The World Of Conference Centers

The World Of Conference Centers – Statistical Data Included

It’s been said that much of the knowledge gained from a college or university degree is out of date within 36 to 48 months. That statement can equally apply to most professional fields including training and development. Conducting training programs–whether it’s for customer service, strategic planning, team building, or for myriad other purposes–is one of the reasons why the currently less-than-hot economy has had little effect on the hospitality industry in general and conference centers in particular.

Conference Center Benefits

As more and more meeting planners and trainers discover the benefits of using conference centers, they become enthusiastic repeat customers and for good reasons. Unlike hotels, where meetings are just one aspect of a property’s business, conference centers focus exclusively on learning and provide an environment and infrastructure that complements and supports that focus. This is an important asset to a company in which an ROI on every meeting conducted remains a top concern. In addition, conference centers offer a client the ease and value of a well-priced, all-inclusive meeting package.

Tam Bolman is executive vice president of the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC). Founded in 1981 by an initially small group of conference center operators from universities, corporations, and commercial training centers, the association now supports the networking, education, and promotion activities of 430 members located throughout North America, Europe, Australia, and Asia.

One mission of IACC is to encourage meeting planners and trainers–many of whom are still unfamiliar with the benefits of conference centers–to try one of its member centers, all of which specialize in hosting meetings for 100 people or fewer. “A conference center’s sole purpose is to partner with a company to ensure that the success of its meeting and its objectives are met,” says Bolman. “And that means providing a distraction-free environment to support those goals.”

IACC represents both day only and overnight learning centers although lately day-only meetings are outpacing overnights. In fact, even those IACC facilities that offer overnight accommodations show that 20 to 50 percent of their meetings booked are day-only.

For a conference center to be accepted into IACC, it must pass 30 rigorous standards. Three of these are 1) that a minimum of 60 percent of meeting space in the conference center is dedicated, single-purpose conference space; 2) that a minimum of 60 percent of the total revenue from guest rooms, meeting space, food and beverage, AV, and conference services is conference related; and 3) that the conference center offers and promotes a package plan which includes such items as conference rooms, meals, and basic AV. In addition, each facility is inspected onsite before it is accepted into the association.

While many meetings are booked six months to one year in advance, many others have an extremely short booking time frame. IACC provides a searchable database of all its member conference centers on its Web site (www.iacconline.org). IACC has 235 conference centers in North America alone representing a diverse membership. For example if a client wants a recreational component to their conference, they might choose a resort conference center. Or if there is a strong educational bent to the meeting, the client might choose a university center for its onsite educational resources.

Technology as the Main Attraction

The prime resource that conference centers offer to trainers is cutting-edge technologies which are usually priced far lower than at hotels. While overheads and flip charts haven’t totally gone the way of the dodo bird, most companies carry out their meeting agendas with advanced onsite and remote technology, such as Web casting and interactive Web technology. Up-to-the-minute technology demands well-qualified onsite technicians to provide this sophisticated level of support. Both corporate learning centers and colleges and universities tend to have especially strong technological resources.

Mike Fahner is vice president of sales and marketing for Aramark Conference Center Management, a premier conference center management provider. Aramark (www.aramarkccm.com) manages 40 centers in North America, nine of which are marketed to the public. Now that technology is allowing firms to replace face-to-face learning with other forms, such as computer-based training or instruction over the Internet, Fahner sees more and more of the once privately owned and operated training centers seeking out firms such as theirs to develop and sell its unused capacity.

As one of its many services, Aramark provides its clients with the IT talent to put a solution together that best suits a client’s technology needs. In fact, Fahner sees technology as the driving factor in the selection of a conference facility. “If you flash back five to 10 years ago,” he says, “the up-to-the-minute feature of conference centers was the telecommunications studio. While AV equipment is still used, there is now a demand for a new technology portfolio. For example, there are times when Aramark is called in to set up an entire Internet system for a group of students who are learning highly technical proprietary information. So in addition to T-1 and Cat-5 lines in the meeting rooms, we’re finding that we need a mobile network system available as well. This is fast-moving technology and we’re constantly looking at new features to add in order to help our clients work smarter, not harder.”

As Fahner points out, in 1998 the hot technology was satellite linkups, but now that streaming video over the Internet is more popular Aramark has stopped installing a satellite dish in some centers. To be sure, there has been an absolute explosion of technology. “Just look at PDAs,” he says. “Just three years ago they were cutting edge, now they’re almost passe.”

Many people thought that as Internet use expanded into distance learning, the demand for learning centers would slow. This has not happened in Fahner’s experience. While distance learning is starting to replace the face-to-face instruction of general management topics and soft skills, it has not replaced the teaching of technical skills. “For example,” he says, “not that long ago a client would use a conference center to teach selling skills to its sales staff. Now the sales student can learn some of those skills, such as how to establish rapport, from many different formats such as audio tapes, or CD-ROM, or over the Internet. Today to be a successful salesperson, you need to know how to do data-mining and manage a contact base, so while there is still a large percentage of sales meetings held at our conference centers, what is being taught in the rooms is very different from what was being taught even four years ago.”

Popular Properties

Included in the nine public properties Aramark represents are Xerox Document University Training and Conference Center, located in Leesburg, Virginia, and The William F. Bolger Center for Leadership Development, located in Potomac, Maryland, both centers within easy drives of two major Washington, D.C. -area airports.

The Xerox (enter (www.conferencecenter.com) is currently undergoing a $30 million renovation that is scheduled for completion at the end of this year. The main focus of the renovation is rebuilding 951 guestrooms–literally from the cement “footprint” up. Previously only shared bathrooms were provided, which gave the rooms a dormitory-like feel, so part of the refurbishment is adding private baths to each room.

