Pressure on corporate budgets is easing — just a little — and that's good news both for planners and for conference centers. So say four industry executives who discussed conference center trends with Insurance Conference Planner recently: Andy Dolce, founder, chairman, and CEO, Dolce International, Montvale, N. J.; Mike Fahner, vice president of development, Aramark Harrison Lodging (AHL), Philadelphia; Rory Loberg, president, AHL; and Jack Schmidt, chief marketing officer, Benchmark Hospitality International, The Woodlands (Houston).

The improvement is spotty, varying by type of meeting, industry, and geographical region.

When budgets were tighter, “Corporations had to cut back on executive training, so there's pent-up demand,” says Fahner. “Companies now are stressing training and personal development for executives because they recognize that that gives them a competitive advantage.”

Loberg adds that financial services industry meetings “have been the one consistent area for us throughout the downturn. Now, as companies go through Sarbanes-Oxley, there's a need for retraining.”

At Benchmark, “We're seeing annual sales meetings come back, and some larger meetings that were canceled are starting to reappear, especially in resort destinations,” says Schmidt. “Particularly on the West Coast, more meetings are coming out of the technology sector.”

Says Dolce, “Pharmaceutical meetings were strong for us for the past three years, especially traditional sales training meetings. Financial services is starting to come back, especially in the New York metro area.”

Booking cycles are lengthening — at least a bit. “Companies got to the point where they were in a more reactionary mode, rather than planning ahead,” says Schmidt. “It was not uncommon to book in the week for the week. Now it's a little farther out. Our room-night bookings are 25 percent ahead of where they were at this time last year.”

At Dolce conference centers in Europe, “bookings are still very short-term,” says Dolce. “They lag the U.S. by as much as six months to a year in terms of the economy. In the U.S., the trend is still short-term, but we're starting to see a little more pickup — three, four, five, even six months out.”

Fahner agrees. At Aramark Harrison, “What was three months is now five to six months,” he says.

Committed to CMP Rates

Conference center executives remain committed to the Complete Meeting Package, conference centers' all-inclusive rate, convinced that it's best for everyone. “The sophisticated planner understands the value of guaranteed pricing, with no surprises,” says Loberg. “We'll unbundle if someone wants an off-site meeting or dinner; we've always done that. But we still prefer the CMP.”

Helping planners understand the CMP is critical, says Schmidt. “Most planners are not full-time planners,” he says. “We in the hospitality industry have trained them to buy in a faulty manner. They buy on the room rate without ever seeing a banquet menu or knowing what percentage of attendees will drive or fly, and so on. We have to explain that they must look at the total meeting cost, and that the hotel room is one of the smallest costs.”

Dolce stresses education, too. “Our focus is on the new customer who isn't used to the conference center concept,” he says. “About 60 percent of our business is CMP, 10 percent is group EP [European Plan], and the balance is tour and leisure and industry business. We feel if we can get the group EP, we can convert them to CMP.”

As conference centers work to educate planners, they face a new challenge: procurement. “Procurement is a trend that's not going away,” says Dolce. “They want to see apples to apples, not apples to pears, so we'll continue to educate them so they can see the value of the CMP.”

Fahner concurs: “The challenge is to get procurement to understand that the CMP is not the same as the room rate, that what we do is not a commodity business.”

In Schmidt's view, “Corporate procurement is really no different in many instances than third parties or inexperienced meeting planners. We need to educate them. This is one more thing we need to deal with — but there's always one more thing.”

10 TOP TRENDS

Conference center management company Benchmark Hospitality says that meeting bookings are up about 50 percent over last year across its 28 properties in the United States and Japan. Here are the top 10 meeting trends identified by Benchmark and its properties:

  1. Wired, not wireless

    While individual guests request wireless Internet technology, companies have privacy concerns and are requesting wired Internet access for meetings.

  2. Click-through business

    Many Benchmark properties are seeing more than 50 percent of their new business for 2005 originate though the Internet.

  3. Larger meetings

    Groups of more than 100 guests are on the rise

    .
  4. Tech meetings are back

    This is especially so in California's Silicon Valley and the Dulles corridor outside Washington, D.C.

  5. Atkins is over

    Vegetarian options and interactive cooking choices are growing in popularity.

  6. Security concerns have fallen

    The exception is government-related meetings and meetings in city centers.

  7. Teambuilding and experiential learning are hot

    Culinary teambuilding programs are hot all over the country.

  8. Spas for everyone

    More corporate guests are seeking a little spa intervention.

  9. Budgets still tight

    Although some firms have increased spending for on-site receptions, special events, and awards dinners, overall, purse strings remain taut.

  10. Blast away marketing

    E-mail blasts and direct e-sales to proprietary customer and prospect lists have become an effective and cost-efficient means of building business.