You might think of conference centers only as a setting for no-nonsense meetings or training. These five companies have used them for just about everything-- from rolling out the latest Porsche to teaching attendees the art of fire swallowing.

COMPANY Porsche, Stuttgart, Germany

MEETING The North American Porsche 911 Media Introduction

LOCATION Skamania Lodge, Stevenson, Wash. It takes just the right road conditions to launch a Porsche--scenic and not too heavily traveled. For its two-week media introduction of the 1999 911 in May, Porsche also needed to be in the Northwest, and close to both a major airport and a racetrack.

"The Portland, Oregon, area met all of those conditions," comments Mike Geylin, Porsche's spokes- person. "But then we also needed a conference center that could meet our room, food, and meeting space requirements. And we were looking for one with outside space available where we could keep and work on the cars."

The 195-room Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, Wash., fit the bill. During the four, three-day press trips about 16 journalists per round were doing some intensive test driving on 260 miles of narrow mountain roads mixed with long, flat stretches one day, then half a day at Portland International Raceway's track. Because of the intensity, Geylin wanted to make sure that the rest of the program was relaxing.

"All of that driving can get frenetic and hectic," he says. "So you want to make the program enjoyable and you have to remember that any glitches in service, from checking attendees in to the quality of the food, could put the journalists in a negative frame of mind." Geylin's goal, of course, was to put his international audience in a positive frame of mind. "A place with special qualities can improve a person's mood. And that's exactly what happened with Skamania," he says. "People were blown away by the gorgeous scenery--the entire resort overlooks the Columbia River Gorge--and the venue also ranks as one of the best places we've used in terms of the helpfulness and friendliness of the staff."

According to Geylin, Skamania's staff went the extra mile, from setting up a 5 a.m. check-out with coffee for attendees scheduled on early flights, to helping Porsche transfer the cars from the dealership to the conference center. "Our conference planner, Kim Penner, even personally took attendees' clothing back and forth to a dry cleaner. The staff accommodated all of our requests if they were reasonable and do-able, and did so without argument or hassle," he says.

COMPANY Zip2, Mountain View, Calif.

MEETING First Annual Partner Symposium

LOCATION Bell Harbor International Conference Center, Seattle, Wash. To heat things up a bit for its Partner Symposium in February, Zip2, which provides online city guides for media companies, decided to encourage its attendees to play with fire--literally. And the Bell Harbor International Conference Center had no problem allowing Las Vegas performer and motivational speaker Marshall Sylvers to teach the 100 media executives the art of fire-swallowing. Sylvers teaches this unusual art as a way to build sales groups' confidence.

"We had an odd request and the resort was definitely accommodating," comments marketing coordinator Katharina Schwarz. "It was wonderful how flexible they were with what we wanted to do."

Zip2's Director of Marketing Rita Belle was looking for superb facilities since it was the company's first symposium. "I wanted us to look very professional," she says. "So the physical layout of the resort was an important factor to me. I really liked the newness of Bell Harbor--the whole look and feel was brand-new, since it had just recently opened. And they are up-to-date with technology, which is key for a high-tech company like us."

And according to Schwarz, the center's location didn't hurt Zip2's image, either. "We wanted a view, and Bell Harbor had a gorgeous setting on the water," she says. "It was beautiful even in the rain in February."

Belle reports that the conference center personnel accommodated every special request. These included setting up a conference room within 15 minutes at 6:30 a.m., staying overtime until 11 p.m. for an audiovisual rehearsal, and ordering last-minute gifts for a panel of speakers. They even had pagers so the company could communicate its needs instantaneously.

Schwarz concurs: "The staff were perfect. Like good retail store employees, they didn't crowd you but were always there when you needed them."

COMPANY The Institute of Nuclear Materials Management (INMM), Northbrook, Ill.

MEETING The Explosive Protection Workshop

LOCATION Georgetown University Conference Center, Washington, D.C. Melanie Epel, administrative director for The Institute of Nuclear Materials (INMM), came to the Georgetown University Conference Center with two equally unusual requests: She needed enough outdoor space to demonstrate a bomb-squad vehicle and enough indoor space for a canine-detection demonstration.

"I had sent an outline of the program, and the sales manager, Peggy Lui, called to find out more details. She told me how interesting the meeting sounded and how excited the conference center would be to host it," says Epel. "Her follow-up cover letter and phone calls were all well-done and personalized, and that was important to me when making my final decision."

Highlights of the April meeting of 85 military personnel and nuclear engineering consultants included two speakers from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Topics, which focused on threat trends and explosive detection, were followed up with live demonstrations outside of the 146-room facility. "The conference center obtained permission from the university bigwigs to use the campus grounds for our meeting, which was very helpful to us," says Epel.

