Something basic is changing at conference centers. Their selling proposition has always been to offer a distraction-free environment in which every element, from conference room design to furnishings to staffing to technology, has a single purpose: to help serious meetings achieve their objectives. While most elements--ergonomic furniture, nonstop refreshment breaks, dedicated conference coordinators, and other meeting-focused amenities--have remained fairly constant over the years, the technology component has been anything but.
What was once considered almost too much is now not enough. Many companies that meet at conference centers are accustomed to the latest in presentation and connectivity technologies, and conference center managers are finding that if they want to continue to meet customers' needs, they need to make big changes.
The International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) is dealing with this dilemma by differentiating between requirements and recommendations. The "Universal Criteria" formulated by IACC's Quality Committee spells out the technology standards that a member conference center is required to meet. As part of the conference package, facilities must include "standard A/V," which means "overhead projectors, flip charts, 35mm slide projectors, microphones, and video playback equipment."
Meanwhile, IACC's Technology Committee recently created new "Recommended Guidelines," sort of a wish list of higher tech features. These include providing computer image projection equipment; printers for guests' use; and Internet connections in conference rooms, guest rooms, and some public areas.
Not Everyone Wants Wires Why is the basic list so, well, basic? Why are the Technology Committee's features recommended and not required? One problem is that although many groups use these advanced technologies, not all of them do. If centers include too much in the Complete Meeting Package (CMP) price, they hear the familiar complaint that planners are being charged for items they can't use.
And while some companies don't need the technology, others don't even want it, says IACC's Technology Committee chairman Robert Johns, general manager, The Center for Executive Education at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "The educator says, 'The reason I'm taking people out of the office is to get them away from it.' Our first goal is to provide the best possible meeting environment. That means Internet connectivity in every room. But if you can replicate your office in your guest room, are you distracted?"
Despite his own support of increased technology, Johns acknowledges the other viewpoint. "It wouldn't surprise me if some facilities take the approach of being less technologically advanced and position themselves as the 'concentration environment,'" he says.
Above and Beyond While the required-vs.-recommended debate continues, some conference center companies have far outrun even the new recommendations. At the Hamilton Park Conference Center in Florham Park, N.J., which Dolce International is positioning as the model for all its conference centers, high-speed Internet access has been installed in all meeting rooms, guest rooms, and the Technology Resource Center. The Technology Resource Center also offers 24-hour, no-cost use of computer workstations, and laser and color printers. The property has its own mobile videoconferencing unit. And Dolce International includes an LCD projector as part of the basic AV equipment in the CMP price for all properties.
Meanwhile, in October Marriott Conference Centers opened the impressively equipped Kingsgate Conference Center at the University of Cincinnati. Kingsgate offers a fiber-optic backbone, interconnected T1 lines running into all function spaces and Category 5 cabling to every guest room. Thus groups can link guest rooms and meeting rooms for simultaneous data transmission. There are also ISDN lines and videoconferencing capabilities.
Issues of advanced technology were addressed in an IACC-sponsored panel discussion held last fall at the Chase Conference Center at Manhattan Plaza in New York. Panelists were Pat Coglianese, senior vice president of education for Chase Manhattan Bank; Steven Kerr, vice president of learning for General Electric Co.; and Bellamy Schmidt, vice president at J.P. Morgan & Co. Inc.
Wherever, Whenever "The pace of change has accelerated, and that's clearly driven by technology," said Chase's Coglianese. "Communication happens 24/7. We have to be able to bring people together in groups to do what they need to do, and then re-form into other groups. Conference centers must be positioned to address the needs of groups wherever they are, whenever."
The Resort Concept Meanwhile, conference resorts are more popular than ever. Marriott may have just opened a super-high-tech center, yet "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. That's what planners are looking for. People today won't go into a monastery for an education. They also want things like ropes courses, golf, swimming, tennis--a kaleidoscope of experiences."
