marriott-managed Wye River complex was the Middle East Peace Talks attended by President Clinton, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in late 1998.

Located on the eastern shore of Maryland, Wye River is five miles in from U.S. Highway 50. "We're five miles off the beaten path, through cornfields," says O'Mara. "There's just the one road in. And the conference center buildings are on 1,100 acres that are surrounded by water." The Middle East summit delegates, says O'Mara, "were self-contained within this compound." Of course there were plenty of Secret Service and Navy SEAL units on duty, but the setting possibly made their job a tad easier.

The complex includes three buildings, each with its own guest rooms - a total of 86 - and conference facilities. "You could have three groups that never see each other," says O'Mara. "But it's not uncommon for a group to buy out the whole facility; exclusivity is a factor." As is the ability to discuss international strategies - or corporate marketing plans - well-protected from prying eyes.

Physical Setting Skamania: Rooms with a View At the end of Lewis and Clark's Oregon Trail is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, with mountain peaks, canyons, forests, and more than 70 waterfalls, including 620-foot Multnomah, the second-highest year-round waterfall in the country. And set on 175 acres within the gorge, in Stevenson, Wash., is Skamania Lodge, a Dolce Conference Resort.

Skamania was designed to respect, as well as reflect, its setting. The four-story lodge is constructed of heavy timber and native stone. All 194 guest rooms, the dining room, lounge, and lobby have dramatic views of the gorge or the forested Cascade Mountains. There's an outdoor hot tub near a waterfall; and the 18-hole golf course winds through the forest. The meeting rooms have no views, however: No one would be able to concentrate.

The natural setting has also been brought indoors. The floor in the Gorge Room lounge is wide pine boards; the lobby floor is slate; and those two rooms surround an 85-foot-tall fireplace made of rock from a nearby quarry. Boulders excavated during construction are also used in the interior design. The U.S. Forest Service operates a permanent information center in the Skamania lobby.

Program Assistance Auburn U. at Your Service Groups meeting at the Auburn University Hotel and Dixon Conference Center, in Auburn, Ala., have access to an impressive roster of speakers and consultants: the university's researchers and instructors. "Sometimes, during the sales process, a planner will say he's looking for a certain kind of expertise or speaker," says general manager John Wild. "We can offer that. The university publishes a book listing the faculty and their areas of expertise."

Faculty members can design a program for a group and offer it several times, if the planner chooses. Professors at Auburn's business school, for example, put together a program on finance for the nonfinancial manager that was so well-received the corporate client continued to send groups through the program for several years.

An amazing range of programs is available. When paper products marketer Kimberly Clark brought in biologists to study product absorbency, "they liked having someone come from campus" to work with them, says Wild. The Alabama Pest Control Association meets at Auburn at least once a year; faculty members help write their programs. "Some [clients] need faculty expertise to be sure their employees remain certified," Wild points out. If groups need computer instruction, the university can provide that as well.

"We were built to offer continuing education," says Wild. "Our clients enjoy the link to the faculty, and they like the university setting."

Work and Play From Schuss to "Mush!" at Squaw Creek Conference centers often get stereotyped as all-work, no play. But most have at least some recreational options, and a few are practically defined by them. The Benchmark-managed Resort at Squaw Creek in Squaw Valley, Calif., falls squarely in the latter category. Located at the base of Squaw Valley USA, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, the conference center provides ski-in/ski-out access to Squaw Valley via an exclusive on-property chair lift.

Squaw Creek's director of skiing, Franz Weber, is a former Olympian and six-time-consecutive World Speed Skiing Champion. "We really like using Franz with conference groups," says Dan Dolan, director of sales and marketing. "He can spend an entire day with the group and tailor the activities to their needs."

Then there are the dog sled rides, operated by a professional dog-sled developer. "There's a lot of excitement when the ride is about to start, with the dogs barking and yipping," says Dolan. "The sleds cover 16 kilometers of groomed trails, and people get to see sights throughout the valley."

The list of activities goes on: outdoor ice skating, golf on an 18-hole Robert Trent Jones course, and two tennis courts. When it's time to relax, there are three Jacuzzis, each with a different water temperature; a spa offering massage, facials, and salon services; a fitness center; and five dining rooms.

Web Site QEII's Jolly Good Site The Web site for London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center (www.qeiicc.co.uk) is not just a printed fact sheet transferred to the Web. Using color, motion, and British drollery, it presents details on meeting space, meeting technology, audiovisual services, foodservice, and even includes price quotes.

Click on the blinking "What's New" link. The lead story, "Loos Make News," reports on the first phase of an interior redesign - new lavatories - complete with color photos of the new vanities and the blue mosaic tiles. More seriously, there's an article on how the center was set up to issue the official announcement when the new Lord Mayor of London was chosen, as well as news on the center's latest tech development, wireless local area networks. The LAN story links to the site's "Meetings Technology" area, where you can learn what a LAN is and how to use one. There's also information on the center's ability to set up a cybercafe.

Click on "Floorplans" and see the layouts for each floor, plus 360-degree panoramic views of several meeting rooms. The QEII has 34,000 square feet of meeting space in nine rooms, plus many breakout rooms.

The "Audiovisual" link offers information on Interface, the in-house production company, including a list of technical services and a detailed rate sheet. Go to the site's "Catering" section for sample menus with prices, food shots, and even recipes of the month. (The latest culinary development at the QEII is a totally organic conference menu.)

The QEII is a nonresidential conference center. But click the "Hotel Bookings" link and you'll find the name of the preferred supplier for hotel reservations. With the details covered so thoroughly, everyone should sleep well.

Team Building Breaking Bread at Chaminade Ropes courses and other outdoor team-building activities aren't always appropriate, but "everyone likes to eat," says Kim Crawford, director of sales and marketing at Chaminade Executive Conference Center, Santa Cruz, Calif., managed by Benchmark Hospitality. That's the idea behind the center's Culinary Team Building program, designed to build team spirit in the kitchen and eventually on the job. The one-hour sessions are conducted by an executive chef, who outlines the event's objectives: working toward a common goal, interacting skillfully, having fun, and being creative. He and his assistants explain knife safety and proper sanitation, provide recipes, demonstrate cooking procedures, and present samples of the finished products.

Participants - a maximum of 40 people, divided into groups of 10 - then have 30 to 45 minutes to get organized and prepare the meal. While team members cook, they snack a la Julia Child on wine and cheese, and when they're finished, sit down to the meal they've prepared. The chef debriefs the group, discussing the accomplishment of goals, working as a team, and the evolution of team leadership. And while everyone gets to keep a chef's hat and apron, the participant with the most creative presentation also wins a prize: a rubber chicken.