“Pharmaceutical meetings were strong for us for the past three years, especially traditional sales training meetings,” said Andy Dolce, founder, chairman, and CEO, Dolce International, Montvale, N.J. And there is more good news — pressure on corporate budgets is easing — a little — and that's a positive trend both for planners and for conference centers. So said Dolce and three other industry executives who discussed conference center trends with Medical Meetings recently: Mike Fahner, vice president of development, Aramark Harrison Lodging (AHL), Philadelphia; Rory Loberg, president, AHL; and Jack Schmidt, chief marketing officer, Benchmark Hospitality International, The Woodlands (Houston).

When budgets were tighter, “corporations had to cut back on executive training, so there's pent-up demand,” said Fahner. “Companies are stressing training and personal development for executives.” Loberg added, “Now, as companies go through Sarbanes-Oxley, there's a need for retraining.”

At Benchmark, “We're seeing annual sales meetings come back, and some larger meetings that were canceled are starting to reappear, especially in resort destinations,” reported Schmidt.

Booking cycles are lengthening — at least a bit. “Our room-night bookings are 25 percent ahead of where they were at this time last year,” said Schmidt. Fahner agreed. At Aramark Harrison, “What was three months is now five to six months,” he said. At Dolce conference centers in Europe, though, “bookings are still very short-term,” said Dolce. “They lag the U.S. by as much as six months to a year in terms of the economy.”

Conference center executives remain committed to the Complete Meeting Package, conference centers' all-inclusive rate, convinced that it's best for everyone. “The sophisticated planner understands the value of guaranteed pricing, with no surprises,” said Loberg. “We'll unbundle if someone wants an off-site meeting or dinner; we've always done that. But we still prefer the CMP.”

Helping planners understand the CMP is critical, said Schmidt. “Most planners are not full-time planners,” he said. “We in the hospitality industry have trained them to buy in a faulty manner. They buy on the room rate without ever seeing a banquet menu or knowing what percentage of attendees will drive or fly, and so on. We have to explain that they must look at the total meeting cost, and that the hotel room is one of the smallest costs.”

Dolce stressed education, too. “Our focus is on the new customer who isn't used to the conference center concept,” he said. “About 60 percent of our business is CMP, 10 percent is group European Plan, and the balance is tour, leisure, and industry business. We feel if we can get the group EP, we can convert them to CMP.”

As conference centers work to educate planners, they face a new challenge: procurement. “Procurement is a trend that's not going away,” said Dolce. “They want to see apples to apples, not apples to pears, so we'll continue to educate them so they can see the value of the CMP. Fahner concurs: “The challenge is to get procurement to understand that the CMP is not the same as the room rate, that what we do is not a commodity business.”

In Schmidt's view, “Corporate procurement departments are really no different in many instances than third parties or inexperienced meeting planners. We need to educate them. This is one more thing we need to deal with — but there's always one more thing.”