For the skinny on the conference center business, Dave Arnold is the 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.

RCM: How have the events of September 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 affected by recessions than hotels. 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.

RCM: 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. Organizations 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.

RCM: 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. One emerging product is the hybrid or ancillary conference center, where a hotel adds a formal conference center.

RCM: Are conference centers holding their own on the technology front?

DA: They're trying to stay one step ahead of hotels with technology such as 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.

What's a Conference Center, Anyhow?

Many religious meeting planners have an intuitive definition of conference centers. There are, however, clear criteria that define the conference center concept.

In fact, the International Association of Conference Centers has a 30-point definition that separates its 330 member centers from the world of meeting facilities. Below are key points of IACC's definition. For a complete list, visit www.iacconline.com and click on “membership criteria.” The IACC Web site also allows planners to search for conference centers and send request for proposals.

  1. A minimum of 60 percent (based on net area) of meeting space in the conference center is dedicated, single-purpose conference space.

  2. A minimum of 60 percent of total revenue from guest rooms, meeting space, food and beverage, audiovisual, and conference services is conference-related. (If the conference center is nonresidential or ancillary to a resort or convention hotel, 70 percent of total sales of the conference center is generated from conferences).

  3. Continuous refreshment service is set up outside meeting rooms unless requested otherwise.

  4. Average group size: 75 people or fewer.

  5. The conference center offers and promotes a complete meeting package that includes conference rooms, guest rooms (when applicable), three meals, continuous refreshment service, conference services, and basic AV equipment (typically, overhead projectors, flip charts, 35mm slide projectors, microphones, and video playback equipment).

  6. Conference rooms are available to clients on a 24-hour basis for storage of materials.

  7. The conference center has sufficient inventory so that 60 percent of dedicated meeting rooms can be set up using ergonomically designed chairs, which have upholstery and, ideally, are designed to swivel and tilt for attendees' comfort.

  8. The majority of conference setups use tables designed for meetings and have a nonreflective, hard writing surface. (Draped, skirted banquet tables are not acceptable.)

  9. Conference rooms have wall surfaces suitable for tacking or other mounting of flip-chart-type sheets.

  10. A designated conference planner is assigned to each conference group.

  11. Guest rooms include workstations, adequate lighting for reading or working, and comfortable seating.



No Cell Phones Allowed

Cell phones and BlackBerries (wireless PDAs) aren't welcome at the National Conference Center, and there are no plans to change.

“People complain about it all the time, but we don't do anything about it,” says Bruce McIntosh, vice president and general manager of the Lansdowne, Va., facility. The people complaining are the attendees, but the organizations using the facility like the arrangement. “Everybody knows you have a more effective result if people aren't thinking about other things,” he explains.

And by the end of a weeklong meeting, attendees are used to being cut off from some of their normal lines of communication. (The isolation isn't total; T1 lines are in all the guest rooms and meeting rooms). “People drag themselves in here on a Sunday, and they're miserable,” McIntosh says. But after a week of meetings and nightly social events, “these people have bonded.”

IACC Issues Guidelines for Emergencies

After a survey of its members' emergency procedures, the International Association of Conference Centers recently issued a 55-page preliminary white paper on this timely subject. The paper is the product of IACC's recently formed Emergency Procedures Task Force.

The white paper is organized according to four critical areas and packed with suggestions. It includes an introductory general practices section that covers lines of authority, communications, training, and emergency-response plans. Nonmembers can order a printed copy, including future updates, for $50. For more information, contact the IACC office at (314) 993-8575.