. Conference Centers Are Learning Centers | Successful Meetings

Conference Centers Are Learning Centers

Pairing a group with the right conference center can take education to the next level

Paige Miller Buck

Paige Miller Buck, partner of Kennedy Events LLC, is meticulous when it comes to finding the right meeting facility. Based in the Bay Area of Northern California, she focuses on clients ranging from institutional organizations such as the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), to various social media and crowd-funding companies. "These companies have really high expectations for their training and technology needs," Buck notes.

She says her clients gravitate toward properties like the Mission Bay Conference Center at UCSF because of its robust technology services, and that they are especially happy to meet somewhere that "feels different from being in a stuffy, old-school property."

"Even facilities that have gone through extensive soft renovations still feel less sophisticated," says Buck. "Our tech audiences want something that feels new, young, fresh, and clean. This center has an aesthetic and layout that suits them; it's light and airy with lots of windows and glass. They feel like the space matches their brand, and they learn better when they're here."

The ideal learning environment that Mission Bay provides for Buck's tech clients is just one example of how choosing a conference center with the right features, amenities, and resources can elevate a training meeting. It's something many companies will be doing this year.

Training meetings are on the rise. The American Express Meetings & Events "2015 Global Meetings Forecast" predicts a 9 percent increase in training meetings -- the largest such percentage increase by category -- in 2015, and Successful Meetings' "2015 Trends" survey finds 33.7 percent of meeting planner respondents, the largest percentage, will host more training meetings in 2015.

Conference centers, in particular, are well aware of this trend. According to the International Association of Conference Centers' (IACC) 2014 edition of "Trends in the Conference Center Industry, " the greatest percentage of meetings held at residential conference centers consisted of training/continuing-education sessions (57.8 percent).

"There's a very obvious link between training meetings and conference centers," says Mark Cooper, IACC CEO. "Successful organizations with talented individuals choose the conference center over other venues because it's a key contributor to the quality of the learning. The environment is conducive to learning, and that's pivotal to the overall success of the training."

How can organizations leverage these environments to improve the training experience for their groups? Here are five strategies.


1. Get Hands On
Experience fosters learning, and often there's no better way to learn something than to try your hand at it. That's where specialized conference center facilities come in, providing simulators and other experiences that mirror real-world scenarios outside the classroom.

Archie Tew, an experiential learning facilitator based in Santa Fe, NM, works with various organizations that include British Airways, Ford, and the U.S. government, and is a big proponent of the hands-on approach. "Rather than tell people how they should respond or handle a certain situation, immerse them in an event that holds up a mirror to them so they can reflect on their behaviors and how they respond," he says. "Ask them to look at how they are responding, what they are learning, what they need to change. It makes people really think in that moment."

One type of hands-on training that Tew often conducts brings groups to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. He partners with the center to design and deliver leadership programs for both public- and private-sector groups, using the center's outdoor High Challenge Course, Low Event Challenge Course, F-16 flight simulators, and Space Shuttle simulators to help develop better leadership, crisis management, and communication skills.

 

At the American Airlines Training and Conference Center in Fort Worth, TX, for example, a life-size aircraft cabin simulator is used to train flight attendants, and a full-size ticket counter seats agents in training. "We try to have a training environment that's close to what they will see when they get back to the airport," explains Sheryl Black, manager of learning delivery and an asset manager for the center. "It's all about providing real hands-on experiences for our students." On average, the center sees approximately 1,000 students per week. While the simulators are for the exclusive use of American Airlines, the rest of the conference facility, which is managed by Dolce Hotels & Resorts, is open to other meeting groups.

Likewise, at conference center facilities like the Florida Hospital Nicholson Center in Orlando, FL, or the Oquendo Center in Las Vegas, hands-on experiences are exactly what they provide to medical and pharmaceutical meeting groups.

