“I believe that good organizations talk about learning and train when times are good. Great organizations have a value system that stresses everyone is learning and they train all the time,” says Mike Fahner, vice president, sales and marketing, Aramark Harrison Lodging, Philadelphia, a conference center company that operates more than 50 centers in the United States and Canada. Many organizations are to re-thinking how they do things. And if changes are taking place, then the message is being spread through meetings, he says.

Burt Cabañas, chairman and chief executive officer, Benchmark Hospitality, The Woodlands, Texas, says that while new meeting activity for the first quarter of 2003 was stronger than the same period in 2002, “Booking lead time remains very short-term as companies delay commitments in order to maximize pricing advantages.”

Here are the top three trends in convention center use as identified through interviews with conference center executives and meeting planners:

Trend 1: Longer, more intensive meeting days, and fewer frills. Many organizations are cutting back on the number of days they spend in meetings or training from four to three or three to two, and not just because of budget reasons.

“The priority is business, so meetings must be effective and focused,” says Bruce W. McIntosh, general manager and vice president of operations for The National Conference Center, an Aramark Harrison Lodging property in Lansdowne, Va. “We also see reduced social activities,” he adds. “Instead of having entertainment on that first evening, a group will do a short reception. It's because people have to be up at 7:30 the next morning.”

“In the past, groups would have more breaks, more elaborate dinners, more pomp and circumstance,” says Bridget Tyler, director of sales and conference services, The Villanova Conference Center, Aramark Harrison Lodging, Radnor, Pa. “Now meetings start at 8 a.m., they break for dinner at 6, and then come back for more training from 7 to 9 p.m. It's because of budgets, but also because people don't want to be away from their work or their families for so long.”

Trend 2: Multitasking and small groups are in. “Multitask” training sessions consist of two separate training sessions, each for a separate group of attendees, that are held simultaneously by a single company at the same property — perhaps overlapping a two-day schedule with another's three-day session. These types of sessions consolidate planning and facilitating, and they may also offer economies of scale.

“Instead of just holding a sales training meeting, an organization now might also have a soft-skills session for another group of attendees,” says Gianna Trinitapoli, sales manager at Harrison Conference Center at Lake Bluff, Lake Bluff, Ill. “It promotes the mixing and mingling of people who normally wouldn't be communicating with each other.”

Tyler of Villanova says, “We're seeing smaller to mid-sized groups, of seven to 10 people, or sometimes up to 15, broken out within breakout rooms, with flip charts plastered all over the rooms. Mostly brainstorming and strategic sessions use these.”

“I have definitely seen trends in my training meetings in the seating arrangement, changing from traditional classroom-style to semi-rounds or semicircular seating,” says Annette Zarriello, meeting coordinator, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of North Carolina, Durham, N.C. “It gives a little bit more elbow room and is conducive to more interactive learning styles,” she comments. “Many of our groups become smaller work groups or breakout sessions.”

Trend 3: Senior-level training is going full-steam ahead, although there may be a drop-off in training for lower-level employees. “Our open enrollment training and our executive retreats continue to grow in size,” observes Lynn Oddenino, senior manager for client services at Bell Leadership in Chapel Hill, N.C. With so many changes happening in the world, according to Oddenino, organizations are experiencing a tremendous need to keep their top-level people motivated, because those people's attitudes filter down to everyone else.

“We definitely see a trend in training toward teaching multitasking,” says Richard Keating, vice president of marketing for Millennium Hotels and Resorts in New York City, which includes the Millennium Broadway Hotel New York Conference Center, a six-floor conference center within the larger hotel. “What I've been seeing are a lot of strategic meetings. It's all about how to do things in today's challenging times.”