UCLA Venue Ushers in New Era of Conference-Center Technology

As the epicenter of all things cutting-edge, Silicon Valley is trumpeted far and wide as the gateway to tomorrow. If you want to glimpse the future of meetings, however, look some 350 miles south. There, a new conference center will open in August at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which is leveraging its reputation for scientific and technical ingenuity to build the next-generation meeting venue at the heart of its SoCal campus.

"Other universities with this type of facility typically contract with outside groups and hotel chains to build and manage it. Ours, however, is being totally constructed and managed by UCLA, which will allow us to run it with the Bruins spirit," says Valerie Vahling, director of information technology for UCLA Housing & Hospitality Services, which is overseeing the $152 million project: the UCLA Meyer & Renee Luskin Conference Center.

The Bruins spirit -- which refers to UCLA's athletic teams' name -- is one that embraces quality and promotes innovation. Case in point: UCLA ranks among the top five college campuses in the nation when it comes to starting new companies. Last year alone it launched 22 new ventures to commercialize scientific discoveries developed there, adding to a body of work that includes 912 active U.S. patents and 2,950 inventions managed by the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research.

By embracing and advancing UCLA's ethos for invention, the Luskin Conference Center promises to model a new way of meeting that transcends merely offering technology and focuses, instead, on seamlessly integrating it.

High-Tech, Without the Hiccups

Upon opening in August, the Luskin Conference Center will total 295,000 square feet, encompassing 254 hotel guest rooms, four outdoor function areas, and 25 indoor meeting rooms, all of which will be connected via free high-speed wireless Internet to the UCLA campus backbone Internet service.

"We are connected up and down to 10-gigabit-per-second Internet service," says Vahling, who notes that the facility will be available exclusively to academic, philanthropic, educational, and research groups that are affiliated with UCLA. "Think about that. Most of us have 5-gigabit Internet at our house."

The network's speed and bandwidth will be a major draw for medical groups, especially, according to Vahling, who says Luskin will cater to medical meetings that need access to global video conferencing for live streaming of remote surgical procedures.

Its advanced network is just the beginning. Throughout the facility, for instance, Luskin's smart card security system will offer access to guest rooms and meeting rooms via Wi-Fi-enabled key cards. At podiums, meanwhile, "intelligent inputs" will make it easy for speakers to utilize their own devices for visual aides during presentations; once it's connected via Wi-Fi or hard line, the system will automatically detect the speaker's device and project his or her screen for the audience to see. Elsewhere, in Luskin's 7,500-square-foot ballroom, an electronic LED lighting system will make it possible to customize overhead lighting to match individual events' moods or themes. Finally, "smart" meeting rooms with Crestron automation systems will give meeting planners complete control of the meeting room without the assistance of A/V staff; using a centralized touchscreen control panel, planners will be able to dim or advance the room's LED lighting, activate or deactivate built-in projectors, open or close window coverings, and more.

The technology's cool factor, however, is secondary to its function, according to Vahling, who says her team's goal was to create technology that was omnipresent yet invisible.

"If you notice the technology, it's too intrusive," she explains. "If you don't notice it, it's working properly."

Collaboration Powered by Connectivity

Although Luskin will be available only to groups affiliated with UCLA, its design suggests an important evolution for conference centers everywhere: Going forward, the objective of "high-tech" will be "high-touch."

"It's all about the guest experience," Vahling explains. "When they have meetings, groups want to be able to share content with each other and with people who are remote to the session ... Having advanced technology in your building makes it so much easier for meeting guests to collaborate."

It also makes it easier for meeting planners to adapt in real time to groups' dynamic needs.

"Technology should be there to support the meeting planner, not to get in their way," continues Vahling, who says conference centers of the future must make technology intuitive and integrative so that meeting planners can turn it on or off at will during sessions. "I think it's about being agile. You shouldn't have to interrupt a meeting to wait 30 minutes for an A/V guy to show up; the tools should be there for you to use if you need them, when you need them."

UCLA's motto -- fiat lux, Latin for "let there be light" -- has never seemed more appropriate.