The Nicholson Center has two simulated operating rooms and two wet lab areas, as well as dry labs, and one of the largest robotic training facilities in the country. Patrick de la Roza, the Nicholson Center's executive director, says "that the kind of learning provided at the center delivers a "much more immersed experience." "You can do your traditional PowerPoint presentation here, but at our center, we'll also set up an operating room at the front of the room where you can bring in a cadaver and all of the equipment you need. It's literally live and it's happening."

He says that many medical-device and pharmaceutical companies will use the center to conduct specific lab events and have opportunities to "showcase their products in a real, live surgical environment as opposed to being in a convention center."

Like the Nicholson Center, the Oquendo Center, which is located only five miles from the Las Vegas Strip, also caters to medical and pharmaceutical group training. "We like to position ourselves as a turn-key solution," says Carin Giovanni, marketing director. "You don't have to try to find your own tissue or medical equipment provider out here. Our 66,000-square-foot facility was built to educate, to do hands-on labs, and educate doctors."




4. Find Connections

Finding historic or significant connections can make a meeting all the more meaningful and inspiring, as is the case for the Opticians Association of Massachusetts (OAM).

 

Every fall for the past five years, approximately 350 opticians from the OAM have met every year at the Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center in Southbridge, MA, for their annual continuing education conference. The center's history lends itself to being a perfect location for opticians. This is where American Optical, a U.S.-based eyewear manufacturer, had its corporate headquarters from 1871 up until the 1970s. In 2000, the main plant's buildings were demolished, except for the façade, and in their place, the Southbridge center emerged, the product of a government contract with the Department of Defense (DoD). Until a few years ago, it was almost exclusively used by the DoD for senior leadership training; today, it's open to all groups.

During OAM's two-day meeting, attendees shuffle into the Prism Auditorium or Crystal Ballroom for general sessions, gatherings, and sessions. During breaks, they might head to the Focus Fitness Center, the Shades Lounge, or Visions Restaurant. Groups also tour the local Optical Heritage Museum, located only a few blocks away.

"The museum is unique for the optical industry," explains Diane Matuck, a member of OAM's board of directors and its main meeting organizer. "It's filled with these priceless artifacts. The location is just perfect for our group. Our members love it, and they feel inspired by it. They learn so much just by being here." Last year, a number of courses were held at the museum.

"We were very lucky to have found a meeting location that could basically be called a home for opticians," says Blair Wong, OAM's executive director. "I think the center is a great facility for any organization, but it also has special meaning for us, and we're lucky to have that here."

For his part, Tew recalls one meeting he facilitated where the conference center was located close to the historic site of the Gettysburg battle in Gettysburg, PA. "We could take the attendees to the battlefield, and integrate the history of that battle into their leadership learning," he explains. "Having that history, that connection, so accessible was really invaluable."


5. Go Back to School
One of the best advantages of meeting at a dedicated conference center is the variety of resources available, especially at venues like the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, the Babson Executive Conference Center, and the Mission Bay Conference Center, all of which are located on university campuses. Relationships to academia make it easier for meeting organizers to find and bring in the right experts and, in some cases, develop the right content.

At AT&T, there's a definite "synergy" between the Texas Executive Education program at The University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business and the center management team, says Mickey D'Armi, Texas Executive Education director of marketing. "There's a real strategic alignment between the center and the Executive Education program."

D'Armi and his colleagues, who include Nancy Nagle, director of custom programs, and Lynn Slattery, director of open enrollment programs, often work in tandem with FLIK Hotels & Conference Centers, which manages the AT&T Center as well as the center at Babson. Says Nagle, "We can work with the faculty and have them help to enhance the program."

That's exactly what Nagle has done for ExxonMobil's Russ Roberts and BBVA Compass' Eric Simpson. Houston-based Roberts, a senior public affairs planning manager, manages an advocacy training program for ExxonMobil's public and government affairs employees around the globe, and has been working with Nagle on the program since its inception in 2008. The program serves approximately 450 to 500 employees, with multiple sessions taking place on an annual basis. Roberts just completed his 17th program at the center.

