Nestled in southern England's rolling green hills is a large manor. The vast grounds surrounding the house are dotted with shrubbery, colorful gardens, and walking trails. In the center of it all is a stately edifice with a warm brick exterior and several large windows. Any onlooker would wish to be a welcomed guest, sipping tea with the family owners and exploring the rooms inside. But this particular house, Barnett Hill, is now one of the premier conference centers in England. Dating back to 1905, it has 15 meeting rooms, 54 bedrooms, spa amenities, and leisure activities like croquet and volleyball. Basically, it has everything you would expect from an American conference center, but with a distinctly European touch.
Planners who organize conferences abroad might face various obstacles such as language barriers, currency conversions, and jet lag, but finding a quality conference center should no longer be a problem. Converted mansions are coming into their own as conference facilities, with technology and human expertise overcoming logistical obstacles. And what's more, according to Jeff Farina, chief development officer for The Woodlands, TX-based Benchmark Hospitality International and president of the St. Louis-based International Association of Conference Centers, "A lot of excellent purpose-built facilities are being built around the world."
Birth of a Concept
The idea of America exporting its conference center model to the world is an appealing one, but not historically accurate. The evolution of the conference center is more complex—with the conference center idea being bounced back and forth between the U.S. and Europe, each adding their own cultural spins.
The conference center idea was first conceived in America in the early 1960s, with corporate-owned conference facilities like GE Management Development Institute and Columbia University's Arden House. Scanticon, a Scandinavian company, then built upon the concept by creating the first purpose-built commercial conference centers. The company soon brought its idea to America, but the signature stark interiors and classroom-style settings were unpopular here. So, conference centers were adapted to fit the American culture, and they soon became more spacious, lavish, and, well, comfortable.
Thus the resort conference center was born. These are the properties that have terry-cloth robes for towels, employees in suits, an 18-hole golf course surrounding their property, and even a spa. It's very much an American concept, but as companies turn global, centers abroad have to accommodate the needs and expectation of guests from all over the world.
Spanning the Globe
"The differences in conference centers today are not as dramatic as one might think," says Robert Johns, president of the global board of directors at IACC. "Many of these international properties you can pick up and put in America and you would never know that these properties were from Denmark or Sweden or some place outside the U.S."
Johns cites Pharmakon, an independent conference center in Hillerod, Denmark, as being a perfect example. It has numerous meeting rooms equipped with LCD projectors and wireless Internet, and 135 sleeping rooms. Attendees can blow off steam at the gym and then head over to dinner at Pharmakon's fine dining restaurant. Afterwards, they can mingle with their group during a game of pool, table tennis, air hockey, or darts.
Overseas centers have come a long way from the days when international conferences were restricted to using either converted mansions or hotels with poor meeting space. But, in fact, the culture of retrofit mansions and castles do still exist in Europe, and planners would be surprised to see how much these venues have evolved.
Barnett Hill is one of four historic estates that have been converted into full-service conference facilities by the Creaton, Britain-based Sundial Group. They have full air-conditioning, quaint sleeping rooms, a dedicated conference staff, and a variety of meeting rooms and break areas. They also have resort amenities such as tennis courts, pools, spas, and fitness centers. "We don't consider ourselves a resort—there is a real recognition that we are selling meetings and not just guest rooms," says Sundial's Managing Director Tim Chudley. "When people come here, they work hard, but they also want to relax and have a good time as well."
Chudley has traveled to conference centers all over the world and has picked up a few pointers along the way, especially from America. "I was always impressed with the quality of service and the attention to detail." He also likes the idea of coffee breaks during the day. "We were offering tea and coffee throughout the day but we weren't offering the really nice displays that you get in the U.S., with nice fruit, pastries, and snacks."
Dolce International can take some of the credit for the modern style of European conference centers today. It was the first company to bring the American-style conference to Europe with its first property, Dolce Fregate in southern France. The company followed up shortly with Dolce Chantilly. Located in the Provencal region of France, it is one of the most highly regarded conference centers in Europe. It sits alongside an 18-hole golf course, and offers 32 meeting rooms and 200 guest rooms.
When Dolce built Chantilly, the firm decided to build the center alongside a historic estate, the Chateau de Chantilly, not inside of it. Clients could now experience the culture and history of a European castle while having their conference in a modern building. "We developed the new generation of conference centers that were not just retrofits of mansions and old houses, but were specially built meeting facilities with a major amenity component," says Andy Dolce, CEO of the Montvale, NJ-headquartered company.