A demonstration by the U.S. Capitol Police--which called for a robot that retrieves bombs in dangerous situations--went off without a bang (no actual or fake bombs were used). "Beforehand, the conference center staff also helped the Capitol Police get their two trucks, one for supplies and another like a small cement-mixer that stores retrieved bombs, onto the campus," says Epel.

According to her, that little bit of extra service made a big difference. "Conference manager John Luykx came in on his day off to locate lost packages. He also helped us, sleeves rolled up, set up and tear down booths. Even Peggy didn't stop once the contract was signed, as salespeople tend to do. Instead, she did everything from taking me on a pre-meeting tour of the facility to resolving plane reservation problems for one of our international attendees."

COMPANY Black & Decker, Towson, Md.

MEETING Sales Meeting for the Industrial Construction Division of North American Power Tools

LOCATION Scottsdale Conference Resort, Scottsdale, Ariz. For the past ten years, meeting specialist Holly Theuns has been planning unconventional events for Black & Decker involving drills, saws, screw drivers, wrenches, and hammers. When she approached the 326-room Scottsdale Conference Resort with a proposal to host a meeting involving hands-on sessions with all of the aforementioned tools--as well as blocks of concrete, rotary hammers, and tractor-trailers--they "did not blink an eye.

"We needed outdoor space to set up four tents side-by-side where about 20 attendees per tent would be simultaneously testing our products against the competition," explains Theuns. One part of the product testing called for large blocks of concrete, which the attendees would break up with rotary hammers. "We erected the tents and used all of the power tools on the tennis courts. With the rotary hammers especially, there is a tremendous amount of noise and a mess of fine dust and large chunks of concrete that need to be disposed of afterwards," Theuns says. "Giving us that area involved a high level of trust on the part of the resort."

Black & Decker also needed to unload two 52-foot tractor-trailers that held the industrial equipment. "The conference center removed the fencing around the tennis courts to allow us to unload easily with a forklift," says Theuns. "And at the end of the meeting, the engineering department assisted us in getting rid of scrap lumber, concrete, and all the other extra supplies that we didn't want to trek back with us."

Theuns was also impressed with the partnership conference coordinator Barb Savoy created with Black & Decker. "Each of our staff employees carries a walkie-talkie with him during a meeting in order to facilitate communication," she says. "We always give one to our liaison at a hotel or a conference center as well, but it doesn't always happen that the contact is tuned into the walkie-talkie at all times. Barb was, however, and because of this nothing was ever miscommunicated. She even provided us with her home phone number in case we needed her in the evenings."

COMPANY Research Institute of America Group, New York City

MEETING National Sales Meeting

LOCATION Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort, Colorado Springs, Colo. Darla Wall knows the true meaning of a meeting that is out of this world. That's because in January, Wall, conference coordinator for Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort, worked on a futuristic theme involving aliens--among other far-out things--for the Research Institute of America Group (RIAG).

For its week-long meeting, RIAG wanted to incorporate cyberspace and technology, so the 321-room conference center's staff started by transforming the front lobby and lounge into a "Cyber Cafe." Upon arrival, attendees got a taste of the future from the cafe's neon signs, glow sticks, lava lamps, electricity balls, and yards of silver lame. The lounge was also connected to cyberspace via computers with Internet access.

Each evening, RIAG planned a different party around its theme. "I told Darla what I wanted and what we could afford and she did the rest," says Laura Sayegh, former vice president of creative resources for RIAG. "She was responsible for everything, even the decorations."

One of the evening highlights was a Cyber Casino party. A smoke-filled tunnel brought attendees into the ballroom, which was staffed by aliens and "Men in Black" and decorated with black lights, laser lights, and glow-in-the-dark stars and planets. "The resort did the decorations and rented the costumes," says Wall. "The special events coordinator and I personally went to craft, fabric, and party stores and bought everything from overlays for the tables to Halloween-type headbands to accent the employees' attire. Basically, we came up with the ideas and then went out and shopped."

Sayegh emphasizes that the biggest obstacle was coordinating meeting and theme party times, given that they both took place in the same room. "We had meetings from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the general session room and then each evening they transformed it into a casino, a carnival, a comedy club, and so on. Even when we were late turning the area over to them, the resort set up for the evening events on time," she says. "Then, by the following morning, it always looked like nothing had gone on there the night before."

Sayegh also says that the conference center accommodated continuous last-minute requests. "The best example is that one morning at 9 a.m. we decided to have a hands-on computer demonstration during a 12 o'clock session the same day," she says. "The conference center had three hours to set up two plugs and one T1 hookup per person, for 180 people. It was a huge challenge, and they met it."

According to Sayegh, attendees were also pleased. "No one went off property the entire time," she says. "That's highly unusual."