"The university has professors who are experts in this area, so we chose to tap into their abilities and research to help round the program out," Roberts says. "They worked with us one-on-one on the curriculum and customized the materials for what we needed."

Adds Nagle, "We want to deliver great education and we want the person doing that to look like a hero." Likewise, Nagle assisted Simpson, BBVA Compass' senior vice president and director of leadership and employee development, in creating a customized management training program for the Madrid-based financial service provider's U.S. workforce. "Nancy and her group helped us map out the program from a content standpoint -- which professors to use, what content to include," he says. "The experts they use are not only from an academic perspective but also from consulting and they also have tremendous industry knowledge of financial services."

The Center also works with other university departments, including the Center for Lifelong Engineering Education (CLE), which delivers professional development programs for engineers, including open-enrollment courses. "Because we're part of the school of engineering, it's a great relationship for us," says Marie Giradot, conference coordinator for CLE.

"When you can find that conference center training facility that has the right environment, resources, and connections for your particular group, that's magic right there," says Tew.



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the March 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.

2. Implement Environmental Controls
Equally as important as being able to provide hands-on experiences is making sure that the conference center has the right environment to foster learning for your particular group. Whether it's rural and secluded, familiar or not, finding the right overall atmosphere can have a tremendous impact on the meeting's success. Proximity can also make it that much easier for your attendees to convene.

Buck's clients, for example, seek out conference center environments like Mission Bay that mirror their own working spaces and foster familiarity.

"Groups that really enjoy our space are definitely high tech," says Mark Wallace, Mission Bay's general manager, who works for the center's management company, Aramark. "Our location is ideal for them, and our A/V is very cutting edge; we're always one step ahead. The high-tech community knows us well; start-ups get credibility by meeting here."

Mike Kiely, director of sales enablement for Hopkinton, MA-based technology firm EMC Corporation, says he chose the Babson Executive Conference Center in Babson Park, MA, for his new-hire sales representative training programs primarily because of its "entrepreneurial business atmosphere. It doesn't feel like a hotel and it doesn't feel like your average meeting facility," he explains. "There are quotes on the walls from business leaders and entrepreneurs, and that really lends itself to what our program is all about."

Understanding each group's specific meeting-environment needs is crucial, Tew notes. "You have to pay very close attention to your group. If they like to have things done a certain way, you have to find a conference center that suits their needs perfectly. If they are uncomfortable in their meeting environment, they won't be able to focus on the meeting itself."

Dawn Magdycz, operations manager for CWT Meetings & Events, works with a number of pharmaceutical clients to organize their training sessions, and she often finds that meeting in an off-site conference center helps tremendously. "The benefit comes from getting them out of a classroom setting," she says. "It pulls them away from the motions of a typical meeting. There's a huge benefit to that."

Tew says meeting in centers that are a bit more removed from the bustle of everyday life can help a group focus much better than it would at the office. "Creating an environment where attendees are almost forced to be by themselves encourages refection," he notes. "I pay just as much attention to the interior of the center as the outdoors. Nature can be nurturing for reflection and focus."

3. Use Nature as Nurturer
Taking advantage of the great outdoors, especially for teambuilding activities, is something that many training groups do at facilities such as Tarrytown House Estate and Conference Center in Tarrytown, NY. The historic estate dates back to 1840 and sits on 25 lush Hudson Valley acres, just 25 miles from Manhattan.  

"Attendees use the grounds at Tarrytown as part of their meeting, whether just for one-on-one meetings, brainstorming sessions, or an actual teambuilding event," says Jamieson Asselta, Tarrytown's director of sales and marketing. "We've had teams meet outside on the grounds to support more elevated thoughts."

Tarrytown's sister property in Stevenson, WA, the Skamania Lodge, sits inside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. "Being in such a natural environment, it really promotes teambuilding, themed nature walks, and other outdoor group activities," says Steve Sackman, regional vice president of sales and marketing for Destination Hotels & Resorts. "It support camaraderie, and walls are broken down. Groups aren't just sitting for 10 hours in a room."

