Conference Centers: Staying Cutting Edge
It may be hard to fathom, but it's only been six
years since the first iPhone debuted, and less than three years
since the iPad was launched. Today, it's hard to imagine doing
business without these devices, and countless other
revolutionary technologies, from Wi-Fi to cloud computing. And
as technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, the demand
for high-tech conference centers that not only keep up - but
stay ahead of the curve - is growing.
"If you look back three years ago, the technology that we have
now was still struggling just to come online," explains Fred
Cannizarro, vice president and creative director for New
York-based production agency, nVision. "When organizations go
to a conference center, they want the center to give them the
ability to amplify their message and get it out to their
audiences, and they need technology that helps them do just
"When you think of the conference center of the future, it's
about people expecting to have the same things that they have
at home," says Corbin Ball, founder of Bellingham, WA-based
meetings technology firm Corbin Ball Associates. That, says
Ball, means high-quality audio and video, flat-screen TV
displays, digital video systems, and excellent network
"There's going to be a greater demand in the quality of the
meeting space; people want more flexibility, shorter
presentations, and more interactive activities that involve
working in small teams," Ball says. "The essential 'talking
head' for two hours or more is not going to be the norm
anymore. It's about people collaborating and having the
flexibility to do that and have good quality tech support to go
Meetings experts agree with Ball, saying that many of the
newest technologies make it easier for attendees to learn
collaboratively and interactively. "I think the way that we
learn is changing now," says Samuel J. Smith, managing director
of Minneapolis-based Interactive Meeting Technology. "We have
this need for more collaborative environments and spaces, and
that's where conference centers can really set themselves apart
from other meeting venues."
Developing an ideal, interactive learning environment at
today's conference center involves a number of key
technologies. Here's a closer look at the top trends in
meetings technology on which conference centers are focusing.
Get Familiar With Bandwidth
While it may seem like a no-brainer these days, handling the
increasing demand for bandwidth, or network connectivity, is
still a major issue for conference facilities. "If you don't
have bandwidth, you can't do very much," says Keith Purcell,
director of sales and marketing for the AT&T Executive
Education and Conference Center in Austin. "That's the key to
everything, and it's the backbone of any meeting that you
Bandwidth is simply a measure of data transfer and, in an
increasingly digital world where a single meeting attendee
relies on more than one electronic device to do her work, the
need for extremely large bandwidth is absolutely crucial to
getting business done. According to a January 2012 PhoCus
Wright Market Research report, nearly three in four business
travelers own and use a tablet, and the Pew Research Center
predicts that 10 billion mobile devices will be in use globally
"Bandwidth is king," says Cedric Fasbender, regional vice
president and general manager of Dolce Hayes Mansion in San
Jose, CA. "If you don't have at least 100 Mbit/s, you're at a
disadvantage. If a conference center doesn't have enough
bandwidth to facilitate the client's meeting, it'll interrupt
everything and destroy the ROI."
One of Fasbender's clients, Cleantech Open, a clean technology
company, relied on the mansion's wired and Wi-Fi access to pull
off its annual Cleantech Open Global Forum last November. "This
was a very complicated and complex event with nearly 1,000
attendees," explains Helen Lambert, programs director for
Cleantech Open. "Without the Wi-Fi being able to be accessed in
all corners of the campus, we couldn't have done anything."
Jennifer Slaski, executive director of marketing communications
for Spiceworks, an Austin-based information technology company,
says that her meeting attendees - all IT professionals - won't
tolerate spotty bandwidth. "Bandwidth is a non-negotiable for
an IT show that wants to be taken seriously," she says. "IT
professionals simply have to be able to connect and work
remotely while they're at an event."
Bandwidth size is just one factor that meeting planners need to
take into consideration when choosing a conference center.
Multiple access points, the ways in which the bandwidth can be
routed, and the availability of options for secure networks
that keep any meeting information confidential and private, are
also key. On its website, PSAV Presentation Services has even
developed an Attendee Bandwidth Estimator to help planners
gauge just how much bandwidth they might need for their next
meeting or conference. "That's become the starting point for a
conversation," explains Meg Fasy, vice president of industry
relations for PSAV. "I think that conference centers and
meeting venues are realizing that as much as they need great
food and beverage, they also desperately need high-speed
"Most of our conference center members are working very
diligently to increase bandwidth, especially in the meeting
space," says Jerry White, director of education and technology
for the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC).
