A Private Affair

The slumping economy of the past two years has produced at least one upside for meeting planners: more choices on where to hold their events. But in addition to the glut of hotel space that is available these days, another appealing option is picking up steam: using the space at a conference center that's owned by a corporation.

Many of these centers are available to outside groups because "the owning entities are not using them for internal events to the same extent that they were in a robust economy," says Sam Haigh, chief operating officer of Benchmark Hospitality in The Woodlands, TX. "As a result, they look to subsidize the costs of owning the centers while they continue to possess them for when the economy rebounds."

Corporate-owned centers make up approximately 25 percent of the membership of the International Association of Conference Centers, which requires all members to meet 31 criteria based on conference-room design, services, technology, guest-room comfort, and business amenities. Of the 44 corporate-owned IACC-certified centers, 26 are open to the public, with several others contemplating becoming so, according to Steve Smith, IACC's director of communications. "I think companies turning to facility-management firms to market their centers to the public is a definite trend," adds Haigh.

What Good Are They?

In general, "Conference centers are especially good for training," says Grace Rebull, president of Professional Meeting Organizers in Miami. "Attendees are in an educational environment that's well equipped with audiovisual and usually catering services, and one price covers everything related to the day's meetings," she adds.

Andy Dolce, president and CEO of Montvale, NJ-based Dolce Conference Destinations, notes that his firm's centers have been hosting many more training sessions over the past 18 months. But management retreats, strategy sessions, and teambuilding events also comprise a significant proportion of conference center business.

In particular, corporate-owned centers offer a unique advantage for meetings, because "many corporations invested heavily in their own facilities without expecting a sizable financial return for the dollars invested," says Haigh. "So they tend to have outstanding physical plants, with audiovisual and other things that you may not find in the open market." And when these venues market to outside firms, they must do so at rates comparable to those of for-profit competitors, which often makes corporate-owned centers a good value.

What's more, the level of service at corporate-owned facilities is less vulnerable to the vagaries of the economy. "Corporate owners want to emphasize to their own people the importance of the internal meetings taking place there, and have those people look forward to attending meetings there and feel good about the way they are treated," says Haigh. "So even in a down time in the economic cycle, the owning entity may not cut back on staffing and other service levels very much."

What's more, it seems that it would be easier for an outside planner to keep meetings -- other than some being run by the host firm -- from being on property at the same time as her group. The reason: An outside group doesn't necessarily have to buy out 90 or more percent of the building to guarantee exclusivity, because the host firm often wants to keep some space for itself. As a result, planners may be able to purchase, say, just 70 percent of the space to ensure privacy.

Culture Clash

On the flip side, planners must take a host's corporate culture into consideration, because it will surely be manifested throughout the facility -- and just might not match the ambience or "feel" a planner seeks for a particular event. "There's a direct reflection of a company's culture within its own conference center, whether it's used to educate its own people or to entertain clients there," says Laura Neumann, vice president of operations for Benchmark. "The company that owns the center controls what goes on within those four walls and has its stamp all over the property."

But even for those companies that own the facilities, there must be a bit of a balancing act. Mike Fahner, vice president of Aramark Harrison Lodging in Philadelphia, says that most facilities are "far enough away from the home office that people are not going to be dragged back to work to deal with a crisis" and can therefore concentrate on the task at hand. But Amy Haertel, director of conference services at The Council House in Racine, WI -- owned by S.C. Johnson and Sons -- notes that having meetings at one's own company venue can sometimes impose a forced atmosphere on some meetings, rather than act as a forum for free-flowing ideas. "It may be felt that attendees would like to be entirely remote to generate new and fresh ideas," she says.

Finally, keep in mind that not all corporate-owned facilities have sleeping rooms, which forces planners to use nearby hotels and provide attendees with transportation to and from the facility. Such an issue does not come into play with most for-profit conference centers, which have sleeping rooms and whose complete meeting package (CMP) price accounts for that component.

In the end, corporate-owned conference centers are something planners would be wise to explore for certain events. Marilyn Hauck, CMP, president of The Complete Conference in Sacramento, CA, puts it this way: "The biggest question to ask when choosing a location is this: As your attendees walk away from the meeting, what do you want them talking about?" The meeting itself, and not the venue, surely.