Hustle & Flow

Despite all the attention paid to meeting room setup, ergonomics, and AV equipment, much of a meeting's work is done after the sessions wrap. "At least 50 percent of business and learning is done outside the meeting room," says Neil Pompan, executive vice president of consulting solutions for Annapolis, MD-based EMCVenues. So, he says, it's critical for meeting venues in general—and conference centers in particular—to have "a great environment outside of the meeting rooms for people to network. The meeting experience doesn't begin and end in the meeting room."

As a result, the public space in conference centers is carefully designed—and furnished—to facilitate the flow of a meeting and to encourage productive interaction.

"Typically, public spaces are simply a means of access or transit for guests," says David Smith, president of the Wallingford, CT-based Conference Center Group. "But within a conference center, those spaces are specifically designed and purposely furnished. Most executive conference centers incorporate soft seating within alcoves in hallways in the public space, around both the lodging areas and the meeting areas." Smith attributes this to the nature of conference centers as well as the types of meetings they host. "A conference center is a self-contained environment, so the opportunity for 'chance meetings' is far greater than at some traditional lodging properties," he says. And meeting planners agree. "Unlike a traditional hotel, you know that the shared space at the conference center is just for business, and you won't see transients there, or wedding guests, or Boy Scout troops," says Pam Wynne, manager of corporate meeting planning for Princeton, NJ-based Educational Testing Service.

As a result, public spaces are designed to maximize the opportunities for these meetings. "Our public space is integrated in a transparent way to make it warm and inviting for networking," says Jan Janssen, interim director of the former IBM training center outside Brussels, Belgium, which will open as Dolce La Hulpe Brussels in January 2007 after a 15-month renovation. "It combines a waiting area, front desk, Internet café, lounging area, lobby bar, fireplace, library, and a small shop as well as a free coffee-and-tea corner."

Within these public spaces, conference center designers incorporate a variety of subtle elements to further encourage these informal, spontaneous meetings outside the structured sessions. "We're creating coves built into the wall with leather benches that are very friendly for chatting in twos and threes," says Pompan of the Holiday Inn Select Bethesda, a property that EMCVenues is currently renovating and redesigning into a conference center venue. "They're built for communicating in a semiprivate situation in lobbies. They enable people to gather informally in a way that's beyond the typical couch-and-coffee-table-in-the-corner approach."

GET GOOD SEATS

Indeed, the individual pieces of furniture used to create these networking alcoves are carefully chosen. "The art of design is finding a way to give people the ability to separate themselves naturally," says Dolce's Janssen. "It's not a question of putting walls or blockades up." Janssen says the pieces of furniture themselves can create a sense of privacy without the permanence and obtrusiveness of walls. "For example, we have a chair from which you can only see the person who's across from you. The people passing the chair can't see your face. It's a type of protection in the chair; it's like you have blinders on," he says. "It's these small items that help the communication between two people. You feel separate, yet you're still included in the whole area."

In addition to networking, attendees use the public space in conference centers to check e-mails and voicemails they may have missed during the meeting, so while public space is designed to bring people together, it must allow them to have some time apart. "People have trained themselves to be available regularly, so they need to have connectivity breaks regularly," says Dale Stern, architect with Callison Architecture, a Seattle-based firm that designs conference centers. "You need to design an environment that supports that, with dock-in stations for laptops and private carrels, so that people don't feel they have to go look for places to touch down."

HAVE IT YOUR WAY

This ability to accommodate multiple uses is the central appeal of the design of public space in conference centers. "The biggest issue is the flexibility that is required to accommodate all types of meetings," says Carol Schaefer, architect with Seattle-based firm GGLO, who has designed conference centers. "If you're going to have an evening cocktail reception in a public space, you can't have a lot of furniture or built-ins in the way. Similarly, groups may want to have breakfast buffets prior to a meeting, so they'll need to have space to set that up."

Schaeffer says this flexibility must extend to the lighting schemes, as well. "If you need to accommodate a morning function and an evening banquet in the same space, you need to be extremely flexible with your lighting," she says. The best way to do this is to incorporate a lot of natural light, which centers now do not only in the public space, but in the meeting rooms as well. "It's important to also have natural light in the public spaces, so attendees can get a sense of whether it is day or evening. Older, more traditional meeting spaces were usually interior rooms where you had no idea what time of day it was or what weather there was outside," she says. "For people who have curricula that may last three or four days, it's very important to give the attendees a sense of orientation with the outside world to be able to focus on, and give relief from, the meeting."