Super Exclusivity

When IKEA store managers and marketing specialists walked into the lobby of the Villanova Conference Center in Radnor, PA, they probably felt they were stepping into a familiar place. The reception hall of the former mansion had been redecorated with IKEA's furniture, and 72 execs from the U.S. and Europe were already on site.

But while hosting staffers in the secluded environment of a conference center keeps attendees focused, other groups on site at the same time can pose challenges for planners wanting to create an intimate experience. Here are ideas that can help reinforce the sense of exclusivity.

Some Assembly Required
With more than 100,000 workers, self-assembly furniture retailer IKEA is an avid sponsor of conferences. Cathy Blair, learning and development facilitator for the Swedish retailer, plans three to four training events a year. But the one last September was a little different.

To give an authentic "IKEA" look and feel to the event, Blair made a special and unheard-of request to the Villanova Center, part of Aramark Harrison Lodging. She wanted furniture from IKEA in the lobby.

"[Villanova] is an old conference center and has an antique look, very quaint," says Blair. But it accommodated IKEA's request.

"What you're seeing there is a true partnership [between the client and property] to accomplish what they wanted to accomplish," says Marilyn Leposki, senior conference sales manager for the Villanova Center. One of the reasons this could be done is the three-year relationship between Leposki and IKEA. "I don't think that [redecorating the lobby] is common in the industry," Leposki adds. "It is a difficult request on a scale of one to 10, so there has to be a relationship [for such a request to be made]."

To complicate matters, IKEA was not the only group on premise. Two pharmaceutical companies were also meeting there. "A lot of people liked it; a lot of people didn't. It is not typical of our style. So, we would tell people: Think differently for one week," says Leposki.

Border Patrol
For planners, one of the benefits of conference centers is to have everybody in place that is strictly devoted to business. However, one potential problem is having other groups sharing the public space.

This is a particular concern in northeastern conference centers, where pharmaceutical companies are the habitués. The concentration of such companies in the region can prompt a juggling act for centers. Scott Mumma, director of sales and marketing for North Maple Inn at Basking Ridge, NJ, is often asked by pharma clients if competitors will be on site on their desired dates. "Some clients say, 'I won't meet there if a competitor is in house,' " says Mumma. But to keep competitors away from each other, North Maple places such groups on opposing sides of the property. "If they didn't know, they wouldn't be able to tell others were in house." With 171 rooms, North Maple Inn has on occasion had clients book all guest rooms to give itself full privacy.

Just a bit of change in the surroundings can make a difference in how a group feels. When Nokia staffers met at the Verizon Place Hotel and Conference Center in Dallas in January, organizers arranged for them to have meals away from the facility, recalls Angela Walterscheid, principal for Dallas-based Total Training Resources, who managed the three-day training program. It was attended by 14 participants from Italy, Dubai, Finland, Norway, London, New York, and California. "People travel so much and always stay in regular hotels that it is nice to stay somewhere different," says Walterscheid. "Conference centers have the infrastructure to give a little more specialized attention to groups." With international attendees, the group wanted to take advantage of nearby shopping and sightseeing. For leisure, the center provided transportation to restaurants, and to football and hockey games.

The Evolution Solution
For some events, the key to ramping up exclusivity lies in the content. Omnicom, a global firm with interests in advertising and specialty communications, has been sponsoring an education-heavy senior management program for 13 years. Since the invitation-only program began, it has been held over the summer at the Babson Executive Conference Center, in Wellesley, MA. It is exclusive almost by definition, with 112 handpicked students per year. "We select the best and the brightest," says Sharon Gordon, program director for Omnicom University. "[Being selected] is an honor. It means that the company is making an investment in you."

Based on an interactive case study method, the course content is refreshed every year. Classes are taught by current and former Harvard Business School professors, and students contribute with cases experienced on the job.

For seamless execution, Gordon has been working for over 10 years with the same planner at the Babson Center—Rosemary Pillari. "She does my program better than I do," Gordon says about Pillari. Again, so much can be achieved when a good relationship has been established.

Time spent outside the meeting room is equally important. When people from all over the world are together for an intensive week, networking can't be a missed opportunity. "With people from different companies in different countries, we have to make sure that they at least meet everybody else," she says. "It is key to get people out beyond the meeting and dining rooms." Last summer, attendees were told to bring costumes and colorful clothing for two themed dinner parties—a Caribbean night and a 1970s-style Flashback Cafe.

In addition to the networking and entertaining aspects of these events, the culinary experience is usually meant to be memorable. That's what Gordon and the team at the Babson Center try to accomplish. The buffet-style meals they often use offer choices for those who want to indulge but don't disappoint weight- and health-conscious guests. "We have never had food in a hotel or conference center that is so good," she adds. While personalized pastries and logoed desserts are not unheard of in the industry, a huge cake with Omnicom's logo impressed Gordon. "It was pretty special."