It's a Small World After All

A booming worldwide conference center market is offering planners sophisticated meeting options in surprising destinations.

Long relegated to suburban destinations, conference centers are sprouting up in some unexpected spots—Panama, Japan, the Netherlands—with much of their business coming from multinational corporations that have become accustomed to the technologically-advanced, well-serviced facilities commonplace in the United States.

The International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) has taken note of the development and wrapped its inaugural IACC European Conference in England last August. For more than 20 years IACC has held a North American conference, but only now created its own conference overseas. According to Neil Pompan, president of IACC North America, the board began discussing the idea of a European conference a couple of years ago and kicked planning into high gear in 2007. "We're at a point of critical mass outside of the U.S.," he explains.

Growth in the market is indisputable; conference attendance exceeded 100, with 27 people participating in the pre-conference tour and attendees hailing from more than 10 countries. Not bad considering that the first IACC North America conference in 1981 had just 19 attendees. Pompan, who was also recently elected to serve as president of IACC Global—he took office January 1—says that in addition to creating a committee of younger industry professionals to delve into the future of the conference center industry, he hopes that during his tenure IACC will be able to start chapters in locations like South Africa, China, and Latin America.

A Concept Blossoms

The Latin American market is certainly on fire, with Panama, often dubbed the "gateway to Latin America," adding three Benchmark properties to its lineup of meeting facilities—including the Panama City property The Orchid, which is currently under construction and scheduled to open late this year.

"We like to consider The Orchid the first real business hotel in Panama—the first hotel with real international quality and standards for meetings, especially at the executive level," says Juan Carlos Contalba, director of international development for Benchmark Hospitality International, based in The Woodlands, TX. The 17-story, 170-room property will feature a business complex with two levels of technologically advanced meeting rooms and boardrooms and be serviced by a dedicated conference concierge.

"Everybody appreciates advancements in technology. If I can show my clients either a ratty old meeting room or a room where everything is state of the art, they would definitely be open to [the latter]," says Eli Gorin, owner of Aventura, FL-based gMeetings Inc., who specializes in the Latin American market. Of the current facilities available, he says, "The technology and meeting space you'll find for the most part is not what you're going to find in the U.S. You have all the necessities, but you're not going to see state-of-the-art spaces."

Gorin adds that since even well-respected Latin and South American brands are virtually unknown to U.S.-based planners, the introduction of properties bearing a Benchmark or similar-level name would likely be appealing to American planners. While a boon for those facilities, it could be scary for local competitors.

"What we have found is that for U.S. meeting planners to know that they have a professional, U.S.-based meetings expert doing their meetings abroad—that's a very comforting thought," says Contalba.

Benchmark is also active in the Japanese market, where it announced the launch of Benchmark Hospitality International Japan in February 2008. The venture is an outgrowth of an existing relationship with Hiromi Takagi and Kozue Honda, who have been working under the Benchmark Tech brand to operate the Tokyo Conference Center Shinagawa and develop an awareness for the conference center concept in Japan.

"We have three projects under development [in Japan] and I suspect we'll be able to grow very quickly in that market. Meeting space in Japan is what meeting space in the U.S. was 20 years ago—it's for banquets and weddings," says Alex Cabanas, vice president of capital markets for Benchmark, who actively oversees the Japan project.

In an effort to maintain service standards at all properties, employees will be trained through Benchmark University, which Eric Terry, Benchmark's vice president of sales and marketing, describes as "a whole catalog of educational offerings that our employees can take advantage of." Courses on hospitality accounting, HR, recreation, and a host of others are designed to prepare employees for both the challenges of their positions and future career development, as well as ensure that brand standards are met.

Dolce Hotels & Resorts, which already has facilities in Germany (Munich and Frankfurt), France (Chantilly and Fregate), Belgium (Brussels), Spain (Barcelona), and Canada (Toronto and London, Ontario), is actively looking to expand its international presence.

When announcing Dolce's recapitalization last July, Founder, Chairman, and Managing Director Andy Dolce said, "Today we serve over half of the world's Fortune 100 firms; over the next five years we expect to double in size so we can serve the rest of them." He has since cited Madrid, London, the south of France, Milan, and select locations in Asia as priorities.

"The globalization of the business market means executives from multinational companies travel globally, so they're expecting the same level of service from location to location," says Dolce. He adds that the company's international facilities are used primarily by multinational corporations, then regional groups, with local groups comprising the smallest percentage.

The breakdown is similar for Benchmark. Cabanas says, "60 percent of our business at the Tokyo center is multinationals. They are more familiar with the conference center concept and a sophisticated meeting environment."

Cabanas says that while there are no future projects he's able to give specifics on, the company is exploring other opportunities in Asia—particularly in China and India. Cabanas is clear that this is not a road Benchmark goes down alone; "we are very aware of the need for a local partner, who understands the local market, so we're not starting from scratch," he says—a position that has also been expressed by Dolce.

Getting the Word Out

For its part, IACC is doing everything possible to increase awareness about conference centers. "What I'm seeing more and more—especially globally—is to have IACC help develop business relationships," says Pompan. "What you're going to see over time is that more and more IACC members from chapters around the world will be helping each other. If we lived in the same market, we'd be competitors, but since we're all over the world, we're not."

Pompan adds that it's only a matter of time before IACC considers conferences in other parts of the world. "We have to do these events where there is some sort of critical mass," he notes. While IACC has 21 members in Australia, centered around Sydney and Melbourne, there is only one member in Japan—Benchmark's Tokyo property—and one in Korea. "If we were to choose a location in Asia-Pacific, I don't think we'd get the attendance," he says, adding that it is certainly possible that future conferences will be held in Asia, as IACC has seen considerable interest, particularly from China.

Adds Cabanas: "The more the meetings market—in the U.S. and globally—continues to follow a globalization track as does the rest of business, the more planners will seek meeting environments like they have in the U.S."

Editor's Note: As Successful Meetings went to press, we learned that two IACC-member centers were destroyed in the February fires in Australia. Our deepest sympathies go out to all affected.

Originally published March 1, 2009

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