Not Your Father's Conference Center
While a company like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has a penchant for meeting at conference centers, its employees tend to view the venues as resorts, says Roger Garufi, senior marketing specialist at the Waterbury, VT-based coffee maker. That’s because the company has selected properties that feel “like a destination location first,” he says. “We’re not looking for a concrete bunker. We look for a property that has what we need from a leisure setting like golf, desert Jeep tours, and things like that, because we do have some bonding activities and downtime incorporated into the agenda. But we really do need the meet-ing space, because that’s the meat and potatoes. You don’t want to put so much emphasis on the resort aspect if it can’t accommodate your meeting needs.”
Hal Powell, Benchmark Hospitality’s regional vice president of sales and marketing, adds that “meeting planner partners and the executives that we know who are involved in meetings have said to us, ‘It’s great that we’re able to have a meeting at a conference center, get the job done, have our productive meeting, and a part of that is being able to enjoy ourselves in the off time and stimulate all that creativity.’ ”
The decision to add activities like golf or tennis to a meeting can depend on the CEO, says Keith Sanders, senior vice president of national and international accounts and sales administration for Wayne, NJ-based roofing manufacturer GAF. “We used to have a CEO who really loved golf, so we’d always be in places like The Breakers in Palm Beach.”
Since then, Sanders adds, “we’ve done a lot of surveying of our people and asked, ‘Would you rather go for four nights and have a day of golf or spa, or would you rather keep it to three days, and if you choose to play golf or spend time at the spa, do that on your own?’ We get a tremendous response back: ‘Forget that, we’ll do that on our own.’ ”
When GAF, the largest manufacturer of roofing and ventilation materials in the United States, brings some 400 employees together each January for its annual sales and marketing meeting, they go to a conference center, not a hotel.
There are many reasons for this, says Keith Sanders, senior vice president of national and international accounts and sales administration for the privately held 126-year-old firm, which has annual revenues of about $3 billion.
“I’ve found that conference centers have an eye for what we’re looking for,” says Sanders, to whom the Wayne, NJ-based firm’s meeting planners report. “They have the support staff and facilities, the meeting rooms, chairs, whiteboards, and the electronic support you need to have an effective meeting. To me there’s really a clear delineation. It’s what they do, and it’s all they do. They still might have some hotel guests in and out, but generally conference centers are business centers. They get it, they know what you need, and are just a lot more attentive to you, to make sure you get a successful conference.”
But those very qualities that Sanders rattles off so easily can quickly become liabilities if attendees perceive them as “that’s all there is.” Here are three talking points that should be part of any promotional effort to get attendees excited about meeting at a conference center.
1. We Will Have A High-Quality Experience
“There is still the perception that conference centers are scaled-back, rustic places that don’t have some of the nice amenities that a four-star hotel would have, yet they do,” says Joan Eisenstodt, founder of Washington, DC-based meeting planning firm Eisenstodt Associates.
That’s certainly the case at Benchmark Hospitality International’s Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center in Arizona, where GAF has held its annual national sales meeting a dozen times in the past 14 years. The 326-room property and its fine-dining restaurant both have AAA Four-Diamond status. Amenities include a spa and tennis courts, and the area is loaded with top golf courses. Of course it also has 50,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 10,000-square-foot ballroom and 50 breakout rooms, as well as an on-site A/V staff and conference service managers with more than 70 years of combined meeting experience.
“The quality of food and the on-site recreational facilities make it possible to create an attendee experience that rivals those found at resorts,” Sanders says. On the meeting side, he feels many conference centers can actually exceed the experience found at resorts.
A lot of that comes down to little things that mean a lot. Sanders likes the way staff members at conference centers make sure that each breakout room has clean glassware and filled water pitchers after every breakout session, and conference chairs that people can sit in all morning and all afternoon, rather than “hotel stacking chairs that are half-cardboard and miserable,” he adds. “To me, to be able to sit in a conference chair that swivels and has arms and ergonomic features—that’s what keeps your people healthy and attentive during the day. It keeps them engaged.”
