Anyone who has tried to take notes by the light of a projection screen while sitting on a hard-backed chair balancing a notebook on one knee knows the value of an ergonomically designed meeting environment. Conference centers distinguished themselves early on by focusing on key meeting developments--lighting, chairs, audiovisual, and so on--that supported their clients' business needs. Today, conference centers continue to upgrade, aiming to keep pace with emerging communication and presentation technologies that are changing the way business works--and meets.

In 1997, Dolce International, a Montvale, NJ-based conference center company, surveyed its clients, asking about the technology they use in their offices and what they expect from a conference center. The bottom line: "Clients expect their conference center to have at least as good or better technology than they have at their corporate headquarters," says Jo Ann Swahn, Dolce International senior vice president of sales and marketing. The meetings industry, she says, must deal with a technological revolution that is changing how people work, play, and live. "Employees are working harder than before," Swahn says. "Work environments are fully automated and virtual offices keep them connected to the workplace, whether at home or on the road."

Reacting to these trends, Dolce, other conference center companies, and indeed, some forward-thinking hotel companies, are examining the way they operate in order to be ready for the next millennium.

High-Wire Act In guest rooms, the trend is definitely in the direction of multiple high-speed data and telephone lines. "The biggest changes in the future are going to come in communications," says Jim DeVore, telecommunications director at Dolce International's Hamilton Park Conference Center in Florham Park, NJ. "There will be more digital access, more ISDN lines, and particularly more T1 lines." DeVore is talking about the basic connectivity that determines how quickly and clearly a user can connect to the Internet, which is critical for all kinds of communication technology, including teleconferencing.

In 1998 Hamilton Park will bring two telephone lines to every guest room. "And by 1999," DeVore says, "we should have dedicated access to T1 or ISDN lines in all guest rooms."

In addition to Hamilton Park's initiatives, Dolce International is reevaluating its guest room technology companywide. At its November 1997 annual conference, Dolce decided to evaluate the possibility of having up to three separate telephone lines in each guest room--one for voice communication, one for Internet use, and a third line to connect a business guest with the home office. "We'll also be looking at having workstations in guest rooms with a copier/fax/printer combination and a color copier in the business center," Swahn says.

Of course, some centers already take in-room technology to the extreme. You could run a small business out of a guest room at Marriott's IBM/Palisades Executive Conference Center in Palisades, NY. All rooms have an IBM PS/2 computer with CD-ROM as well as Internet access through a local area network (LAN). The computers can be networked so that an in-house group has room-to-room connections. This setup may not seem like a surprise once you know that the property does 50 percent of its business with IBM, but as demand for computer access strengthens, this wired guest room may soon be commonplace.

"The biggest challenge we face is keeping [the computers] current," says Rich Russo, Palisades' consulting information technology (IT) architect. "We don't want to interrupt a guest's use of the computer, so every six months, we update all of the machines. We are implementing network computers so that all applications run on the network and we have a point of central control. Right now we have to individually restore our guest computers to standard once a guest leaves because guests can add or delete applications or leave their own material on the machine. We should have network computers installed by the end of the first quarter of 1998."

Presentation Tech Meeting room technology is moving even faster than that for guest rooms. Educational and communication aids that were, at best, highly impractical just a few years ago are now finding their place in conference center meeting rooms. Take for example, Le Mirador Hotel and Conference Center, on Mont Pelerin in Switzerland, where some meeting rooms are outfitted with an electronic brainstorming tool called GroupSystems V.

With this system, every participant sits at a computer that is networked to a central projector. Participants contribute anonymously to ideas taking shape on each individual's monitor and on a large projection screen. The system's potential for fostering open, nonhierarchical discussions is intriguing, to be sure. Here's a sampling of other thought provoking conference center meeting room technology:

* Hamilton Park offers a PolyCom duplex speakerphone with microphone inputs, which allows 10 to 30 people in a room to teleconference with another location. Such large teleconferences are impossible with a single unit placed on a table with participants grouped around it.

* Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle, opened in June 1996, boasts the only built-in simultaneous interpretation equipment (for up to six languages) on the West Coast. In its 250-seat Bay Auditorium, there's an electronic group interaction system (EGIS) that provides each conference participant with a wireless, hand-held, voting device. EGIS questions and results are projected onto rear-projection screens in 11 meeting rooms and breakout rooms.

* Early this year, IBM/Palisades installed electronic whiteboards in all 21 classrooms and the 350-person Watson Room. Whatever is written on the board is sent to a computer and can be projected, saved, and/or printed. Also in the Watson Room, touch-screen controls in the lectern allows speakers to control presentation graphics and all audiovisual equipment.

* In IBM/Palisades three computer labs, which seat 16, 24, or 32 persons, each participant has a Pentium PC on the desk. These are commonly used for Internet labs or training on software applications such as Lotus Notes.

Experts on Call One of the benefits of working with conference centers in the past has been that they tend to own their own meeting room technology, but as the pace of technological change quickens, conference centers may gain their edge more by being able to implement and assist planners with their technological needs.

At Hickory Ridge Conference Center in Lisle, IL, Bill Kenney, equipment service manager, can offer rear-screen projection built into 15 meeting rooms, along with LCD projection and LCD panels; CRT projectors mounted in the ceilings for use with front screens; and Sony 1270 data projectors built into six conference rooms. But even with all his state-of-the-art equipment, one of Kenney's biggest problems is keeping all the projectors up to date so that they mesh with the programs that presenters use on their laptops.

"We may turn to leasing equipment because it gets outdated so quickly," he says. "At the rate of change, it's no longer cost-effective for conference centers to buy technological improvements. What we buy today can be obsolete before it's delivered." One commodity Kenny will keep in-house is expertise. For example, says Kenney, "Because PowerPoint currently seems to be the most popular presentation program, Hickory Ridge is training some conference service staff in PowerPoint so that changes can be made on-site, and we can make alterations if necessary to go with our equipment."

This dedication to the business of meetings has, over the years, allowed conference centers to carve out a niche for themselves. Their attention to advances in technology, underlined by a service-oriented mentality, may be what continues to set them apart.

What's next for conference center technology? Here's a glance into the crystal ball.

At IBM/Palisades (NY) Conference Center, Rich Russo, consulting IT architect, expects improvements in meeting services with the use of palm-top computers. The center's audiovisual staff is already using them as a cost-effective communications tool, and the next step, he says, is to outfit the conference services department. Conference services managers could use them to keep in touch with each other and with the audiovisual department, as well as for scheduling.

"Waiters will soon also carry palm-tops, using them to take orders at the table and communicate those orders instantly to the kitchen." He says the day may come when all guests at Palisades are issued palm-tops at check-in, giving them instant access to schedules and location information, and the ability to order services electronically and otherwise communicate with conference center staff.

Another new meeting room development to look for: Plasma, a projection technology which may someday replace LCD and CRT because of its speed, range of color capability, and brightness. "Right now I am watching Plasma because it has the greatest potential to take us the next step, but it depends on cost," says Jim DeVore, telecommunications director at International's Hamilton Park Conference Center in Florham Park, NJ. "If the price comes down, it could cause the greatest changes in projection technology. You'd see it in computer monitors, television screens, projection systems; even beepers could carry more than alphanumeric transmissions."

More than half of all business travelers carry personal computers, and 80 percent of those PCs are equipped with a modem, according to a survey of 395 business guests by Marriott Lodging International. Almost 50 percent of respondents want access to data ports and telephone jacks, but only 18 percent like in-room fax machines. Beyond that, some road warriors want coffee pots, ironing boards, and comfortable chairs; others don't care about the other amenities once their meeting technology needs are met.