by Andrea Doyle | March 20, 2014
Exploring Generational Preferences
IACC’s Emerging Trends Committee and Development Counsellors International, a New York City-based economic development marketing company, joined forces to release a study entitled, “Exploring the Generational Preferences of Meeting Planners.” The survey explores if there are generational differences among meeting planners and whether these preferences shape how meeting space is selected.

“These statistics help for marketing and sales,” says Daniella Middleton, director of MICE division for Development Counsellors International. “Knowing that Millennials are more interested in the destination, a conference center can talk those points up.”

On average, the planners responding to the survey organize meetings for 11 organizations annually. When asked about the importance of holding events at an IACC facility, meeting planners responded that it was somewhat important.

Key Generational Preferences

Overall, the generations have very similar preferences. There are a few differences to keep in mind, however, when selling to meeting planners of different generations.

Matures: When pitching to a meeting planner of the mature (or “silent” in Fishman’s terms) generation, provide details on business-friendly guest rooms, spaces that are conducive to learning and collaboration, as well as off-site activities that are within walking distance of the venue.

Baby Boomers and Generation X: Promote your Wi-Fi capabilities. Like matures, these generations are also interested in spaces that encourage learning and collaboration. They are apt to decline a facility for inadequate meeting space (size/ quality/layout) as well as cost and/or excess charges.

Generation Y: While Baby Boomers focus on meeting space and Gen Y focus on destination appeal when sourcing conference centers. But the top two reasons that this generation is likely to decline a venue are the same the Baby Boomers gave; inadequate meeting space and cost/ excess charges. However, Generation Y cares deeply about the appeal of the destination, so it is beneficial to share entertainment and evening activities that are available onand off-site. In addition, this younger generation is interested in space that provides the ability to recognize key performers, so if you have a stellar set up for an awards banquet, make sure to highlight that in your discussions with this generation.
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At no other point in the history of meetings and events have there been so many generations in the workforce at one time. Planners must not only consider those in their 20s when planning meetings and events but those in their 70s as well.

“Decoding generational differences is the key to staying competitive in today’s world of business,” says generational expert Ann Fishman, president of New York-based Generational Targeted Marketing LLC, a marketing firm providing insight into preferences, trends, and buying habits of each of America’s generations. “Conference centers should be on the cutting edge, but if they do not get their generational ducks in a row, they will not be.”

The recession has contributed to this range of ages in the workplace, as some who had planned to have retired by now have not been able to, says Fishman. She categorizes the four generations in the workforce as the Silents, born in or before 1942, who are typically hard workers and can be technically challenged; the Baby Boomers, born between 1943 and 1960, who enjoy personal fulfillment and competition; Generation Xers, born between 1961 and 1981, known for being independent and entrepreneurial; and Millennials, born between 1982 and 2000, who are extremely comfortable with technology, preferring it to communicate. It’s important to understand the traits, habits, and characteristics of each generation to be successful, she adds. If you are part of a committee planning the meeting, get members from each generation to give input. But of all these generations, it is the Millennials that are doing the most to shape the future of meeting facilities.

Millennials Setting the Pace

The Millennial generation is poised to become the largest consumer group in the history of the United States. That means that for most consumer brands, products, and services — conference centers included — this generation represents where the market is headed. The more than 72 million individuals who make up this group spend approximately $200 billion each year, according to research firm Kelton Global.

“As Millennials grow older and attend more meetings, conference centers need to be ready for them and move forward fast,” says Fishman. “In order to meet their needs, it is important to understand who they are and what makes them tick.”

Cyber was the first language that most Millennials mastered, Fishman quips. They are digital citizens and expect everything to be online. They do not hope there is free WiFi at the conference center they are meeting in; they expect it. The more cutting-edge the conference center’s technology, the more attractive it will be to this generation. Real-time and virtual interactions must come together seamlessly. “They are always on the go and want things quickly and efficiently. Connectivity is key,” says Phil Werz, marketing manager for Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, VA, with 296 guest rooms, 45 holes of golf, a 12,000-square-foot spa, four restaurants, and 50,000 square feet of meeting space. “We are fortunate to have our own in-house A/V team. We own it, it’s not contracted, and the team is in tune with all the technological bells and whistles out there to make connectivity the best it can be.”

Shivani Ballesteros, co-founder of San Diego-based Stiletto Escape, a trip planning and concierge service company that plans several conferences a year, agrees that it is important to have a wide range of A/V options. “Younger generations want better A/V set-ups since their lectures and panels are increasingly utilizing technology. They want to make sure conference centers are up to date and can provide a wide range of options,” says Ballesteros. “They are less interested in learning from panels and more interested in making business connections.”

Conference centers that appeal to her are in close proximity to other venues, Ballesteros adds — especially within walking distance to popular restaurants and hip bars.

Keep Them Engaged

Millennials are social creatures. According to Fishman, they are the first, in three generations, that are “group oriented.” They prefer pod seating and round tables where they can gather as a group. The furnishings in today’s conference center should be able to expand or contract depending on need, and be able to transform from a lecture to a collaborative or social environment. Some conference centers are making meeting room set-ups more casual, including using comfy sofas and chairs to create a “non-meeting room” environment. Breakout meetings that take place outdoors also resonate with Millennials.

