Unconventional Conference Centers

Studiothink, a Cleveland, OH-based brand management firm, is in the business of devising creative ways for companies to market themselves. So when about 20 members of the firm gathered in August for a teambuilding event, they sought out a conference center that would facilitate a creative, unconventional gathering. 

They opted for Punderson Manor Lodge and Conference Center, one of five affiliated properties in the Ohio State Park Lodges and Conference Centers network. It provided the necessary space for a traditional meeting combined with the outdoor offerings of the state's vast wilderness. 

"We travel to all of those resorts because of the results we get when we get out of the typical hotel meeting room," says Ron Kaminski, partner and president of the culture development division of Studiothink. 

A resort and conference center like Punderson Manor, which offers four conference rooms in addition to outdoor decks and patios looking out onto the tranquil backdrop of the Punderson State Park, proved ideal for this fast-changing meeting format.
"The Ohio State Park Conference Centers help us do spurts of high-engagement, high-energy thinking, then get people up and moving, then back to thinking again," says Kaminski. 

Studiothink is not the only company to turn to a conference center as an ideal partner in hosting an unconventional meeting. Increasingly, groups are selecting these venues when seeking something that goes beyond the typical meeting experience. 

Conference Centers Rising
Worldwide, conference centers are on the rebound, helped in part by a range of new offerings and innovations in design and program perks. According to an August report from the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), demand for conference centers is "outperforming the broader hotel sector in relation to occupancies and profitability." The sampling of the group's 300 members found profit-margin growth of 14.5 percent more in 2012 than in the year before. 

"We're really pleased to see that this is the first year where, without any contradiction, the signs are all pointing clearly to recovery," says Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC. 

This is especially true for executive-style conference centers - those primarily dedicated to hosting meetings and events, including offering on-site lodging and dining accommodations. During 2012, these executive conference centers saw an average daily rate (ADR) increase of 5 percent over the year before, and a gain of 7.3 percent in occupancy year-over-year. 

"We're seeing investments in terms of the technology and infrastructure - creating stable connectivity throughout the property," says Cooper. "That's what we want to see - fresh, vibrant meeting environments that are well-invested in, thanks to the profits that are coming back to them." 

Stacia Pierce, career expert and CEO of Ultimate Lifestyle Enterprises, who frequently plans and organizes meetings and events, has seen these shifts firsthand. 

"Many conference centers have recently invested in expansions and enhancements to catch the eye of the nation's top meeting planners, as well as that of entrepreneurs," says Pierce. "Our present economy demands both creativity and flexibility. Most top-notch conference centers have adjusted their booking packages and offers accordingly." 

While the properties are getting busier, the amount they charge is not growing at the same rate. To Cooper, this indicates that conference centers are taking a "measured approach" in responding to the recovery - holding back on charging meetings groups as much as they could for the sake of ensuring continued, steady occupancy-level growth. 

"They're building their customer base back, playing the long game, and not having a knee-jerk reaction," he says. 

Greater Flexibility
Conference centers are also more widely used thanks to their greater flexibility. This begins with how they are using their space. 

"Most conference centers have beautifully decorated cafes, multiple lobbies, sitting areas, and large hallways that can all be used for meeting spaces," says Pierce. She adds that it "is always helpful to have an in-house meeting planner specialist available to help each client imagine the possibilities." 

Over the past few years, Pierce has hosted and attended many "less-conventional meeting activities" held in conference centers. These have included brainstorming sessions and coaching meetings with clients, fragrance parties for perfume launches, jewelry shows, and pop-up coaching stations for women looking to build their careers.

One of the more notable trends of this flexibility is the rise of "day centers" and other conference facilities that allow organizations to hold meetings on a more casual basis. The serviced office supplier Regus has been rapidly expanding its U.S. locations. Cooper points to London-based ETC Venues, which runs eight day centers "all operating extremely healthfully in one capital city." 

Also key: creating more welcoming and memorable meeting environments with different furniture and color schemes - what Cooper calls "quite funky spaces." This may include partnerships with local art galleries or organizations to bring art and greater visual splash into what had previously been just functional space. 

Studiothink, which has locations throughout the country, wanted to use its event as a time to discuss the value of balancing the needs of each individual and office with the overall goals of the company. The unconventional conference center allowed for these looser interactions between participants. 

"For whatever reason, when we get people out into nature, they open up faster, and view each other as humans, not as titles," says Kaminski.