For the skinny on the conference center business, Dave Arnold's your man. Arnold, an executive vice president with PKF Consulting in Philadelphia, spends his days tracking trends in conference center development and operations. We asked him to talk about the impact of recent events and about long-term developments.
MM: How have the events of Sep-tember 11 affected the conference center business?
DA: Properties that relied on air travel were devastated. But suburban conference centers were not hurt as badly. Historically, conference centers have been less impacted by recessions than hotels. Corporations still have product introductions, human resources development … to get out to people. Regional meetings have been the way to go in former recessions, and that is even more true today because of the fear and hassle of flying.
MM: Are there signs that the situation is improving?
DA: The conference center business has begun to recover. First-quarter bookings for most conference centers I'm familiar with are higher this year than they were last year. Companies are planning more meetings, and they have been rescheduling a lot of meetings postponed from the last quarter of 2001. But an unfortunate trend is that the advance booking period for meetings has dropped dramatically. Five years ago it was six months out, then 60 days; now it's 30 to 45 days.
MM: What types of meetings are most suited to conference centers?
DA: Conference centers cater to serious meetings, both hard and soft. Leadership and management, crisis management — all that soft stuff is the bull's-eye. There's also technical training and product introductions. One emerging product is the hybrid or ancillary conference center, where a hotel adds a formal conference center. So when you walk through the conference center doors, you're in an IACC-approved environment.
MM: Are conference centers holding their own on the technology front?
DA: They're trying to stay one step ahead of hotels with technology like DSL and direct connect. Some have gotten into videoconferencing, but the recession has put a lot of that on the back burner. And while some centers try to be at the forefront of technology, others consciously try to be low-tech [so attendees can get] away from it all and really think. Conference centers are becoming customized to their target market. But they all have the same mission — to have a great meeting experience.