Conference Centers Get Fun

The need for play is being added to the agenda as conference centers embrace the bleisure trend

Chaminade Resort Spa surf school

Play areas, cafes, coffee bars, fitness studios, outdoor terraces, videogames; the offices of many of today's most innovative and successful companies embrace the "fun factor" in the workplace. Conference centers should follow suit, says New York City-based Christopher Kelly, president and cofounder of Convene, a company that develops, owns, and operates a network of executive meeting centers. Recently, the retail chain UNIQLO held an internal corporate strategy meeting at a Convene conference facility that featured an out-of-the-ordinary component for a strategy event: a fashion show where all UNIQLO's products for the upcoming season were showcased.  

 

"Cultural changes in the workplace are driving changes in meetings that are a lot less formal and stuffy, and integrate social components," says Kelly. "Work-life integration is a focus. Work is no longer a place, it's an activity. Just as email follows you home, Facebook is following employees to work."

This reality is changing the way groups are using conference centers -- and conference centers are changing both physically and conceptually to meet these new needs for adding fun to meetings.


The Magic of Play
"Play creates an arena for social interaction and learning," says Dr. Stuart Brown in his book Play. That book is a favorite of Joan L. Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt Associates, LLC, a meetings and hospitality consultant, facilitator, and trainer.

During some of the meetings Eisenstodt plans, she places toys, trinkets, and modeling clay on each table for attendees. Not only do these items promote social interactivity, but they also engage participants' right brains during a meeting that will help them stay awake and better retain the information being presented.

It's important that fun and play are audience-specific, she adds. "Turning creativity into competition adds a level of stress that may interfere with camaraderie," says Eisenstodt. "Forcing people to participate in play (ice breakers, teambuilding) may turn some against the activity and may then make it uncomfortable for them to reveal their discomfort or a hidden disability. Creative tools, doodling, are for hand-brain engagement."

This embrace of fun at conference centers reflects the broader trend of travelers combining business with leisure -- or "bleisure."

"Bleisure travel is a growing trend in the conference industry due to the need for work-life balance," says Timothy McGill, director of sales and marketing, Asilomar Conference Grounds.

Techsytalk LIVE, an event tech conference and showcase for planners, was held last August at Convene's 32 Old Slip location in New York City. From the walkthrough welcome hologram to the belly laughs Chicago City Limits provided to a DJ spinning tunes in the meeting room, Techsytalk was not only informative but entertaining and inspiring.

"Fun is an essential element to any conference," says Liz King, CEO of Liz King Events and founder of Techsytalk. "While we spend so much time painstakingly planning logistics and agendas, we have to think about the meeting experience. Attendees want to be entertained, engaged, and inspired. This happens through more than just content sharing."

Today, attendees are pulled in many different directions. "At any given time, a conference participant has an option of 100 different events they could be attending, a piling stack of emails that they have access to on their phones, and social media that is demanding their every attention," adds King. "Integrating fun into our events is a great way to reach our attendees and keep their attention in this very competitive world."


Spaced Out
Learning is a social activity, and today's conference centers are offering areas for participants to gather for conversation. A mixture of relaxed discussion and study areas, spaces that expand or contract depending on need, and private or group spaces coexist in the same place.

 

Apella, Event Space at Alexandria Center for Life Science, an innovative meeting and event space in New York City that can accommodate up to 300 guests in 10 private rooms, has modular lounge furniture that is not only comfortable but flexible. Sweeping views of the East River and Manhattan skyline can inspire. Colored lighting in its lounge allows Apella to match the mood of the gathering or employ the colors of the host's logo, adding a fun and hip vibe.

GE's Leadership Development Center in Ossining, NY is in the midst of creating a living room area that will be a casual meeting space for about 25 people. Soft furniture, coffee tables, throw pillows, and blankets will create a home-style setting for interacting.

There are some properties that are so much more than just conference centers. The Chaminade Resort & Spa, in Santa Cruz, CA, combines the luxuries of a resort with an International Association of Conference Centers-approved conference center. Activities like surfing, paddleboarding, and even whale-watching enjoyed by resort guests can be incorporated into meeting agendas.

Chaminade recently hosted a two-day off-site meeting for OnHub Google. The client, an administrative partner at Google, wanted to add celebratory elements to the meeting as a thank you to the OnHub team for a successful product launch. They included a welcome balloon arch to greet clients in the lobby, a "Taste of San Francisco" dinner, spa appointments, and teambuilding activities.

 

Some conference centers will arrange for groups to go off site to ramp up the fun. The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center, in Blacksburg, VA, offer "Hokie Experiences," that include group dinners on the South End Zone of Virginia Tech's Football Stadium, golf at Virginia Tech's Pete Dye River Course, and cheering on the Hokies at a Virginia Tech Basketball Game.

"As time goes on, we need to adapt to meet the needs and expectations of group planners who want to make their meeting more than business as usual," says Teresa Hughes, director of sales for The Inn at Virginia Tech.

Asilomar Conference Grounds, in Pacific Grove, CA, has a variety of activities for companies to incorporate into their meetings, including whale-watching, hiking, biking and walking tours, and beach volleyball.