At Babson, Dr. Elaine J. Eisenman, dean of executive education at Babson College, says, "We're only 15 miles from Logan International Airport, but you feel like you're away. We're surrounded by woodlands, and that helps attendees get away from day-to-day business."

Chauncey Hotel and Conference Center in Princeton, NJ, which is also managed by Aramark, was originally built by the Educational Testing Service to serve as its own training and retreat-like facility. Today, it accommodates groups from a variety of industries seeking a convenient, but peaceful environment for their meetings. "A lot of my clients who come to Chauncey are looking for non-cookie-cutter conference center venues," says Cindy McQuaid, CMP, senior corporate sales manager. "We have four working fireplaces on site, and 370 wooded acres. There's a lot of property to roam. We also have a lake and in the summer, we put up a tent."

One of McQuaid's clients, a planner for a large New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company, recently hosted two leadership training meetings at Chauncey and was impressed by the facility's grounds and ability to conduct teambuilding exercises. "It's rural and beautiful, and it has a great ambience. We used the tent and we also did a teambuilding event on the grounds -- a sort of Mission Impossible-style activity that helped the team work and gel better together," she says.

She adds that the seclusion of the property is a big plus. "I really need the privacy aspect of a conference center like that. It's not like a regular hotel, so you have more privacy; confidentiality is of utmost importance to us."

2. Implement Environmental Controls
Equally as important as being able to provide hands-on experiences is making sure that the conference center has the right environment to foster learning for your particular group. Whether it's rural and secluded, familiar or not, finding the right overall atmosphere can have a tremendous impact on the meeting's success. Proximity can also make it that much easier for your attendees to convene.

Buck's clients, for example, seek out conference center environments like Mission Bay that mirror their own working spaces and foster familiarity.

"Groups that really enjoy our space are definitely high tech," says Mark Wallace, Mission Bay's general manager, who works for the center's management company, Aramark. "Our location is ideal for them, and our A/V is very cutting edge; we're always one step ahead. The high-tech community knows us well; start-ups get credibility by meeting here."

Babson Executive Conference Center
connects groups to university resources
Babson Executive Conference Center connects groups to university resources

Mike Kiely, director of sales enablement for Hopkinton, MA-based technology firm EMC Corporation, says he chose the Babson Executive Conference Center in Babson Park, MA, for his new-hire sales representative training programs primarily because of its "entrepreneurial business atmosphere. It doesn't feel like a hotel and it doesn't feel like your average meeting facility," he explains. "There are quotes on the walls from business leaders and entrepreneurs, and that really lends itself to what our program is all about."

Understanding each group's specific meeting-environment needs is crucial, Tew notes. "You have to pay very close attention to your group. If they like to have things done a certain way, you have to find a conference center that suits their needs perfectly. If they are uncomfortable in their meeting environment, they won't be able to focus on the meeting itself."

Dawn Magdycz, operations manager for CWT Meetings & Events, works with a number of pharmaceutical clients to organize their training sessions, and she often finds that meeting in an off-site conference center helps tremendously. "The benefit comes from getting them out of a classroom setting," she says. "It pulls them away from the motions of a typical meeting. There's a huge benefit to that."

Tew says meeting in centers that are a bit more removed from the bustle of everyday life can help a group focus much better than it would at the office. "Creating an environment where attendees are almost forced to be by themselves encourages refection," he notes. "I pay just as much attention to the interior of the center as the outdoors. Nature can be nurturing for reflection and focus."

3. Use Nature as Nurturer
Taking advantage of the great outdoors, especially for teambuilding activities, is something that many training groups do at facilities such as Tarrytown House Estate and Conference Center in Tarrytown, NY. The historic estate dates back to 1840 and sits on 25 lush Hudson Valley acres, just 25 miles from Manhattan.  

