Technology Report: Office for Hire

These days, meeting planners and attendees alike carry as much computing firepower in their briefcases and purses as the Apollo space program used to put men on the moon.

"We're good road warriors, with our laptops and do-everything phones, but even the best of us needs support," says David Furnish, director of sales at Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

For delegates keeping up with business back home and planners handling the needs of the meeting, the business center can be a life raft in a sea of stress.

Business Centers: A Planner's Perspective
How do planners use business centers? One meeting planner for a large insurance company notes that her protected corporate network lets her and her delegates access email only from their company laptops. "So I get my e-mails in my room, e-mail them to the business center or download the files to my USB jump drive, run to the business center with my drive, and print.

"I use the business center for last minute things, like agendas, numbers, data—we're not printing gigantic syllabi. And at our sales meeting, faxes were sent to the business center, even though I had a fax in my show office, because people didn't know that number in advance."

Like many meeting planners, she regards the business center as a "necessary evil" for shipping and receiving packages, equipment rentals, printing, copying, collating, data entry, and file transfers. "Business center prices are still very, very high; they punish you for using it. The reason they don't get more business is because of the cost—it's the chicken and the egg.

But Furnish rejects this "necessary evil" rap. "We're up-front on what our charges are. It's either an amenity that they can utilize or not. Sometimes planners can do it cheaper in a 'war room,' but sometimes they can't—if they have to rent and ship in big printers for an executive meeting of 10 to 20 people, for example."

"I had a light-duty copier in my office, but it wouldn't handle bigger copy jobs," says the planner. "If we had a half day's notice we'd 'go' to Kinko's by sending the stuff electronically. A nearby Kinko's makes me happy; it's a trusted brand and you know what you're going to get. But for short lead time stuff you go to the business center."

Delegates have slightly different needs. "They'll work in their room, and only come down for shipping or printing, whether it's poster size or just a boarding pass. With our secure system, they can't use a business center PC, so they have to bring their own laptop anyway."

The technical expertise of the people running a business center can vary from knowledgeable to capable of little more than simply running your credit card. (Although, to be fair, most hotels have further expertise a phone call away.) And while hotel business centers can be life-savers, if your technology needs are even a little out of the ordinary, they may not be able to accommodate you. For example, it's extremely rare to find a Macintosh computer in a hotel business center.

The planner we spoke with had other issues. "Usually, the IT department is not managed by the business center, or vice-versa—the business center might get you a laptop, but you have to go through the IT department to get Internet access. Planners want this to be a more streamlined process."

Internet access is often a bone of contention. "In too many hotels, there's a guest room Internet access charge, a lobby or public space charge, and significant charges for providing access to data in meeting rooms," the planner says. "It's become an annoyance; I surveyed 300 people, and 12 made a comment about Internet access charges. All-you-can-eat Internet should be free everywhere—they should just make it part of the rate while you're in the hotel."

"Internet access is like electricity; no one wants to pay for it because you can't touch it or see it," says Jeff Fahie, director of convention services for the San Jose Fairmont, which charges for Internet access in meeting rooms and in guest rooms. But like many supposedly fixed prices, meeting planners have a work-around. "With our President's Club, you can join for free, and get free Internet access in guest rooms," says Fahie. "So meeting planners actually promote joining to delegates in their e-mails and brochures."

Speaking of prices, the meeting planner suggests a few strategies to limit potentially expensive visits to the business center. "Negotiate your rates in advance, even copy or fax prices, so you and your delegates don't get any unpleasant surprises." She also urges planners to be sure to get a good, heavy-duty copier, printer, and fax machine for your "war room."

Ultimately, she says, "The business center needs to expand out of its walls. There need to be convenient computers for Internet access in lobbies."

Some of the Best
Most hotel business centers are reminiscent of the cubicle back home. But that's not always the case. Here are some of the more noteworthy centers that offer more than just a PC and a printer.

The Fairmont San Jose, an 800-room hotel with 65,000 square feet of meeting space, takes a very hands-on approach. Early in 2007, the Fairmont's little-used lobby business center was moved up to the banquet level, where all the hotel's meeting space is located. Now "we're easily doing 40-percent more service," says Fahie. As the property relocated the business center, it also invested in six brand-new computers, along with faxes, printers, and a high-end copier.

