The Seven-Hour Off-Site Meeting - 2005-10-01

Last spring, when Margaret Kluttz was searching for a location that could facilitate a last-minute, off-site meeting she was coordinating, she began to feel a little like Goldilocks. "Some [places] were too small," she sighs. "Some were too big. And others were already booked."

Kluttz, who is the state director of the Salisbury office for North Carolina's U.S. Senator Elizabeth Dole, had been assigned the unenviable task of finding a venue for the June 28 hearings being held by the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission. These were public meetings in which members of Congress would hear testimony from citizens and government officials regarding whether military bases in their communities should be closed, relocated, or left unchanged.

Kluttz needed enough room for about 800 attendees, in a convenient location, as they'd be arriving, in shifts, from three different states (the Carolinas and West Virginia). She also needed a venue with sophisticated audiovisual equipment, because the hearings would be simulcast on C-SPAN. And she needed it soon—in less than 30 days.

After striking out several times, Kluttz began frantically calling around to various colleges in the area, hoping that one might have an auditorium available. A staff person at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte suggested she try the Harris Conference Center, a recently opened day center on its west campus. Kluttz did so—and found her match. "The location and capacity were right, and it was available," she says. "The stars lined up for us."

Though most meetings aren't nearly this complex, many planners agree with Kluttz that finding the right venue for day meetings can be challenging. Since hotels make their revenue mainly from sleeping rooms, they're not particularly interested in booking group space for attendees who will not be staying over. Fortunately, there is another way: Conference centers are all about meetings, and many have great day facilities.

Short and Sweet

There are lots of reasons why planners find it preferable to do off-site day meetings, not least of which is that, like Kluttz's, their companies or organizations simply lack sufficient conference space. But for Amber Ramirez, it's because her attendees—brokers at First Magnus, one of the largest private mortgage firms in the country—"have schedules that are out of control," she says. "We need to get them away from the office into a different element, where they can focus without interruptions."

In August, Ramirez used the Pacific Palms Conference Resort in Southern California for an annual training meeting. A few dozen First Magnus account executives drove to the conference center—located in City of Industry, CA, about a half-hour's drive from Ramirez's office—for day briefings on new products and services.

Because Ramirez had been on the job less than a month at the time of the meeting, she leaned heavily on Pacific Palms' staff, who had handled the event in the past. "This was thrown together in about five days," she admits. "But they went out of their way to make sure things ran smoothly. The conference coordinator was always around to make sure we had everything we needed." Indeed, when one of her speakers forgot a wireless mouse required to run a laptop presentation, Pacific Palms' AV department quickly supplied a replacement.

All in a Day's Work

Day meetings at conference centers needn't be all work and no play. Len Santoro, a senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis, a commercial real-estate firm, also used the Pacific Palms recently for his annual customer appreciation event, which includes a half-day of golf and an evening reception.

It's a big gathering—around 250 people, nearly all arriving by car—that starts promptly at eight a.m., with industry experts briefing CB Richard Ellis staffers and their clients on various aspects of the real-estate market. The briefings end at noon, after which attendees can either participate in a shotgun-style golf tournament or spend the afternoon playing tennis, swimming, or working on their laptops. Attendees who want to play golf but left their clubs at home can borrow a set from the resort, free of charge. At five o'clock, everyone gathers for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, heading home around seven.

Santoro says he picks Pacific Palms for its central location (it's served by three freeways), championship courses, and excellent service. Whether it's supplying the equipment needed for his speakers' high-tech presentations or accommodating the frequent last-minute changes to the golf lineup, "They serve us flawlessly," he says. "Everyone has a good time. They come away with a lot of information and get to know each other a little better."

Mark Harris also likes to mix fun with work—not on the golf course but in the conference room itself. As the head of Harris Development Group, a human resources organizational development firm in Deerfield, IL, he leads teambuilding sessions and leadership development workshops for clients from Coca-Cola to the American Management Association, and likes to stock the meeting rooms with unusual items like Silly Putty, Slinkys, and Magic Markers.

"People have limited attention spans, and if they can doodle or play with a knickknack, it keeps their attention and breaks down the formality of the business environment," explains Harris, who frequently leads sessions at Catalyst Ranch, a center in Chicago that appeals to "funky, eclectic" groups (its meeting rooms are named the Polka, the Cha Cha, and the Tango). In general, he prefers conference centers to hotels for these daylong get-togethers: "At a hotel, lunch and breaks are at fixed times, so if you're in a great discussion you [get interrupted]. Conference centers are more informal and can cater to a group's specific needs more easily. They also have a better selection of food, and overall the customer service is much better." He sums up, "As a meeting facilitator, my life is incredibly easy at these places."


Other Day Centers Planners Like

The Coleman Center, New York City: The founder, Coleman Finkel, is "a genius," says LoriAnn Harnish, CMP, an independent planner in Scottsdale, AZ. "He was way ahead of his time in applying the conference center approach to adult learning."

American Management Association Executive Conference Centers, New York City/Atlanta: "They have negotiated rates with surrounding hotels, so if you have a meeting for 180 people but only need about 15 sleeping rooms, they're perfect," says Liza Wentworth, meetings manager at the National Society of Compliance Professionals in Cornwall Bridge, CT.

South San Francisco Conference Center: An affordable alternative for smaller programs, says Harnish.

Summit Executive Centre, Chicago: "All staff is trained on all AV, so you can ask anyone to help you," says Megan Morse of Huron Consulting Group in Chicago. The facility is big enough for larger groups, but small enough that "if you have an immediate need, it's addressed within minutes," she adds.

Gleacher Center, University of Chicago: "It's an excellent, state-of-the-art facility, with lots of amphitheater-style meeting rooms with tiered seating," says Harnish. "Wolfgang Puck does the F&B, and the service is excellent." (Cautions Wentworth: "Make sure your program doesn't run late—Gleacher is used for MBA classes in the evenings.")

American Airlines Training & Conference Center, Fort Worth, TX: Lots of good options for F&B, from cafeteria style to upscale, says Harnish.

Bell Harbor International Conference Center, Seattle: The Gates Foundation (as in Bill) frequently holds international meetings here, says Mike Jorgensen of local firm Moore Presentations, because "it's one of the few centers in the U.S., outside of the United Nations, with built-in simultaneous translation capabilities."