Smooth Sailing in Scottsdale When Scottsdale Insurance Company's agency underwriters gather at the Scottsdale Conference Resort in April for their annual underwriting marketing seminar, they'll find a packed, but varied, agenda. The seminar is a combination of "education and appreciation," says Leslie Lambert, the Arizona-based company's travel and meeting planner. Agents will be introduced to the company's new programs at roundtable discussions and a. Afternoons will be free for leisure activities such as golf and sightseeing tours.
"Our business is highly focused on our relationships with our agents," says Lambert, and every component of the agenda is designed to strengthen those relationships. Leisure activities and social events obviously serve that objective, but the business sessions do so as well. "Our underwriting team--some 150 to 200 people--will present the roundtable discussions and operate the trade show," says Lambert. "They'll have an opportunity to spend quality time face-to-face with the agents."
Scottsdale Conference Resort has the capability to serve all Lambert's needs, she says. "It caters to Fortune 500 companies. It's not a leisure destination."
Not a leisure destination? But it is a resort, isn't it? "It's a conference resort," Lambert replies emphatically. "It's used for incentives and conventions and corporate meetings. The staff is trained to handle groups."
For this meeting, Lambert continues, "We're relying on the resort to help us with our theme, 'Set Sail for the Future.' They have an excellent in-house design company. The first night will be an 'arrival' on a cruise ship. The next night will be 'out on the high seas,' with a ship's casino, lounge, and showroom."
At the Scottsdale Conference Resort, three months before the meeting, conference events coordinator Peggy Kilbane and her team were hard at work turning those ideas into reality. When attendees enter the general session in the Grand Coronado room, they'll feel as though they're boarding a ship: They'll see smokestacks as they walk over the "gangway." Later, attendees will enjoy a "Ports of Call" celebration with food stations--Polynesian, Mexican, Italian, and Caribbean--plus entertainment.
Being in-house, Kilbane says, is an advantage. "I visit with [planners], find out their theme, and put it together for them. So many properties have to go outside to plan events, but this makes it easier."
Twice as easy for Lambert, in fact, because she's running two identical programs. They'll run Monday through Wednesday in two consecutive weeks, each with about 360 attendees from all across the U.S., including Hawaii. So that means two consecutive series of roundtables, two trade shows, two general sessions. But, with the proper planning and support, it also means twice as much business gets done--and twice as much fun.
Royal Treatment at Hickory Ridge The meetings that United Insurance Company of America holds at Marriott's Hickory Ridge Conference Center, in Lisle, Ill., are serious business. United's own first-line managers--24 of them at a time--spend a full week in intensive training sessions that last from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on four of the five days. There's homework, and no scheduled leisure activities. Director of Training Phil Spratt and Instructional Coordinator Eileen Clark both find that Hickory Ridge fits that agenda just right.
"I deal one-on-one with their conference manager; that's really great," Clark notes. "At hotels, people are not dedicated to you. I feel that Hickory Ridge is responding to me directly. Hotels also are geared to 'Roll in the coffee at 10' and everything is based on individual charges," she adds. "But the continuous refreshment break works with our schedule and is all built in to the price." And what about that all-inclusive price, the Complete Meeting Package? "It's great--I love it," Clark says.
Clark is not on site at the meetings, but Spratt is, and offers his perspective. "Two big things make Hickory Ridge really attractive," he says. First, "I can get people away from day-to-day business. They're not running all over the home office, and maybe cutting out early to go to places downtown." Spratt faced such distractions in the past when he held the training sessions at the Chicago-based company's own meeting facility, which has since closed.
"The meetings are a week long, and I have a specific need for a 24-hour setup and a hold on the room," Spratt explains. "You can get that at a hotel, but they charge you through the nose for it." Overall cost is yet another reason why Spratt finds meeting at Hickory Ridge preferable not only to hotels but also to the in-house facility he used to use. "By the time I paid the company rent, plus a hotel and food and beverage in downtown Chicago, it actually costs me less at Hickory Ridge than it did at my own facility."