Conference centers promise a certain welcome uniformity. Meeting planners appreciate knowing that when they walk into a facility that meets the standards of the International Association of Conference Centers, they will find distraction-free learning environments, dedicated conference coordinators, complete meeting package pricing, nonstop refreshment breaks, and ergonomically appropriate furniture.

Conference centers' common purpose, however, can be misconstrued as leading to a cookie-cutter approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. Around the country and the world, conference centers are finding unusual ways to market their spaces and set themselves apart. Here's a look at some facilities that stand out.


Acting Out at the Millennium

When the folks at the Millennium Conference Center got together to brainstorm training formats for groups at their facility, they realized that they had a built-in angle. The 33-room conference center is part of the Millennium Broadway hotel, in New York City's theater district — so why not do something related to the theater?

Planners can arrange to have John D. McNally, a professional actor and teacher, guide their attendees in customized role-playing sessions. McNally has appeared in more than 200 theater, film, and television productions. (Perhaps you saw him in Scarecrow, with Al Pacino.)

Before McNally works with a group, he confers with the meeting planner to discuss the training objectives, then creates role-playing scenarios geared to those goals. He begins each session with warm-up exercises intended to put attendees at ease and, he says, to help them “begin paying close attention to the underlying communications that will take place later on in the more complex role-playing.” And then — places, everyone!


Wye River's Presidential Seal of Approval

“We do a lot of business with the CIA and the Defense Department; they're comfortable with the environment,” says Ray O'Mara, general manager of the Aspen Wye River Conference Centers in Queenstown, Md. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is also a repeat customer. But what really solidified the high-security reputation of the Marriott-managed Wye River complex was the Middle East Peace Talks, attended by President Clinton, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in late 1998.

Located on the eastern shore of Maryland, Wye River is five miles from U.S. Highway 50. “We're off the beaten path, through cornfields,” says O'Mara. “There's just the one road in. And the conference center buildings are on 1,100 acres that are surrounded by water.” The Middle East summit delegates, says O'Mara, “were self-contained within this compound.” Of course there were plenty of Secret Service and Navy SEAL units on duty, but the setting possibly made their job a tad easier.

The complex includes three buildings, each with its own guest rooms (a total of 86) and conference facilities. “You could have three groups that never see each other,” says O'Mara. “But it's not uncommon for a group to buy out the whole facility; exclusivity is a factor.” As is the ability to discuss international strategies — or corporate marketing plans — well protected from prying eyes.

Creative Environment

Culture at the Summit

“Our purpose is to promote education and inspire personal and professional growth,” says John Potterton, director in charge, business development, for the Summit Executive Centre in Chicago. That's true of many conference centers. But what's different at the Summit is the way music and art have come to support that purpose.

When attendees step into the corridors and lounges, they see works by local artists who have received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts or from the State of Illinois. Summit management, in an effort to create a thought-provoking environment, commissioned a consultant to find the works.

Along a similar vein, Summit staff recently began turning on background music in each meeting room, even before the instructors arrived, “just so people would feel that something was already going on,” Potterton explains. “We experimented with different types of music. People's responses amazed us. When we played Mozart, they would say they liked it. When we played other music, they asked us to turn it off.

“There's been some scientific research proving that listening to Mozart helps you learn and enhances productivity,” says Potterton. “We now consider music by Mozart a tool to create a better learning experience. People feel that they're in a setting where serious learning is taking place.”


Kingsgate: Wired as You Want to Be

The original idea was to develop a conference center on the University of Cincinnati campus that would meet the demands of the university's medical school. A biomolecular research facility was being built, and the physicians working there would need meeting rooms with advanced technology, says Kathy Larrance, area director, sales and marketing, for Marriott Conference Centers. But when Marriott opened the super-wired Kingsgate Conference Center in late 1999, the corporate world was as enthusiastic as the physicians, says Larrance.

“The amphitheaters are a huge attraction,” she says. “They have plug-and-play desktops.” In the two-tiered rooms, each seating 60 people, every seat has a power source, microphone jack, and Internet connection. Another plus, notes Larrance, is the built-in LCD/video projection system: “People aren't tripping over wires.” A touch-screen panel gives the session presenter control of tech functions in the amphitheater. There is also the capability for videoconferencing and Web conferencing, as well as point-to-point satellite teleconferencing.

All 23 meeting rooms, including the ballroom and amphitheaters, are wired into each other and into the 206 guest rooms with T3 Ethernet connections. T3 is 30 times faster than T1, speeding data at 45 megabits per second. Guest rooms have two phone lines with data ports and CAT 5 connections for high-speed Internet access. Personal printers, fax machines, and copiers are also available.


Graylyn: Estate of Mind

How many conference centers can boast of having a room with hand-carved, gilded wood paneling from a mosque in Istanbul? Or a 15th-century French carved-stone doorway? Or a bathroom with 17 shower heads? All that is just the beginning for Graylyn International Conference Center of Wake Forest University, managed by International Conference Resorts.

The 55-acre Graylyn estate was the residence of Bowman Gray Sr., who eventually became chairman of the board of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. His son donated the estate to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., which opened it as a conference center in 1984. The estate's four buildings now house 25 meeting rooms and 98 guest rooms. Many of the Gray family's original furnishings remain.

Design features that caused so much buzz when the estate was built in 1932 have the same effect on today's conferees. The stone-walled, slate-roofed Manor House is modeled after buildings in the Normandy region of France. Everyone talks about the swimming pool area, which Gray had designed to resemble one he'd seen on an ocean liner, with porthole-style windows, art deco murals showing mermaids, and a railing with wrought-iron pelicans and fish. The men's dressing room is decorated with tiles depicting the original “Old Joe” on the Camel cigarette package.


Breaking Bread at Chaminade

Ropes courses aren't right for every group, but “everyone likes to eat,” says Kim Crawford, director of sales and marketing at Chaminade Executive Conference Center, Santa Cruz, Calif., managed by Benchmark Hospitality. That's the idea behind the center's Culinary Team Building program, designed to create team spirit in the kitchen and eventually on the job. Sessions are conducted by an executive chef, who outlines the objectives: working toward a common goal, interacting skillfully, having fun, and being creative.

Participants — a maximum of 40 people, divided into groups of 10 — then have 30 to 45 minutes to get organized and prepare a meal. While cooking, they snack on wine and cheese, and then they sit down to the meal they've prepared. The chef debriefs the group, discussing the accomplishment of goals, working as a team, and the evolution of team leadership.

Physical Setting

Skamania: Rooms with a View

At the end of Lewis and Clark's Oregon Trail is the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, with mountains, canyons, forests, and waterfalls, including 620-foot Multnomah, the country's second-highest year-round waterfall. Set on 175 acres in the gorge, in Stevenson, Wash., is Skamania Lodge, a Dolce Conference Resort.

Skamania was designed to respect, as well as reflect, its setting. The four-story lodge is constructed of heavy timber and native stone. All 194 guest rooms, the dining room, lounge, and lobby have dramatic views of the gorge or the forested Cascade Mountains. The 18-hole golf course winds through the forest. The meeting rooms have no views, however: No one would be able to concentrate.

The floor in the Gorge Room lounge is wide pine boards; the lobby floor is slate; and those two rooms surround an 85-foot-tall fireplace made of rock from a nearby quarry. The U.S. Forest Service operates a permanent information center in the Skamania lobby.