Dolce Hotels and Resorts, which, like Benchmark, is a leading owner of conference centers in the U.S., views its properties as a blend of hotels, resorts, and conference centers that give organizations many communication options when promoting a meeting.
“The planners and executives who use our properties want a professional meeting space and staff, but with some consumer lifestyle elements,” says Barry Goldstein, the Rockleigh, NJ-based firm’s chief revenue officer. “These groups need a fun restaurant, a fun bar, and other entertainment or activity-oriented places for attendees to be able to connect. We have tried to make sure we enhance the traditional conference center aspect. They want places where people are comfortable. People learn a lot better and have better meetings when they’re comfortable.”
2. Our Meeting Will Be Focused and Transformative
While factors like budget, weather, and airlift certainly play a part in the site selection process, it’s the focus on the business of meetings that is the biggest draw conference centers have for the meeting owners who use them. On the attendee side, downsizing and fewer resources have made achieving a work/life balance an issue, driving greater demand for career-developing experiences at meetings. Conference centers provide an environment that facilitates those experiences.
“What we’re hearing from the executive suite and also our meeting planner partners is that there is a major emphasis on productivity,” says Hal Powell, regional vice president of sales and marketing for Benchmark, based in The Woodlands, TX. “Whether it’s to get the top executives together to brainstorm about the business plan for next year, train the sales force, or enable the CEO to get together with top customers, we’re better equipped to help achieve those objectives.”
This focus on business shows up in a number of ways, Powell says, beginning with the convention service manager’s place in the pecking order. “With Benchmark, and a majority of conference centers, you are dealing with a conference service manager who has a great deal of authority,” he notes. “The CSM is knowledgeable and has the time to go out and find out what [the group] needs.”
And the experience to anticipate it, adds Roger Garufi, a senior marketing specialist at Waterbury, VT-based Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. He manages consumer promotions and events but also helps organize the company’s annual sales meeting, which bought out the Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center last May for the second time in five years.
When dealing with his CSM, “it was never a question of yes or no, but yes, and how can we make it better for you,” Garufi says. He cites an example from a few days before the meeting started, when he and his staff were preparing on-site. Green Mountain likes to bring all of its consumer marketing materials and set up stations throughout the property where attendees can peruse them (while enjoying fresh coffee, of course)—a major reason why the company prefers buyouts.
“My team got up at 5:30 one morning, ready to start unloading the trucks and hauling giant crates and pallets up to the main conference room,” Garufi says. “I was groggy and looking forward to hours of grueling manual labor. When I walked into the ballroom, all of our material was in the center of the room, staged in such a way that it was accessible. Their guys did the legwork for us without even asking. They provided a level of service that blew our logistics team away.”
Another difference between regular hotels and conference centers is that at a center, you generally get the meeting space on a 24-hour basis, says Eisenstodt. “If a discussion is going longer, or people want to stay or come back to that space, they can have it,” she says. “Meeting owners love that. If a group really gets going, you never want to cut them off. You don’t want to say, ‘We’ve got to get out of the room and clear everything out, because they’re going to use it for a dinner.’”
3. Off-Site Events Are No Longer Frowned Upon
Conference centers have had a reputation for being rigid about their packages—for instance, insisting that companies buy three-meal-a-day plans even if they want to eat off-site one night.
“I think it’s partly a lack of understanding,” Eisenstodt says. “People who used conference centers five to 10 years ago were used to being told that they had to buy the whole package.”
That’s no longer the case, says Dolce’s Goldstein. While conceding that “traditionally, in our type of facility we offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and breaks in the morning and the afternoon,” he says that in recent years, Dolce is “seeing different types of requests, and our facilities are very easily able to accommodate them. Sometimes they want the break at a different time. Sometimes they want to build in a specialty event or go off-property one night. They’re looking for some creativity that works around the meeting schedule.”
That schedule is something that meeting owners pay a lot of attention to, says Green Mountain’s Garufi. While the coffee company’s executives generally rely on recommendations from him and his team when it comes to site selection, “they are very involved in the meeting itself,” he says. “Last year we had 19 iterations of the agenda. We go over it again and again to get it right. They’re involved in everything after the site selection.”