Professors' Blueprints for the Perfect Meeting

Does the thought of using a university conference center for your next meeting make you flash back to falling asleep during Econ 101? If so, you should reconsider.

When designing conference centers, "Universities are very good at drawing on the expertise in their schools," says Maggie Miller, who oversees the University Place Conference Center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), which
was one of the first full-service university conference centers in the country. Besides incorporating the latest academic research on adult learning, such centers typically feature top-flight technology, she adds. "These conference centers benefit from these advancements, and so do their customers."

Successful Meetings talked to professors and other experts at these conference centers to learn more about how they design environments to foster the exchange of knowledge.

Professor Knows Best

When it comes to executive education, says David Hennessey, a professor of marketing who was consulted on the design of the Babson College Executive Conference Center in Wellesley, MA, it's often better to talk to the faculty members than traditional conference planners. For instance, when his center was first built, Hennessey knew the executives using it would need a lot of breakout space. But the people running the center disagreed, and as a result, Hennessey often ended up converting sleeping rooms into breakout rooms. Luckily, the center listened more closely to Hennessey when it expanded in 2002,
and each meeting room now has four corresponding breakout rooms, on average.

Another unique feature at Babson, says Hennessey, is a meeting room design that allows all participants to see and hear everyone else without having to get out of their chairs. This is accomplished via a classroom-style setup that incorporates rows of seating along
the sides of the room so that whenever an attendee is talking, the other attendees can turn in their chairs and pivot towards him or her. That way, explains Hennessey, "If an executive disagrees with another executive across the room, they can talk back and forth, so even if you have as many as 60 in a room, it feels like it's just eight people sitting around a table." Also, room entries are from the rear instead of the front, so that people can enter and exit without disrupting the rest of the class.

Pride of Kentucky

The last place most people would expect to find a top-quality conference center is near an airport -- unless they work at Toyota or Procter & Gamble, in which case they've probably attended training sessions at the METS Center, a.k.a. Northern Kentucky University's Metropolitan Education & Training Services Center, a day facility in
Erlanger, KY, adjacent to the Greater Cincinnati International Airport.

The METS Center was first conceived in 1999 when a university outreach program revealed that the number-one issue for local business leaders was "having access to well-trained people and keeping them well trained," says Rob Snyder, the METS Center's executive director, who is also an organizational psychologist and a professor of
management. The center opened in 2003, after years of consultations with experts in design and adult learning, and hundreds of conversations with meeting planners and other clients.

The archway marking the METS Center's entrance covers three lanes of traffic, so that multiple clients can park close to the door. "Trainers told us they hate it when they pull up to a meeting facility and there's a bus parked at the front and they have to unload their stuff in the rain," explains Snyder. Inside, the meeting rooms offer large windows and natural light (which experts say help attendees concentrate better and avoid fatigue), yet there's no outside noise from airplanes or cars, thanks to windows with triple-pane glass and extra glazing, and multiple walls separating rooms not only from side to side, but
between the ceiling of one room and the floor of the one above it; this also muffles the noise from the heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems.

The computer training room features an open area in the back, where round tables and chairs stand behind the rows of machines lined classroom-style up front. "Clients told us that for computer-based training, they wanted to be able to have people working simultaneously in groups someplace else," explains Snyder. Normally, trainees would get sent down the hall to a breakout room, "but when you do that, you lose energy," he notes. "Here they don't leave the room, they stay with the trainer, and they get right to work." To keep the attendees working in the last row of computers from being distracted by the
open space behind them, pilasters that extend 48 inches from the wall were placed on each side of the room. "Research has shown that if you have [a design element] that sticks out at least four feet, it creates enough peripheral closure so that the open space at
the back of the room doesn't bother people," Snyder explains.

Other rooms offer a more laid-back atmosphere. The Innovation Room, for instance, was designed with input from former Procter & Gamble innovation trainers and is filled with items intended to spark creativity, such as books, games, and timelines of major inventions -- "just to get people thinking while they're throwing ideas back and forth," explains Snyder. "The literature on innovation shows that the more stimuli people have -- the more things they can pick up and use as examples, like a set of dominoes or whatever -- the better their ideas." Down the hall, the Parlor, also designed with help from P&G's experts, offers a club-like atmosphere, with thick leather couches and chairs and dimmable lights; the center's clients like to use this room for interviewing their customers in a relaxed setting.

The Granddaddy of 'em All

He's not a professor, but Coleman Finkel, president and founder of the Coleman Center, a day facility in New York City, has done so much research on adult learning he might as well be. Author of six books on meeting planning (most recently The Environment Is the Meeting), he is considered by many to be a founding father of the conference center

Finkel's interest in adult learning started in the 1970s when, as an executive at the American Management Association, he was responsible for 2,100 meetings yearly around the world. "I didn't go to all those meetings, obviously," he says, "but I visited enough
places to observe that first, most facilities knew nothing about the design of a learning environment, and second, they had very little concept of how to support the meeting leadership, who were constantly having to worry about logistics instead of focusing on
communicating information and guiding discussions."

Finkel eventually went into the hotel business, opened two conference centers adjacent to one of his hotels, and began implementing his research. Over the years he came to believe so much in the importance of a separate conference facility that he founded The
Coleman Center, which embodies what he calls "the total-immersion learning environment."

In the center's reception area, soft music and a mild lilac fragrance help relax attendees and put them in a different mindset. Rooms are square-shaped with lower ceilings to create a more intimate environment. The walls and even the paper the center uses are
light blue, based on Finkel's research into the psychological effect of color. Lighting, designed in consultation with GE, offers a warmer hue than typical fluorescent lighting, causing less eyestrain. Even the carpet patterns support the learning environment, with structured, geometric patterns in the meeting rooms, and organic, rounded shapes in the lounges and casual areas.

"We try to take the busy, preoccupied individual, the activist and doer, and have him take a more passive role as a listener, thinker, prober," Finkel explains. Considering he gets at least two letters a month from clients praising The Coleman Center, he must be doing something right.

Click here to learn how an architect of a new university conference center in San Francisco used the building's design to welcome his neighbors.