Experience-Driven Learning Environments

It was a tense afternoon at the Edith Macy Conference Center, which is set on 405 wooded acres in the heart of New York’s Westchester County. Multiple rounds of gunfire sprayed the grounds, explosions shattered the usually serene setting, and a hostage  situation ensued. 

Not your typical day at a conference center, but all in a day’s work for Pilgrims Group, a security, risk management, and service  support company based in the United Kingdom. At Edith Macy, Pilgrims runs a two-day Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) course for journalists and businesspeople who will be traveling to  high-risk areas. 

“Pilgrims is able to recreate situations here that they could not do in a hotel or resort environment,” says David Vogt, Edith Macy Conference Center’s general manager. 

This is a trend taking root across the entire conference center industry: These facilities are no longer just nondescript, purpose-built properties that emphasize intensive indoor meetings as their primary source of business. More and more, these spaces also seek to  create dynamic, interactive meeting  experiences that turn good meetings into truly great ones. 

“The conference center that delivers the greatest impact for meeting groups realizes that it is not selling space, it’s selling an  experience where it is a thoughtful  partner in building that experience,” says Nancy Keeshan, executive director of Duke Corporate Education, Durham, NC. “As a customer, I can tell the difference between people who simply want to sell me space and those who want to help me design a really good experience. They make suggestions about things that I would not necessarily know about their facility and other offerings.”

Idea Incubation
You don’t get more out-of-the-box than Nokia’s IdeasCamp, held at the Chaminade Resort & Spa, a conference center in Santa Cruz, CA.

Nokia, the mobile communications giant, invited technology industry influencers and visionaries in the creative, media, and mobile network worlds to a user-generated “unconference.” 

The agenda was created by the participants, who were selected based on their industry perspectives, personalities, creativity, and abilities to contribute to the conversation. All participants were encouraged to lead a session, join a committee, perform a demo, sing a song, set up a network, or build a robot.

“Our unconference had a lot of movement, a lot of activity, and a lot of fun and funky stuff to help drive creativity and idea sharing. We needed a facility that didn’t have a lot of other people coming in and out of the picture. We really liked the intimacy of Chaminade because we could take over the place and make it our own,” says Stephens.

Two months before the IdeasCamp, Nokia created and invited attendees to collaborate on a Wiki where they could start planning the program content. “They would post interesting topics that they wanted to address and things they wanted to talk about,” says Claudia Stephens, Nokia’s North American events manager. On site, various meeting rooms and other spaces were made available to attendees to lead these impromptu workshops and discussions, which ranged from “Contextual Ideating: An Experiment” to a hula-hooping demonstration, songwriting, and the “Art of Letting Go,” a creative description for juggling.  

Relationship building and networking were at the forefront, created through activities like the “Extravaganza,” an elaborate costume party that included a talent show where attendees sang, danced, and told jokes. Chaminade, a mountain resort surrounded by sloping hills, was the perfect setting for “Slope Antics,” where objects — as well as attendees — rolled down steep grassy inclines. 

Chaminade, managed by Benchmark Hospitality International, offers the Benchmark Conference Plan, another convenience. “I didn’t have to do a lot of additional planning since they took care of the basics like food, audiovisual, and furnishings. This gave me more time to focus on the content of meeting,” Stephens adds.

No matter how elaborate her requests were, the Chaminade staff was eager to make them happen. Nokia is a Finnish company, and Stephens wanted to inject some of this culture into the program. Keeping in mind that the sauna is a huge part of life in Finland — there is an average of one sauna per household in the country — she had an outdoor sauna erected on the grounds of Chaminade, a first for the resort. “They had to get the  approval of the fire marshal to make this  happen — which they did,” says Stephens. “They were just super.”

Time for Teambuilding
A recent meeting held by Ashburn, VA-based Independent Project Analysis (IPA), a consulting firm specializing in improving capital effectiveness and the quantitative analysis of project management systems, also had the group outside the National Conference Center in Leesburg, PA, as well as inside.

“The ‘hotel 101 handbook’ says that pre-function space should be about 30 percent of the total meeting area but, in recent years, clients are proving that it actually needs to be more than that,” says Bruce Burkhalter, vice president of technical services for Benchmark Hospitality International in The Woodlands, TX. 