This generation wants a deeper level of engagement than the generations that preceded them, says Joyce Bromberg, vice president of strategy and research for Convene, an operator of urban day conference centers in the U.S. “The space and meeting design both need to acknowledge that. We believe that experience matters and know that Millennials want their experiences to be reflective of their own personal brand and delivered by an organization that they can identify with and believe in.”

The speaker at the front of the room is always competing for attention with cell phones, tablets, and laptops — all connected to a world of distraction, adds Bromberg. “Putting rules in place is not the answer, especially for Millennials,” she says. “Instead, venues need to provide the means to capture their attention and keep them engaged.”

Ultra-Modern Not Necessary

Founded in 1981, the International Association of Conference Centres (IACC) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting understanding and awareness of the conference center industry. “Conference centers don’t have to be ultra-modern in design to appeal to the next generation of meeting planner or delegate, but they do have to be up to date and current,” says Mark Cooper, IACC’s CEO. “They can be located in historic properties or city center locations, as long as they offer great service, inspiring and interesting dining, and strong connectivity. Slow broadband will not be accepted.”

According to Benchmark Hospitality International, younger generations appreciate the flexibility and variety provided by a complete meeting package. “Many enjoy the option to have a full breakfast with a colleague one morning and work out and grab healthy choices off the refreshment kiosk the next,” explains Harold L. Powell, Jr., regional vice president of sales and marketing for Benchmark Hospitality International, based in The Woodlands, TX. Benchmark represents lodging, dining, recreational, and meeting accommodations, many certified by IACC. “Likewise, station and buffet dining for lunch provides the option to enjoy a leisurely lunch or a quick meal and free time before the afternoon sessions begin.”

Many Millennials are environmentalists and conference centers with eco-friendly team-building activities will appeal to them. “They have been doing volunteer work from pre-K. This is their definition of normal. A conference center can create a plant-a-tree program in honor of each meeting group that will help make a difference to the planet,” says Fishman.

Château Élan Winery & Resort, a conference destination in Braselton, GA, has created a program called “Dream Building” that combines social responsibility with team-building. It has programs in place that help feed local families in need, provide children with shoes they are unable to afford, or help maintain local parks and trails.

With Millennials leading the way to a greener planet, conference centers that are environmentally friendly tend to be more desirable than those that are not. The Alexander, downtown Indianapolis’ newest hotel and a boutique Dolce property, offers an IACC-certified conference center that is focused on sustainability. Guest room electricity and HVAC operate only when a guest’s key card activates the system, electric vehicle charging stations are available, and a rainwater collection system repurposes storm runoff.

Further, Millennials expect transparency and that holds true for F&B. They want to know exactly what is in the food they buy and consume. For example, Chipotle’s focus on sustainably raised food has helped turn it into one of the most popular casual dining restaurants among this demographic.

This same philosophy can be incorporated into conference centers. Millennials expect more than a row of chafing dishes and many yearn to try new, inventive, and healthy menus.

“Not only can our culinary teams meet the dietary needs of a particular guest, they can provide nutritional information on our offerings so that smart food choices can be made,” says Benchmark’s Powell. Based in part on feedback from younger generations, dinner options at Benchmark properties have been expanded and include outdoor venues, theme events, interactive culinary team building, and dining out at local restaurants. “Our guests want to explore the destination and we help them do that,” says Powell. “After-dinner events are changing too. From fun bowling parties at in-house lanes to hip lounges to dance parties, this generation looks for casual fun in the evenings.”

Millennials are fitness enthusiasts as well. “Millennials are the first generation of U.S. women to fully reap the benefits of Title IX, the federal legislation passed during the Nixon years that requires young men and young women to have equal access to athletics,” says Fishman.

A conference center must have a fully equipped fitness center if it expects to attract this generation. The Bonaventure Resort & Spa in Weston, FL, a popular meeting venue for national sales meetings, has a 24-hour fitness center, including a spinning studio, hot yoga room, and movement studio offering a daily menu of fitness classes. It adds extra classes when groups are in house with Millennials. “If their general session ends at 5 p.m., we will create a special class tailored for Millennials at 6 p.m.,” explains David Friedberg, director of sales and marketing for the property.

The Bonaventure Resort & Spa has 500 guest rooms, a 48,000-square-foot spa with 31 treatment rooms, championship PGA golf courses, and 80,000 square feet of meeting space that includes a 175-seat theater.

Glen Cove Mansion Hotel and Conference Center located on Long Island’s North Shore also has a fitness center that is hard to beat. The fitness room has weights, treadmills, stationary bikes, and elliptical machines. The 187-room property, which has 25,000 square feet of meeting and event space, also has indoor and outdoor pools, tennis, basketball, and racquetball courts, and a five-mile walking trail around the property.

“The incoming generation of meeting planners know what they like and what they want from a meeting venue, and they will likely be influenced by the standard of learning they had themselves up to that time,” says IACC’s Cooper.

He adds that the that the top concern is for space that adds value and motivates attendees, providing a venue conducive to active events.

“Team development and doing things together outside of the meeting room is something the next generation looks to,” says Cooper. “They are active, sporty, and really quite competitive.”