Doral Arrowwood in Rye Brook, NY, has a teambuilding partner -- True North Team Building -- that arranges ice breakers, mixing fun into gatherings to loosen up attendees. Popular programs include the Great Amazing Race, Team Cooking, and Celebrity Game Night, among many others.

Fun infused into the conference center environment isn't exclusive to the North America market; centers in Europe are experiencing the same trend. Sweden's Sigtunahöjden, an international meeting place, is known for surprising its guests with the unexpected: recently, all staff members from its restaurant pinned notes on their backs with statements including, "I love my job," and "Ask me about wine."

"Our guests had a great surprise over lunch," says Lotta Boman, Sigtunahöjden's managing director. "They started talking about it, it was fun, and totally beyond their expectations."


How to Gauge Success
But how can a planner ensure that this incorporation of fun into their conference-center experience is a success?

According to Kelly, one way is to figure out, "Are your participants taking pictures of themselves and posting them on Instagram and other social media sites?"

"It pains me when companies spend so much to bring their people together and then don't give them time to pull it all together with discourse about the content," says Kelly. "We have bottle service, and for less than $20 per person we'll go into the meeting room with a bottle of Champagne and sparkling cider for a festive finish."



Questions or comments? Email adoyle@ntmllc.com



This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.


Spaced Out
Learning is a social activity, and today's conference centers are offering areas for participants to gather for conversation. A mixture of relaxed discussion and study areas, spaces that expand or contract depending on need, and private or group spaces coexist in the same place.

 

Convene's conference spaces use
colorful furniture and funky design
to encourage out-of-the-box thinking
Convene's conference spaces use colorful furniture and funky design to encourage out-of-the-box thinking

Apella, Event Space at Alexandria Center for Life Science, an innovative meeting and event space in New York City that can accommodate up to 300 guests in 10 private rooms, has modular lounge furniture that is not only comfortable but flexible. Sweeping views of the East River and Manhattan skyline can inspire. Colored lighting in its lounge allows Apella to match the mood of the gathering or employ the colors of the host's logo, adding a fun and hip vibe.

GE's Leadership Development Center in Ossining, NY is in the midst of creating a living room area that will be a casual meeting space for about 25 people. Soft furniture, coffee tables, throw pillows, and blankets will create a home-style setting for interacting.

There are some properties that are so much more than just conference centers. The Chaminade Resort & Spa, in Santa Cruz, CA, combines the luxuries of a resort with an International Association of Conference Centers-approved conference center. Activities like surfing, paddleboarding, and even whale-watching enjoyed by resort guests can be incorporated into meeting agendas.

Chaminade recently hosted a two-day off-site meeting for OnHub Google. The client, an administrative partner at Google, wanted to add celebratory elements to the meeting as a thank you to the OnHub team for a successful product launch. They included a welcome balloon arch to greet clients in the lobby, a "Taste of San Francisco" dinner, spa appointments, and teambuilding activities.

 

The Inn at Virginia Tech offers
a number of outdoor and leisure
activities that can be incorporated
into more formal meetings
The Inn at Virginia Tech offers a number of outdoor and leisure activities that can be incorporated into more formal meetings

Some conference centers will arrange for groups to go off site to ramp up the fun. The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center, in Blacksburg, VA, offer "Hokie Experiences," that include group dinners on the South End Zone of Virginia Tech's Football Stadium, golf at Virginia Tech's Pete Dye River Course, and cheering on the Hokies at a Virginia Tech Basketball Game.

"As time goes on, we need to adapt to meet the needs and expectations of group planners who want to make their meeting more than business as usual," says Teresa Hughes, director of sales for The Inn at Virginia Tech.

Asilomar Conference Grounds, in Pacific Grove, CA, has a variety of activities for companies to incorporate into their meetings, including whale-watching, hiking, biking and walking tours, and beach volleyball.

Doral Arrowwood in Rye Brook, NY, has a teambuilding partner -- True North Team Building -- that arranges ice breakers, mixing fun into gatherings to loosen up attendees. Popular programs include the Great Amazing Race, Team Cooking, and Celebrity Game Night, among many others.

Fun infused into the conference center environment isn't exclusive to the North America market; centers in Europe are experiencing the same trend. Sweden's Sigtunahöjden, an international meeting place, is known for surprising its guests with the unexpected: recently, all staff members from its restaurant pinned notes on their backs with statements including, "I love my job," and "Ask me about wine."

"Our guests had a great surprise over lunch," says Lotta Boman, Sigtunahöjden's managing director. "They started talking about it, it was fun, and totally beyond their expectations."


How to Gauge Success
But how can a planner ensure that this incorporation of fun into their conference-center experience is a success?

According to Kelly, one way is to figure out, "Are your participants taking pictures of themselves and posting them on Instagram and other social media sites?"

"It pains me when companies spend so much to bring their people together and then don't give them time to pull it all together with discourse about the content," says Kelly. "We have bottle service, and for less than $20 per person we'll go into the meeting room with a bottle of Champagne and sparkling cider for a festive finish."



Questions or comments? Email adoyle@ntmllc.com



This article appears in the March 2016 issue of Successful Meetings.