"Attendees use the grounds at Tarrytown as part of their meeting, whether just for one-on-one meetings, brainstorming sessions, or an actual teambuilding event," says Jamieson Asselta, Tarrytown's director of sales and marketing. "We've had teams meet outside on the grounds to support more elevated thoughts."

The beautiful grounds at
Tarrytown House Estate
and Conference Center
are a great backdrop for
supporting elevated thoughts
and teambuilding events
The beautiful grounds at Tarrytown House Estate and Conference Center are a great backdrop for supporting elevated thoughts and teambuilding events

Tarrytown's sister property in Stevenson, WA, the Skamania Lodge, sits inside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. "Being in such a natural environment, it really promotes teambuilding, themed nature walks, and other outdoor group activities," says Steve Sackman, regional vice president of sales and marketing for Destination Hotels & Resorts. "It support camaraderie, and walls are broken down. Groups aren't just sitting for 10 hours in a room."

At Babson, Dr. Elaine J. Eisenman, dean of executive education at Babson College, says, "We're only 15 miles from Logan International Airport, but you feel like you're away. We're surrounded by woodlands, and that helps attendees get away from day-to-day business."

Chauncey Hotel and Conference Center in Princeton, NJ, which is also managed by Aramark, was originally built by the Educational Testing Service to serve as its own training and retreat-like facility. Today, it accommodates groups from a variety of industries seeking a convenient, but peaceful environment for their meetings. "A lot of my clients who come to Chauncey are looking for non-cookie-cutter conference center venues," says Cindy McQuaid, CMP, senior corporate sales manager. "We have four working fireplaces on site, and 370 wooded acres. There's a lot of property to roam. We also have a lake and in the summer, we put up a tent."

One of McQuaid's clients, a planner for a large New Jersey-based pharmaceutical company, recently hosted two leadership training meetings at Chauncey and was impressed by the facility's grounds and ability to conduct teambuilding exercises. "It's rural and beautiful, and it has a great ambience. We used the tent and we also did a teambuilding event on the grounds -- a sort of Mission Impossible-style activity that helped the team work and gel better together," she says.

She adds that the seclusion of the property is a big plus. "I really need the privacy aspect of a conference center like that. It's not like a regular hotel, so you have more privacy; confidentiality is of utmost importance to us."

Learning by Example
Alysa Hartman, an instructional design and training coordinator for Des Moines-based LCS, a senior lifestyle service provider that manages retirement communities, constantly runs training programs. Over a two-year period, she hosts conferences for 11 different department directors' groups of 40 to 100 people.

From 2008 to 2010, she brought her groups to The Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club in Durham, NC. "Being in the industry that we are, we're all about hospitality and we have very high expectations for our community staff."

Hartman says she was especially impressed by the staff at The Washington Duke Inn. "They had, probably, the most outstanding hospitality program that we've ever seen," she says. "When we were developing our own company hospitality program, they met with us, and they gave us tips and tricks on maintaining it. We actually modeled some of our program off of theirs -- they were willing to have all of their department directors talk to us. We even got back-of-the-house tours of the facility. They really went above and beyond for us."

Learning by example has proven to be a successful training tool for Hartman's groups. She adds, "Anytime we can meet at a property that operates similarly to our communities, and we can get a tour like that it's great. We've had some conference center chefs, for example, give our food-and-beverage department directors cooking demonstrations."




4. Find Connections

Finding historic or significant connections can make a meeting all the more meaningful and inspiring, as is the case for the Opticians Association of Massachusetts (OAM).

