Food and beverage is suddenly a hot topic for conference centers, according to a panel of executives whose facilities are members of the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC). The panel, which met in New York City recently at the JP [stet] Morgan Chase Conference Center to discuss trends in the conference center industry, included Richard Keurajian, director of sales and marketing, Dolce Tarrytown House, Tarrytown, N.Y.; Geoffrey Lawson, general manager, IBM Palisades, Palisades,N.Y.; Laura Neumann, vice president, Benchmark Hospitality, The Woodlands, Texas; and Marlene Pellerin, vice president, conference centers, JP Morgan Chase, New York City. Moderator was John Wilderman, president and CEO, Greenwich Hospitality Consulting, Greenwich, Conn.

In the past, food and beverage "was a non-important piece" of a conference center’s offerings, Neumann admitted. "Now, when people book a meeting, food and beverage plays a large part in the decision-making. It’s a very competitive environment, and we’ve learned a lot from our hotel competition." Guests are more savvy, and "shuffling them through" food stations "won‘t seal the deal." Consequently, she said, there are now fewer buffets and more food that is imaginative or "interactive"--the latter meaning that guests can watch the chef prepare dishes. She also noted that "a lot of people have different dietary needs. We need to gauge the customer’s needs and be able to react."

Meanwhile, conference centers continue to wrestle with the issue of the CMP (Complete Meeting Package). The all-inclusive CMP--guest rooms, meals, meeting rooms, some AV equipment and services, and continuous coffee breaks--offers the benefit of no-surprise pricing. Still, some planners don’t want to be locked in, and there was a time when conference centers seemed to be loosening up on their requirements. But not these panelists.

"We hold our salespeople accountable for keeping the CMP intact-it’s very profitable," said Neumann. "We’re becoming a little more flexible, but we don’t do that lightly. For example, we’ll allow them to take dinner out of the package, but we don’t offer full credit." Lawson added, "We don’t unbundle. We sell the value of the facility. But we do have a rate range."