The center is staffed from 7 am to 6 pm, with key access afterward. "A business center needs to be accessible 24 hours a day; people expect to be able to get on a computer at three in the morning," says Fahie. "And you'd be surprised at how many people still need the business center to get their e-mail. We deal with a lot of associations, like teachers and nurses groups, who don't travel with laptops or BlackBerrys."

Although you'll pay for them, the business center even offers services like word processing and table formatting, as well as binding, printing, and shipping. "It's difficult to compete with the Kinko's two blocks away," says Fahie, "but the convenience of having the business center on the same floor as all of the meetings saves planners a lot of time."

The Fairmont's business center and AV work are both handled by Swank Audiovisuals. "Having the AV company provide the business center makes it a seamless process—it's a one-stop-shop for planners to get all their office needs as well as AV stuff like walkie-talkies."

At the 569-room Beverly Hilton, which hosts 175 celebrity events with red carpets per year, the in-house AVT Event Technology and Business Center offers audio design and staging, cyber cafe stations, video conferencing and web casting, high-speed connectivity, event media web distribution, and wireless capabilities.

In the Executive Meeting Center, high-lumen network managed projectors cast a bright light on high-level meetings. And star-quality video isn't limited to the meeting center or the ballrooms; AVT can project "dive-in movies" on the cabana walls by the hotel's famous pool.

The Hilton Los Angeles Airport has 1,234 rooms, 55,000 square feet of meeting space, and a small self-service business center, with a couple of PCs, a pair of printers, a fax and a copier—all of which accessed with a swipe of the credit card. But for the hotel's guests, the set-up is ideal.

"There are so many ways for people to check their e-mail now that weren't there ten or even five years ago," says Herschel Goldscher, senior sales manager for the property. "Sometimes the need for business centers is not as great as it was before; you can do all those functions wirelessly from wherever you want."

He says that meeting planners tend to set up cyber cafes for delegates with a secure "war room" for the planner, where they get their own phone lines and Internet access. Planners also rent or bring their own printers, copiers, and other equipment, to cut the dreaded "per page" charge. But it's not just about the money. "Planners often say they need their own office for privacy and information security; there's no shredder in the business center," says Goldscher.

Key Club
Smaller hotels often try to offer an even more personal touch. The Ventura Beach Crowne Plaza in Ventura, CA, has 258 guest rooms, 16,000 square feet of meeting space.

The newly remodeled hotel, which handles meetings of eight to 200 people, has a self-service business center, with one computer, one printer, one copier, and one fax, which is run by the hotel's own on-site audio visual company. "We had an outside company, but it's all in house now, with our staff all trained to put the technology to use. It's seamless, and we don't have to call anyone," says Monty Criss, director of sales. Delegates can get free access with their hotel key. "It's a hassle to go to the business center and have to swipe your credit card every time," he says. "We're in the hospitality and service business; we're not here to nickel and dime."

To that end, Criss says, Internet access is free. "Most meeting planners want high-speed Internet access everywhere, and they don't want to pay for it. If you have a hundred people and you charge $10 a day for Internet access in their rooms, that's a thousand dollars. So we don't charge for it," he says.

A Grand Ole Business Center
Befitting its enormous size (2,800 rooms, 600,000 square feet of meeting space), perhaps the ultimate in full-service business centers is offered by the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center. Director of Sales Furnish says the property's business center is primarily aimed at helping attendees, as planners typically set up their own on-site offices.

"Delegates are doing the meeting on top of their regular jobs, so you have to make it convenient for them do their normal job. There are knowledgeable employees at the business center who can help you do complex things like lamination, binding, or full color copying. As an attendee trying to get a formal proposal to your own clients, the business center can help you get that done, with the peace of mind there's someone there who can offer assistance."

At Opryland, there's both a self-service area and an attended area open from 7 am to 9 pm. Says Furnish, "We'll extend those hours for groups that need it. We're moving toward more customized service to hit home runs not just for the meeting planners but also their attendees."

After all, not every attendee group is as savvy as those of meeting planner Charel Morris. Morris, who produces technology conferences like Blackhat and ApacheCon, also produces DefCon, the world's largest gathering of computer hackers.

Although "charges to bring up boxes get a little old," Morris likes the Las Vegas Riviera's "very functional" business center, but says attendees won't be counting on it for computing help. DefCon attendees are do-it-yourselfers who delight in hacking into each other's hard drives. All they need is speed. Says Morris: "The Riviera let us put a dish on the roof for additional bandwidth."

Originally published December 01, 2007

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