Imagine no longer having to bring your brand to the ballrooms and meeting rooms of the world. Imagine, instead, designing an ideal meeting environment to express your company's vision and letting attendees come to you: no more questionable connectivity, no more plain-vanilla meeting spaces, no more distractions from the noisy group in the adjoining room.

This may sound like the fantasy of a travel-weary marketer on the last leg of a 15-city road show, but this build-it-and-they-will-come scenario plays out around the country in corporate briefing centers. A briefing can't replace that tired marketer's trip to the next user event or trade show, but it is there to help close the deals initiated on the road.

Briefing centers are in-house conference facilities for hosting meetings for high-potential clients. The best are designed to create a brand-enhancing experience for visitors, communicating the company's vision and values, and delivering a meeting agenda with content customized specifically to a client's needs.

Explaining Yourself Isn't Easy

Briefing centers aren't new, but they're flourishing. The 1990s saw a “very pronounced” escalation of the concept, most notably in the tech market, says Roxanne McCreery, executive director of the Association of Briefing Program Managers based in Dallas (www.abpm.com). ABPM's 360 members represent about 100 companies with briefing programs, and about 90 percent of them are tech firms. McCreery explains the connection: “As they [tech companies] moved from selling boxes or applications into ‘solutions,’ we had a lot of explaining to do about how these innovative technologies were going to change our lives, what it was going to mean to businesses, and how it was going to solve our business challenges.”

Briefing program managers, the event planners' close cousin, not only run the centers, but work with sales hosts to create a customized agenda, using experts from the company who understand the client's specific business issues. “They really get into planning content strategically,” says McCreery, who calls the relationship between sales and the briefing program managers “a real partnering.”

In the early 1990s, briefing programs, she says, “were pretty much considered sales support tools. Now the briefing professional is becoming more aware of their strategic value to the organization in terms of mapping their mission to the corporate mission and telling the corporate story in an ever more compelling way.”

Indeed, the hottest new centers are clearly focused on that corporate story: not just in the face-to-face meeting, but in every aspect of the center — sometimes even before customers set foot in the door. “Demo rooms have been around for a long time,” says McCreery, “but there is a move toward delighting visitors on an emotional as well as an intellectual level in the briefing. In some centers, the visit becomes almost experiential.”

Focused Messaging

An experiential environment was certainly part of what Hewlett-Packard wanted to achieve when it gutted and rebuilt the briefing center at its corporate campus in Cupertino, Calif. The project began just after HP had split, spinning off the measurement piece of the company as Agilent and retaining the computing and imaging divisions. The company was rebuilding the center as it was rebuilding its brand.

“We had a chance to really focus our messaging, to really think about our position in the marketplace,” says Sara Lautenbach, HP's briefing program manager.

“Similar to what an event planner does, it's not just about a meeting; it's about creating an experience,” she explains. “The thing that was exciting here was to be able to create an experience that illustrated our vision, our strategy, both from what we're offering as well as our values and how we do business with people. And bringing that all together.”

With a generous 40,000 square feet to work with, the HP vision plays out on many levels in the new center, which opened in August. “First of all, there's an overall style,” Lautenbach says, “an architectural language in terms of the finishes and the materials and the building. The combination of the warmth and the innovation and the sort of ‘with it’ feeling that we want to convey.”

The HP vision is also expressed through the messaging in the center's interactive exhibits. One example: “There are things we call crib toys: a set of blocks with pictures on one side and words on the other where you can make your own collage.” Another: “There is a ‘services storyteller’ that looks like a big ice cream cooler. There are six buttons on the top of the machine. You press any combination of three and it tells you a story.”

And then there's the technology behind the scenes. “Part of what we wanted to do was give an experience that really communicated our thought leadership, and our offerings, and our understanding of working with customers,” Lautenbach says. “And that's why our customers have a Web site before, during, and after the meeting that's tailored to them.”

Ahead of time, a customer's Web site includes an agenda, directions, maps, and so forth. At the center, the customer interacts with the exhibits with a personal digital assistant. If a guest wants more information about an exhibit, he or she can use the PDA to beam the exhibit's “beacon” and capture a Web address. “If the exhibit talked about our partners,” Lautenbach says, “you would get a url to a Web site that talked about our partner program.” Those urls, plus the presentation materials used during the meeting, are on an attendee's Web site when they get back to the office.

For customers in the center, the Web remains prominent. The welcome board is a Web page; the sign outside each meeting room is a Web page. “In the meeting room, the agenda is on the screen as you would expect,” Lautenbach says. “That's a Web page as well. You just click on the agenda item to launch a video or presentation.” The rooms also include wireless high-speed Internet, audio- and videoconferencing, electronic white boards, digital cameras, and printers. Briefing managers keep an eye on things with a Web cam room-monitoring system, and if anyone needs anything, there's a one-button phone to call for assistance.

Write the Story First

HP's 40,000-square-foot center is by every account a stunning showpiece, but experiential-brand-defining design is being executed on a smaller scale as well. Norcross, Ga.-based OFS, the former Optical Fiber Solutions division of Lucent Technologies, for example, opened a 5,000-square-foot center nine months ago. Linda Suvalsky, customer showcase manager, was in on the project from the start. “One of the things that was essential to us was to first define the major elements of our corporate story — and we built the facility around that story.”

Cincinnati-based Jack Rouse Associates, a design and production company, helped Suvalsky and others define and execute their vision. “In all environments — and it doesn't matter if it's a user conference or an exhibit or a briefing center or a theme park — I think the most successful start with a strong story,” says Dale Tesmond, Jack Rouse senior vice president. “And the reason you want to go through the process of developing a great storyline is because a successful one really engages the audience. An audience will only be moved or communicated with when they encounter a story that evokes emotion. We find here that when we write the story first and create an environment or an event based on the story, we have the opportunity to design emotion into it.”

OFS narrowed its message to four themes: the history of optical innovations and corporate history; the manufacturing process; end-to-end solutions; and global reach. It then created permanent displays to reflect those ideas. “We didn't invent this conference center with a lot of static product displays,” says Clyde Laughlin, director of global customer care and technical support for OFS. “In essence, what we're trying to do here is allow the facility to be an experience with customers and then cultivate an expression of our product offerings through the video and the multimedia opportunity, using customized, high-tech presentations in the meeting rooms.” The environment created to house the permanent exhibits also tied into the themes. “The pillars used in the space are an artistic representation of optical glass preforms, which are used in the [fiber-optic cable] manufacturing process. Jack Rouse designers wrapped the columns in a copper patina finish to tie the story to our beginning, when this factory opened as a copper manufacturing plant,” Laughlin says. “The lighting coming through the columns represents going from the past to the future.”

In addition to its exhibit area, the OFS Customer Showcase has a state-of-the-art theater and two briefing rooms, plus its ace in the hole, the manufacturing facility. A manufacturing tour is typically on the agenda for guests, but for those who can't spare the hour for that experience, the company is looking into producing a virtual tour as part of the briefing center.

While the briefing center was important to Lucent, Laughlin sees it taking on an added dimension. “It's a lifeblood situation with this location. With the spinoff, this center becomes the hallmark of our whole new OFS. In fact, this facility is the headquarters of OFS,” he says. “We are a whole new company. This is the vehicle to tell that story and promote our brand recognition.”

The Community

The Association of Briefing Program Managers is a resource for briefing-manager education as well as information on starting or improving briefing programs. The association does research into the effectiveness of briefing programs and has compiled best practices, a resource library, and a recommended reading list. The association's eighth annual conference will be April 2 to 4 in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.abpm.com.