Another major renovation is installing high-speed data lines in all the guest rooms. Fahner says: “There used to be a time–and not that long ago–when a person attending an overnight training could pretty much disengage from what was happening back at the office. But today’s advanced technology enables almost all work to be accomplished away from the physical office, so for many busy professionals, the job never stops.

“After a day of training, it’s not uncommon for conference attendees to go back to their rooms, open their laptops, and do some of their regular work. In order to accommodate this need, our guest rooms are getting a major technological update. We are evaluating CyberGenie, a wireless connection to the Internet that will allow a person to take their laptop anywhere in the conference area, including on the grounds, unrestrained by wire or cable connections.”

The William F. Bolger Center (www.bolgercenter.com) has undergone many renovations as well, especially to the meeting space in both the main building and the classroom areas. “Whether it’s upgrading technology or installing comfortable ergonomic chairs, our focus is always on making the center more functional and efficient for our guests.” In addition, a new executive meeting room has been built on the top floor of the Bolger Center that accommodates small meetings of up to 10 to 12 people.

“We think that the Bolger Center,” says Fahner, “offers a good package with exceptional value for the upper middle to senior level management group. We also host a lot of business from local companies that want to hold their focused strategic meetings in a facility that is city close but has country comfort.”

At the Andersen Center for Professional Education, training meetings account for almost 100 percent of its business, according to Matthew Crow, Andersen’s director of sales. Located 45 minutes from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Andersen attracts more than 65,000 guests each year–including many from Asia and Europe–some staying as long as three weeks.

The property was purchased 30 years ago exclusively for Andersen’s staff as well as for clients of the firm, and this group still comprises much of Andersen’s business. But, like Xerox, Bolger, and many other corporate learning centers, Andersen opened its doors about 10 years ago to outside business.

While Andersen welcomes day business, less than 10 percent of its bookings are day meetings. The sheer number of sleeping rooms–1271–makes Andersen one of the largest corporate conference centers in the world with a vast amount of capabilities. The center also boasts more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space–comprised of more than 200 rooms–which can accommodate any number of participants. It also has three amphitheaters and six bay auditoriums. Crow and his team have found that companies that are interested in a distraction-free environment where their participants can focus on the business at hand naturally gravitate toward a conference center. He is frank when he says the conference center industry has a lot farther to go in promoting the benefits that centers offer, but he also believes the industry is in the midst of an education process and that more and more companies are becoming aware of these benefits.

In addition to a large, onsite technology staff, Andersen also offers complete hotel, conference, and meeting planning personnel. The center even has event planners on staff to arrange the staging and theatrical elements of a meeting for more information on Andersen, call 630.444.4200 or visit IACC’s Web site.

The Secret is in the Details

One popular in-city conference property, The Coleman Center in New York City, prides itself on the ways it has applied psychology of learning principles to create a center that surrounds guests with an ambience that actually enhances the learning experience. Coleman Finkel, president of the center, explains: “When a busy, usually harried, businessperson enters our center, we want that person to immediately feel part of a quiet, pressure-free, relaxed environment. After all, to take a preoccupied doer and turn him or her into a learner and a thinker requires a different mind set.”

Finkel believes that physical and psychological comforts are prerequisite to mental alertness and has spent many years perfecting this approach to learning. Much of what his center offers to foster such an environment is subtle, or, as Finkel says when quoting the late architect Mies Van deRohe, “I am guided by one principle: perfection is made of details.”

Finkel cites many examples of these subtle details. When guests first enter the Coleman Center they are greeted with unobtrusive mood music and advanced aromatherapy infusions (we’re not talking pine scent here) which, according to Finkel, creates an immediate relaxation response. Great emphasis also is placed on impeccable customer service. Each guest, whether they are a meeting attendee or a sales person, is greeted with warmth and respect, and the receptionist shows them the same courtesies, such as taking their coats and offering them a beverage.

Framed quotes are displayed throughout the center from such notables as William Shakespeare and Martin Luther King, Jr. “People stop at these signs,” says Finkel, “and some take notes. It’s just another way that people understand they are in a learning environment.”

The Coleman Center only offers day meetings and because an hour and a half to two hours are taken up with breaks and lunch, Finkel thinks it’s important not to waste those hours, which can be productive and contribute to the learning experience. Lunchtime is an example of how he tries to make this “downtime” productive. Finkel observed that most business lunches are served at tables of 10, but not much group discussion happens because the tables are too large and people tend to talk to the individual sitting next to them. Instead, Coleman sets up tables for four or five people which facilitates group discussion. In addition, the center has specially designed tables for eight with sofas and lunge chairs. “If you walk around and observe a lunch at our table of eight, you hear a lively group discussion about what happened in the morning session.”

Meeting room chairs are designed for maximum comfort, and the instructors give the center special kudos for its specially designed speaker chairs to provide a psychological dominance, which in addition to giving the leaders a rest are slightly elevated, swivel, have wheels, and a foot rest.

At the Coleman Center, when papers need to be hung up in a meeting room, instead of the usual masking tape or push pins, the center designed a magnetic wall system that encircles the meeting room. The paper is put directly on the strip with a magnet. It is a simple and efficient solution but one that Finkel believes contributes to an environment conducive to learning.

Even chart pad paper has not escaped Finkel’s touch. At one point he had meeting participants experiment with light blue, tan, green, and the ubiquitous white pad paper. Almost universally everyone disliked the white paper, and most preferred light blue because it was easier on the eyes. The paper has proved so popular that Finkel sells it at cost to clients who want to take it back to their offices.

And at break time, in addition to such food items as fruit salad and chips, Good Humor ice cream bars are also served. These simple bars often cause the age 40 and over attendees to remember and comment on the Good Humor truck from their childhood, a memory that creates a calming, pleasant moment on the spot.

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Society for Training & Development, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group