Understanding how to deliver the right amount of bandwidth is
of such great importance, White says, that he and his fellow
IACC colleagues are making it a major focus of an upcoming IACC
technology report they hope to release later this year. (See
page 42 for a Q&A with IACC's new CEO, Mark Cooper.)
Tech Gets Personal
The proliferation of mobile devices, from laptops and
smartphones to tablets, has also changed the way attendees
approach a meeting. "We're going from having everything
broadcast on a big screen to putting all of the information in
the palm of a person's hand through tablets and smartphones,"
explains Jessica Levin, president and chief connector of Seven
Degrees Communications. "A lot of planners are buying or
renting iPads to help people communicate and collaborate with
Mobile apps can even let attendees adjust almost every physical
setting in a conference center. Tim Philpot, integration sales
manager for LMG Systems Integration, says that many of the
conference centers that he works with use mobile control
applications like the Crestron control system, which allow
meeting attendees to control everything, from the projectors to
the lights in the room, from their personal smartphones.
Some apps can also transform a smartphone into a polling
device, allowing attendees to instantly vote on topics during a
meeting. "It allows you to data mine the audience and allows
participants to become resources," says Jeff Loether, president
of Gaithersburg, MD-based Electro-Media Design. Loether says
some apps are utilizing location-aware software to act as
interactive way finders, helping to guide attendees through
larger meeting venues.
To stay ahead of the tech curve, many centers are also in the
process of adopting their own customizable mobile apps, say
Levin, Philpot, and Loether. "Conference centers are buying or
developing mobile apps that their planners can reuse for their
own events," says Levin.
At Babson College, Chief Information Officer Samuel Dunn and
his team develop a social group for meeting clients. "It's like
a Facebook group for that particular event, and they can use it
before, during, and after the actual meeting, and have all the
normal social media features you'd find elsewhere," Dunn says.
He says that the platform is also accessible via mobile device.
At Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva, WI, Sales and
Production Manager Katie Fricke is working with her on-site IT
team to create a mobile app that lets planners try out
different themes and layouts with A/V equipment .
Cool to the Touch
The touchscreen technology that has become so familiar thanks
to smartphones, iPhone, iPads, and tablets is also infiltrating
more traditional forms of meeting technology, like the TV.
These digital, high-definition multi-touch screens allow
meeting attendees to engage with meeting content at a personal
level but on a much larger scale than with their own mobile
"Touchscreens are great because they allow you to create ways
to help people get that interactivity that they need," says
Michael C. Magnani, president, CEO and founder of nVision.
Brands like Sony, Samsung, and Perceptive Pixel specialize in
creating multi-touch screens, but these often come at a hefty
price. "Interactive, multi-touch direct-view displays are very
expensive; they might cost $80,000 each," explains Loether. He
says, however, that he expects the cost of these products to go
down in time.
Another alternative is using surface technology to create what
Fasy of PSAV Information Services describes as interactive
video walls that "drive interaction and engagement," she says.
"People want to get their information on their own and
something like this allows for that."
SMART Technologies' groundbreaking interactive whiteboards
combine touchscreen technology and collaborative learning.
"With these boards, you can write on them with your finger or a
stylus but, at the same time, other meeting attendees can log
into the software and draw onto it at the same time," explains
Les Goldberg, LMG president and CEO. "Even in a conference room
of 20 people, you can have all of them drawing on the same
board at the same time." Whatever is drawn on these interactive
boards can also be downloaded and saved for reference.
Building on that theme is the idea of "smart" or tech-equipped
furniture, says Paul M. Leguillon, technical support director
for the Q Center in St. Charles, IL. "We're working on
upgrading one of our rooms and working with one of our vendors
- Steelcase - to work on different types of 'smart' furniture,
like tables with built-in monitors and electrical cables. The
technology is all built in already." Levin says this idea of
built-in technology is adding to planners' desire for meeting
spaces that have less-intrusive technology, and thereby let
attendees focus more on the meeting than on anything else.