 

Members of the Opticians Association
of Massachusetts find special meaning
and historical connection by meeting
at the Southbridge Conference Center
in Southbridge, MA
Members of the Opticians Association of Massachusetts find special meaning and historical connection by meeting at the Southbridge Conference Center in Southbridge, MA

Every fall for the past five years, approximately 350 opticians from the OAM have met every year at the Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center in Southbridge, MA, for their annual continuing education conference. The center's history lends itself to being a perfect location for opticians. This is where American Optical, a U.S.-based eyewear manufacturer, had its corporate headquarters from 1871 up until the 1970s. In 2000, the main plant's buildings were demolished, except for the façade, and in their place, the Southbridge center emerged, the product of a government contract with the Department of Defense (DoD). Until a few years ago, it was almost exclusively used by the DoD for senior leadership training; today, it's open to all groups.

During OAM's two-day meeting, attendees shuffle into the Prism Auditorium or Crystal Ballroom for general sessions, gatherings, and sessions. During breaks, they might head to the Focus Fitness Center, the Shades Lounge, or Visions Restaurant. Groups also tour the local Optical Heritage Museum, located only a few blocks away.

"The museum is unique for the optical industry," explains Diane Matuck, a member of OAM's board of directors and its main meeting organizer. "It's filled with these priceless artifacts. The location is just perfect for our group. Our members love it, and they feel inspired by it. They learn so much just by being here." Last year, a number of courses were held at the museum.

"We were very lucky to have found a meeting location that could basically be called a home for opticians," says Blair Wong, OAM's executive director. "I think the center is a great facility for any organization, but it also has special meaning for us, and we're lucky to have that here."

For his part, Tew recalls one meeting he facilitated where the conference center was located close to the historic site of the Gettysburg battle in Gettysburg, PA. "We could take the attendees to the battlefield, and integrate the history of that battle into their leadership learning," he explains. "Having that history, that connection, so accessible was really invaluable."


5. Go Back to School
One of the best advantages of meeting at a dedicated conference center is the variety of resources available, especially at venues like the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center, the Babson Executive Conference Center, and the Mission Bay Conference Center, all of which are located on university campuses. Relationships to academia make it easier for meeting organizers to find and bring in the right experts and, in some cases, develop the right content.

At AT&T, there's a definite "synergy" between the Texas Executive Education program at The University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business and the center management team, says Mickey D'Armi, Texas Executive Education director of marketing. "There's a real strategic alignment between the center and the Executive Education program."

D'Armi and his colleagues, who include Nancy Nagle, director of custom programs, and Lynn Slattery, director of open enrollment programs, often work in tandem with FLIK Hotels & Conference Centers, which manages the AT&T Center as well as the center at Babson. Says Nagle, "We can work with the faculty and have them help to enhance the program."

That's exactly what Nagle has done for ExxonMobil's Russ Roberts and BBVA Compass' Eric Simpson. Houston-based Roberts, a senior public affairs planning manager, manages an advocacy training program for ExxonMobil's public and government affairs employees around the globe, and has been working with Nagle on the program since its inception in 2008. The program serves approximately 450 to 500 employees, with multiple sessions taking place on an annual basis. Roberts just completed his 17th program at the center.

"The university has professors who are experts in this area, so we chose to tap into their abilities and research to help round the program out," Roberts says. "They worked with us one-on-one on the curriculum and customized the materials for what we needed."

Adds Nagle, "We want to deliver great education and we want the person doing that to look like a hero." Likewise, Nagle assisted Simpson, BBVA Compass' senior vice president and director of leadership and employee development, in creating a customized management training program for the Madrid-based financial service provider's U.S. workforce. "Nancy and her group helped us map out the program from a content standpoint -- which professors to use, what content to include," he says. "The experts they use are not only from an academic perspective but also from consulting and they also have tremendous industry knowledge of financial services."

The Center also works with other university departments, including the Center for Lifelong Engineering Education (CLE), which delivers professional development programs for engineers, including open-enrollment courses. "Because we're part of the school of engineering, it's a great relationship for us," says Marie Giradot, conference coordinator for CLE.

"When you can find that conference center training facility that has the right environment, resources, and connections for your particular group, that's magic right there," says Tew.



Questions or comments? Email [email protected]



This article appears in the March 2015 issue of Successful Meetings.