Bells & Whistles

Would the chance to indulge in world-class sushi while at a convention center help draw attendees to your event? How about giving them the opportunity to practice their baseball swing after a day of meetings? Or would a foot massage be more to their taste?

These are a just a few of the extras that can be found at some convention centers around the country. It's a far cry from the days when a convention center was basically an empty box ready for the host organization to fill it. The convention landscape has changed a great deal in recent years, with one of the most significant changes being the expanded role facilities are playing in contributing to the event experience.

Here are six centers around the country that have put their thinking caps on and created some new innovative services that can add character to any event.

REALITY TV

It's a scene that's enacted in every room in your room block on the opening day of your event. As attendees wake to the bright morning sun, they grab for the television remote and flip through the channels to find the morning news.

But in Honolulu, it's a little different. When attendees of events held at the Hawaii Convention Center channel surf, eventually a picture of their company CEO or association chairman flashes across the screen, welcoming them to Hawaii and speaking of the exciting events that will be happening today. Is it a dream? No, it's Convention TV.

The brainchild of the Hawaii Convention Center and Network Media, Convention Television (CTV) offers complete closed-circuit television coverage of any convention event. The service is fully customizable, featuring an updated schedule of events, exhibitor information, interviews with CEOs and top executives, and even same-day coverage of keynote addresses. It is a typical television station, with producers, editors, and an anchor. But what makes this service so special is that conventioneers can watch the broadcast from the comfort of their own hotel rooms. CTV has the ability to broadcast its program to every hotel in Waikiki, and it is just now starting to broadcast in the continental United States.

All groups, upon arriving on the island, will receive a personalized welcome message by the governor of Hawaii and mayor of Honolulu. During the event, CTV will walk the convention floor and conduct on-site interviews with exhibitors and attendees. Air time can be sold as an added revenue stream or as a fundraiser for charity.

Planners may fear that using CTV would require several hours of work, but the seven-person staff handles all the details. "CTV took care of everything," says Jodi Ashcraft, director of advertising and exhibit sales for the American Psychological Association in Washington D.C. "They told us what material they needed for the show. We were given recommendations on who should be interviewed and they took care of contacting them and making arrangements for the interviews."

Since the service was first introduced in 1999, CTV has grown from sharing office space with a sister company to having its own spacious studio in the convention center. The television station is also starting to work with conventions on the mainland. Its staff can fly out to where the company is based, conduct interviews, and edit the program on site. Working with the local CVB and hotels, CTV can air its programming in the desired hotels through their existing channels.

CTV can also be used to market future events. For example, to boost attendance at an upcoming convention in Hawaii, the HCC will create a video that showcases the destination and includes information about the meeting and messages from company executives that can be broadcast at current, ongoing conventions.

Pricing for CTV is as customizable as the service itself. The convention center recommends two options: having a sponsor or group of sponsors pay for the service, or selling airtime to interested groups. For very large conventions, the Hawaii Convention Center could sponsor the service, but that is an option that isn't frequently used.

CONVENTION TECH

With all the extra amenities hotels provide, it would be expected that they would be at the forefront of the new meetings technology, but actually, it's the convention centers that are often in the vanguard of incorporating high-tech services and amenities. Take the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, which just celebrated its one-year anniversary in June. It gives planners the ability to conduct real-time, Web-based customer surveys during an event, a service that updates the host organization on what the attendees and exhibitors think about the show. The service is free of charge.

The survey consists of a short series of questions regarding show participation, show attendance, satisfaction with the current show, and spending habits. The hosting organization can also include specific questions, which can be changed during the show. There is also a comment section, where attendees can give feedback.

The service was launched at New England Grows, a green industry show with nearly 18,000 attendees that was held in February. "It was very helpful," says Mary Hill, the conference and exposition director. "It gave show management useful information on how exhibitors and attendees were evaluating their experiences." Several kiosks were set up throughout the show in high- traffic areas. The convention center even offered entries for participants to win an iPod to boost participation in the survey. Hill received a report, with all the answers broken down and organized, at the end of each day. If they request, hosting organizations can get updates throughout the day. "It gave us a good idea of what could be a potential problem and showed us a trend at the event that we weren't even aware of," Hill says.

HAUTE CUISINE

To please those attendees with finer tastes, meeting facilities are beginning to serve more than turkey sandwiches and chocolate-chip cookies, which have long been the staples of convention center fare. The Hawaii Convention Center offers cuisine that complements the colorful character of the destination with selections such as island pink snapper in a lemon-macadamia crust and miso-glazed chicken with grilled shishito peppers. Hawaii has a large population of Japanese conventioneers, and sous chef Jacob Silva has trained under Masayoshi Takayama, one of the most sought-after sushi chefs in the U.S. If a particular group doesn't care for the style of food served at the convention center, the chefs will sit down with the meeting planner and design a menu that will be well suited to attendees' tastes.

Not only can the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in Seattle customize a menu, it has a specially designed room inside the kitchen to showcase its cuisine to planners. The Tasting Room can accommodate up to 12 guests in a posh setting of cherry wood and leather. While there, planners can view the linen, china, and dining decor, while sampling and selecting their final menu. The room is also equipped with a working grill, where the chef can prepare part of the menu while interacting with the planners. Across the country, at the Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C., fast food has been taken to a whole other level. At Wolfgang Puck Express, attendees can dine on an array of salads, sandwiches, and pizzas, but these are not your normal grab-and-go items. The pizzas are cooked on premises in Puck's signature California-style wood-burning oven and finished with toppings that include shrimp, goat cheese, pesto, and sun-dried tomatoes. The sandwiches and salads are equally appetizing, with salads topped with Granny Smith apples, Gorgonzola cheese, caramelized pecans, and sandwiches stuffed with sliced chicken breast, melted provolone cheese, and cilantro aioli. Attendees can dine on Puck's cuisine at two locations in the convention center.

PERKS OF THE JOB

To pique the interests of planners, convention centers are now creating a wide array of personalized services that can enhance the show experience for a broad spectrum of event attendees. Here's a smattering of perks that are currently being offered.

McCormick Place and Lakeside Center in Chicago has an extensive "Massage Break Lounge" where attendees can relax under the trained hands of a masseuse. Massages are available in 10 to 30 minute sessions, focusing on the shoulders, back, neck, or feet.

In order to attend to businesspeople who may travel with their families, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center is partnering with the Boston Children's Museum to create a child-care program that would be a Boston-specific cultural experience. They are in the process of working out the specifics, such as transportation, costs, and how many hours of child-care would be offered, but the center is planning to debut the service this fall.

Conventioneers attending an event in Yuma, AZ will be surrounded by a sport enthusiast's paradise. The Yuma Civic Center, located in southern Arizona, has ample meeting space, along with nine tennis courts, two 18-hole golf courses, and a baseball complex complete with a major-league stadium field, practice fields, and batting cages.

Who would have thought convention centers would ever offer such luxuries? As the bells-and-whistles trend continues, it's evident that planners can only benefit from the extra perks their attendees will receive.