"It's about making the technology work for you," she says.
Another area where meetings technology has grown rapidly over
the past few years involves virtual or hybrid meetings. At the
most recent edition of SpiceWorld, SpiceWorks' annual
conference held at the AT&T Executive Education and
Conference Center in October, 500 on-site IT professionals
shared their meeting experience with thousands of virtual
attendees who had access to live HD-streamed footage from the
"We have more than 2.5 million IT professionals and 1,300
technology vendors around the world who use SpiceWorks, and we
want all of them to be able to get a taste of SpiceWorld from
wherever they are, so we've always made an effort to
live-stream some aspect of the event," Slaski explains. "In the
past, bandwidth constraints have been the biggest hurdle to
making this happen. But at AT&T, bandwidth was more than
sufficient to pull it off, and their tech experts worked
closely with us to coordinate the live stream with a full tech
setup - lighting, network connections, a sound board, the works
- and the end result was pretty seamless."
As live-streaming events become more popular, videoconferencing
continues to evolve. At the Thunderbird Executive Inn &
Conference Center in Glendale, AZ, a recent summit involved a
videoconference with 80 different attendees and a speaker based
in India. "We used a 15-foot projection screen so that the
entire audience could see everything," explains Jim Harnden,
chief information officer at Thunderbird. "We also had
microphones built in everywhere so everyone could really engage
and pick up on the conversation."
Levin says that sophistication of videoconferencing can become
a "real conversation."
"At the New York Institute of Technology, there was a room so
wired with microphones that all over, throughout the audience,
people could just speak and the sounds were instantly
transmitted to the other end so you can have a real
conversation with the virtual presenter," he says. "It's
Telepresence - or tools that allow a person to feel as if they
were present in a meeting - has also become more sophisticated.
Thanks to high-definition technology, screens that are more or
less life-sized in scale are also more lifelike in appearance.
At Loether's company, Electro-Media Design, telepresence has
been taken to another level with the inclusion of a robot, VGo,
that can be manipulated by remote users. "We bought this robot
so we could experiment with virtual meeting attendance and
understand what you can and cannot do with telepresence,"
explains Loether. "Whenever I'm out, I can sign onto the robot
and see people; it's like having Skype on wheels - a blend of
the virtual and physical world."
An obstacle preventing many conference centers from being able
to have the latest and greatest technology is cost. A robot
like the one used at Electro-Media Design costs $6,500.
"Technology trends continue to move really quickly," says
Babson's Dunn. "It's an ongoing challenge to keep up."
Another challenge is education. Chris Kelly, principal of
Convene (formerly known as Sentry Centers), says "meeting
participants are generally not comfortable being introduced to
new, foreign technology during meetings as much as they are
simply demanding that the devices that they walked through the
door with - smartphones, tablets and laptops - are being fully
In some cases, the advanced technology is simply that - too
advanced. "If you have cutting-edge technology but there aren't
any facilitators who are accustomed to using it, it wont get
used," says Loether. He adds that at a recent class he
conducted for IACC, he polled his audience of students to ask
how many had interactive whiteboards in their facilities. He
says that two-thirds had them but almost none had a client use
it even once. "The conference center is like a concert hall,
but we're not musicians."
To help educate meetings professionals about the latest in
meetings technology, Wizerize's CEO Fleming Fog and Convene's
Kelly teamed up to host the first ReThink Conference in
February 2011. The hybrid event included nearly 300 meeting
planners and suppliers from conference centers in New York,
Copenhagen, and Paris, as well as 100 online attendees. "We
really wanted to show planners exactly how to leverage
technology that expands beyond even the physical meeting
space," says Kelly. "We wanted the planners to be able to take
what they learned about these new technologies and bring it
back to their companies and introduce it internally to their
Overcoming knowledge gaps and modest budgets will continue to
challenge today's conference centers but starting with a solid
foundation, says Loether, is a start. "When conference center
clients ask me what they can do to prepare for the future, I
tell them this: invest in the quality of the environment and
infrastructure," he says. "The better we make rooms for
attendees, the better the rooms will be for the many new future
technologies that we'll have."