The meeting pattern of one recent group that met at The National Conference Center in Leesburg, VA, is becoming increasingly more common. The Ashburn, VA-based IPA spent only about 50 percent of its time in meeting rooms. There were a few general sessions and presentations, and one afternoon consisted of a group of 100 assembling in one meeting room, with the remainder in four breakout rooms. The rest of the time was spent in learning and teambuilding exercises outside on the grounds of the facility. 

IPA has offices in Reading, UK; The Hague, Netherlands; Melbourne; Singapore; and Brazil. The purpose of getting its 225 employees together was to form team camaraderie. Although all the attendees have similar responsibilities, they are spread out all over the globe.

This was the first meeting that IPA has held in six years and Cheri Hostetler, IPA’s human resources manager, was given the task of planning it. One morning was spent engaging in teambuilding exercises with the help of Signature Teambuilding. “I worked with everyone in the company that morning by switching groups 10 times,” says Hostetler. 

Community outreach is an IPA core value and it was imperative that such an activity was included in the program. An afternoon spent building bikes for disadvantaged youth fit the bill perfectly, explains Hostetler. The group also got sporty during an all-out soccer game with teams formed from each global office, followed by a sports-themed “pep rally” reception. 

“I looked at several properties, including two Hyatts,” says Hostetler. “Most important was location, pricing, and meeting space.” The National Conference Center, located on 110 scenic acres, fit the bill perfectly. 

“It was the best pricing we could get plus it has such a variety of outdoor and indoor space that couldn’t be matched.” A conference like Hostetler’s, which included meetings as well as outdoor teambuilding activities, is ideal, according to industry experts. Richard Fawell, principal at VOA Associates, agrees. “The most effective learning happens outside of the classroom. You can get a lot of information inside the room, but then you can use the other spaces on property to have attendees practice using that information, all while being more at ease and comfortable.”

Learning Outside the Meeting Room
Chaminade is a mountain retreat and that’s one of the features that convinced JanSport, a company that manufactures and markets outdoor backpacks as well as technical outdoor gear, daypacks, travel gear, and collegiate themed apparel, to have its product launch here for the past three years. Executive Assistant Nicole Veronda plans an annual October gathering that includes JanSport’s launch of the fall line for the next year. 

“We were looking for a facility that encompassed the outdoors, was woodsy and secluded, but had the amenities and technology that we need for our meetings,” explains Veronda. “Chaminade has all these things and more.”
Many of JanSport’s employees are runners, bikers, and hikers, a fact Veronda takes into consideration when planning meetings. The program is attended by 130 people on average, a group that consists of local reps, internal employees, and international distributors who are based all over the world.

Although the program is meeting- intensive, with two 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. meetings, all meals and breaks are held outdoors. “When we’re not in meetings, we want to be outside,” says Veronda.

The complete meeting package available at Chaminade helped streamline Veronda’s  budgeting process. “The per-person rate helped me with my budgeting. I didn’t have to estimate how much the coffee breaks would cost, or breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s not piecemeal, which makes it very easy to have a meeting,” explains Veronda. “Plus, there is everything you need in the room. I don’t have to outsource a thing.”

Her decision to book at Chaminade was influenced by previous meeting experiences. “We’ve had problems with the way our product is presented in a big-box hotel versus in a conference center. Having our meeting in a ballroom with all that artificial light isn’t the same as at Chaminade with all its windows where natural light pours in.”

Another experience-oriented conference center can be found at Utah’s Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa, set in the middle of miles of dramatic rock formations and windswept landscapes surrounded by the flowing waters of the Colorado River. There are miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding, river rafting and kayaking, and access to numerous national parks. It was this potential for adventure that attracted the Red Wing Shoe Company to Sorrel River Ranch for a strategic planning retreat for its executive team. 

“The adventures that Sorrel River Ranch helped us plan provided a fabulous backdrop, whether it was encouraging one another while rock climbing, figuring out how to paddle together on a raft down the Colorado River, or even just playing a pick-up game of basketball. We enjoyed every minute,” says Stephanie Riegelman, an executive administrator at Red Wing. “In the evenings, after we were done reliving the day’s events, we’d spend hours sitting around the campfire, roasting s’mores and having a relaxed conversation about where we want to see our business five years from now. It was the perfect environment to engage everyone in conversation.”