It's a concept planners have responded to. "I like the idea of an American company doing business in an American way," says Danielle Truscio, executive assistant to the president at Volvo Financial Services in Montvale, NJ. "Things are done differently in Europe, so there is a certain level of comfort in dealing with sales reps from the U.S."
A Royale with Cheese
As anyone who's seen the movie Pulp Fiction knows, this is what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in France. As with burgers, the Americanization of international conference centers is not producing carbon copies of properties found in the States. Rather, to paraphrase John Travolta's character in that film, "They've got the same things over there that we've got here; only there it's just a little different."
In Asia, the concept of a conference center is brand new. Tokyo is embracing the idea, developing several modern facilities in the city, all without sleeping rooms. "It is a little too early in Japan to have a full-service conference center," says Kozue Honda, general manager at both Tokyo Conference Center and Tokyo Conference Center Shinagawa and also a new member of IACC's global board of directors. "People here are accustomed to going to one of the many hotels in the city for sleeping rooms." Honda does mention that her facilities have other elements of a conference center that Americans are accustomed to. Their technology, as we would expect from Japan, is well up to date. They have several styles of meeting rooms and even a large restaurant that hosts dinner parties and receptions.
Benchmark Hospitality manages two properties in Tokyo, also with no sleeping rooms. But the lack of rooms doesn't seem to be hindering international business. "Companies that are meeting in Tokyo are seeking out conference centers because of the type of environment they want for their important meeting," says Farina. Both Honda and Farina say that the conference center idea has been widely accepted, and Honda says that almost 100 percent of their clientele are return customers.
In Europe, many facilities do offer sleeping accommodations, but they may not have a large number of rooms available. "Last year we had an event in Rome and we found either conference centers with a limited number of rooms or small hotels with no conference facilities," says Truscio. In the end, she resorted to using a hotel for her meeting.
Having natural lighting is also a big issue abroad. "It's probably one of the biggest differences that I still find in centers in the states," Chudley says. "I think Europeans find it hard to work without natural daylight." Honda agrees. "We use more natural lighting because Japanese people prefer it."
For a long time there has been a debate over whether converted mansions are better or worse than your typical purpose-built center. The answer might be that they are just different.
Historic Conference Centers of Europe (HCCE), which is headquartered in Amsterdam, represents 22 historic sites in Europe that function as day conference centers. The centers have advanced AV equipment, wired and wireless Internet, and even Internet cafes, and all of them have at least one large hall with several breakout rooms. But, Walter Straub, chairman of HCCE, based in Austria, admits that some of the properties might not have the most modern amenities. "Of course, in buildings that are 200 years old, sometimes it is hard to adapt them to have air-conditioning built in," he says
But many conferences would make that sacrifice to use one of HCCE's outstanding facilities. The center in Athens, Athinais Conference Centre, was the site for the first modern Olympic Games, in 1896. Among various conference rooms, it has two restaurants, a museum of Cypriot art, and even a theater. "It's a perfect example of how a historic building, if given the necessary staff and equipment, can operate as a successful conference center," Straub says.
The Sundial Group's four converted manors are all at least 100 years old. One of them, Bailbrook House, dates to the 18th century. All of the sleeping rooms have unique layouts and are individually decorated, and the meeting rooms are all well equipped. The 20-acre grounds have gardens, flood-lit tennis courts, and walking trails.
"The ambiance and charm of a place like that has to be weighted in," says Susan Fahrer, an event manager for KnowledgePlanet in Mechanicsburg, PA, who is currently planning an event at Barnett Hill. "Delegates come to a conference to learn, but they still want to have an interesting experience while they are there."
In Lancefield, Australia, the Grange at Cleveland Winery dates back to the 1820s. It's a full-service conference center with sleeping rooms and resort amenities, but it also features a boutique winery and grounds with livestock. It has meeting space outdoors and groups can also hold events in the wine cellar. "They even have great conference rooms," says IACC's Johns. "I don't think we have too many vineyards attached to conference centers in the U.S., but in Australia there might be three or four."
It's evident that the conference industry abroad is experiencing incredible growth. With that, IACC plans to include several new properties from all over the globe in next year's membership directory.
The association recently appointed Philippe Attia from Dolce Chantilly and Kozue Honda from the conference centers in Tokyo to its global board of directors, with their distinct job of finding independent conference centers in their regions and helping them become IACC certified. The association recently conducted a study with New York University to find other countries with conference centers, and the results revealed a strong conference center presence in South Africa and a surprising amount of development activity worldwide.
"The fact that we have had ground-up development and conversion of properties to conference centers speaks to the globalization of business," says Farina. "It's no longer just about a North American company doing business in North America."