Companies take people out of the office to get them away from it. But if there's Internet connectivity in every room, do you want your people online the instant they check in? If they can replicate their offices in their guest rooms, will they constantly be distracted by work?
That's the challenge faced by Robert Johns, general manager at The Center for Executive Education at Babson College and technology committee chairman for the International Association of Conference Centers. As Johns puts it, "If you're coming to a conference center, part of the purpose is to get away from your office and create a distraction-free environment."
At the same time, many companies that meet at conference centers are accustomed to the latest in presentation and connectivity technologies. Therefore, IACC's Technology Committee's "Recommended Guidelines" for its centers--a sort of wish list of high-tech features--includes everything from computer image projection equipment and printers for guests' use to Internet connections in conference rooms, guest rooms, and some public areas.
Some say that most companies want and need all of the above, so why not make them standard across the conference center industry and include them as part of the Complete Meeting Package? Others argue that not everyone needs everything, and they don't want to be charged for technology they won't use. Johns takes the latter position one step further. "It wouldn't surprise me," he says, "if some facilities take the approach of being less technologically advanced and position themselves as the 'concentration environment.'"
The Meet-Loaf Principle Perhaps proof of this is the fact that conference resorts are becoming increasingly popular. At Marriott, for example, "almost everything we're doing now is a conference resort," says Terry Harwood, vice president, Marriott Conference Centers. "We're breaking ground on five within the next six months."
Times have changed, Harwood says. "People today ... want things like ropes courses, golf, swimming, tennis--a kaleidoscope of experiences. They expect experiences and amenities; they feel entitled to them.
"They won't be distracted when they're in the meeting room," he adds. "But when they want experiences, we can provide them." It all works together because of what Harwood calls the "meet-loaf principle": "First they meet, and then they loaf."
Wired for Speed On the flip side are people such as Pat Coglianese, senior vice president of education for Chase Manhattan Bank, who spoke on the subject of conference center technology at an IACC-sponsored panel discussion at Chase Conference Center at Manhattan Plaza in New York City.
"Conference centers must address the needs of groups wherever they are, whenever," Coglianese noted. "The pace of change has accelerated, and that's clearly driven by technology. Communication happens 24/7."
The other panelists were equally bullish on meeting technology as a means to an end. "We are in businesses we weren't in five years ago," said Bellamy Schmidt, vice president at J.P. Morgan & Co. Inc. "We have to communicate that to our employees and to our customers and clients. We'll have to use new technologies to help us do that."
Also, said Schmidt, "There's an absolute need for connectivity to the Internet for any classroom. People want today's data, this hour's data."
"In the past, people used overheads and asked the concierge to type the hard copy," added Jack Schmidt, vice president of sales and marketing for Benchmark Hospitality. "Now, in the meeting room, they can tap into their company's intranet, display it, and use it for presentations. People travel with sophisticated laptops and work online with their companies' information systems. And our conference concierges, instead of being processors who make copies and run errands, must be proficient in different types of software."
Most IACC conference centers are experiencing similar changes. What was once considered almost too much in presentation and connectivity technologies is now not nearly enough. And like Schmidt, most conference center managers are finding that to meet customers' needs, they need to make big changes, whether everyone uses the technology or not.
Bill Ohlhausen needed offices for 55 people for seven months, all networked to his client's offices nearby. And he needed them up and running in four days. Impossible? Not for the telecommunications staff of Hickory Ridge, Lisle, Ill., a conference center that's intentionally overequipped--just in case.
Ohlhausen is facilities project manager for information technology services provider Computer Sciences Corp., El Segundo, Calif. He was bringing his team to Chicago to transition certain functions of Budget Group Inc., a vehicle rental and sales company, to an outsourced company.
"We're intense about doing online work," Ohlhausen says. "A high-speed network is critical for our type of operation, and Hickory Ridge offered it." Ohlhausen leased an entire floor in the conference center's West Tower. "We put in our own server on that floor and ran the operation internally," he says. "We put in our own network but depended on their telephone switch."
CSC made its request on a Thursday. By Monday, 24 offices with three phones each had been set up. "We have the staff, equipment, and technology to do things on the spur of the moment," says Harold Karbonek, telecommunications manager at Hickory Ridge."Everything here is prewired. We have Category 6 wiring. And we have a fiber-optic backbone from the phone room to their offices." Karbonek estimates that CSC's costs were about one-quarter what the company might have paid elsewhere.
The CSC transition team also held meetings at Hickory Ridge. "All the meeting rooms are networked together, and we networked the meeting rooms back to their offices in the West Tower," says Karbonek.
All in all, says Ohlhausen, "It was an excellent match.
When a company in the teleconferencing business needs to do a videoconference at a conference center, that facility's reputation is on the line. Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort, Colorado Springs, Colo., faced that challenge when it hosted a meeting for Boulder, Colo.based Vstream, which produces audio and videoconferences.
"We wanted a central location away from the office for a strategic planning meeting with our executive officers and board members," says Tracy Wypyszyk, executive assistant for Vstream. But the company had another key requirement: The facility had to offer videoconferencing. One board member was in California, and his input was vital.
"We can videoconference in all our meeting rooms on very short notice," says Dan Zwach, MIS director at Cheyenne. "We also have T1 connections in all the meeting rooms."
There was just one hitch. Cheyenne is registered with Sprint for videoconferences, but in California, Vstream was using Affinity VideoNet. To do the videoconference, both sites had to be qualified to use Affinity.
"We were in the process of getting qualified for Affinity, but Tracy's needs came up quickly," says Zwach. "We qualified ourselves by doing a test videoconference to our facility so we could do her meeting."