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Let's get away from it all.

Association executives discuss why they choose conference centers and what they like best about them.

When it comes to meetings, sometimes less is more. Fewer participants with less to distract them lead to a more productive environment where real decisions can be made. To serve the need for such places, conference centers were created.

Conference centers provide isolation, comfort, and a quiet, casual atmosphere in which participants can concentrate with few distractions. But since all work and no play is also no fun, conference centers also specialize in relaxation, recreation, and sports, including golf, tennis, skiing, swimming, and boating. They generally provide a full package that includes meals and refreshments, audiovisual equipment, rooms, sports, and other amenities at a fixed price per person.

"I highly recommend the use of conference centers for meetings that don't have a social aspect to them," says Ray Roper, chief executive officer of Printing Industries of America, Inc., Alexandria, Virginia. Roper took a 17-person, three-day meeting to Westfields International Conference Center, Chantilly, Virginia. "The whole design of the facility is such that its total focus is on your meetings and providing the support for those meetings," he says. Roper found the food "absolutely superb" and the service "expert and professional." What's more, the price was right, particularly compared to the same services purchased a la carte from a hotel. "Conference centers are very competitive, in our experience, whenever the association picks up all of the cost."

When you want to be alone

Several key features make conference centers ideal for small, intense meetings. Paramount among these is isolation. "Everybody's under the same roof and they can't get away from it," explains Doris Finnie, executive secretary-treasurer of the Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute, Denver. Her group of 300 members and their families has met at Snowmass, Keystone, and Marriott's Mark, all in Colorado. She feels it keeps her members focused on the business at hand, not the distractions of a big city. "It has worked very well for us."

Kurt H. Davis, CAE, director of communications for the Canadian Society of Laboratory Technologists, Hamilton, Ontario, agrees. "We wanted to keep them away from any distractions," he says of his two-day, 15-person strategic planning meeting at The Delta Meadowvale, Missisauga, Ontario. "You had to have a car to get anywhere, and most people came in without one."

Amy Duncan, training administrator for the National Court Appointed Special Advocates Association, Seattle, has used the Battelle Conference Center there for her past three annual board meetings. "We liked that it was a closed setting, as opposed to being in a hotel where there are other attractions going on. Even though it's located in Seattle, it's not in proximity to other things, so people can't be distracted," she says.

"It's the isolation, and coequal with that is the service," says S. Anthony Toth, of Certified General Accountants Association of Canada, Vancouver, who favors Banff Park Lodge and Kananaskis in Alberta, Deerhurst in Ontario, and Harrison Hot Springs and Whistler in British Columbia. "Meeting services, food service--they're world class. They have clean towels, and you can get a marker or projector when you need it. They're very reliable."

Toth also appreciates a conference center's ability to structure recreation around a meeting schedule. "In the winter, Kananaskis is the premier cross-country ski place in North America; Whistler is downhill. You can take people away from their day-to-day jobs and provide them with premium recreation at a time of your choosing that fits in with your program."

Service also attracted Ron Fitzgerald. "Without a doubt, the service was exceptional," says Fitzgerald, vice chairman of conferences, American Society for Quality Control, Energy and Environmental Quality Division, Avon, Connecticut, of his meeting for a dozen people at Kingsmill Resort & Conference Center in Williamsburg, Virginia. Finnie adds, "Usually the audiovisual equipment is wonderful; it's so much better than in a hotel, and to me that's a real plus."

Choosing a center

Although members' criteria for choosing a center differ somewhat, they agree that it's important to do some sort of site visit in advance. What they look for during that visit, however, varies with their needs and approach to planning a meeting.

"First, do a site inspection," advises Finnie, "to see if it's right for you." Because meals are prepared and served in the center, "check it out and see if your space is going to work out. We do an annual steak fry and like to do it outside, but a conference center is a great backup if we hit a summer rain."

"If possible, visit under different circumstances ahead of time," advises Davis. "I attended a function--a four-day educational symposium--at the same property a year before, so I had an idea what the facility was about. If you can, do your own assessment without external influence. And if you have special needs, make sure they can meet them."

For some, it's a matter of aesthetics. "A golf course is nice, but it's more than that. It's just the feel of the place," says Nelson Fabian, executive director of the National Environmental Health Association, Denver. "The place has to have something characteristic about its food and beverage |service~; the meeting rooms have to be classy and in good shape. The support has to be there. And then maybe something special--next to an ocean, in the mountains--it has to be something about the environment that impresses." Fabian was pleased with the meeting he held for 17 people at Scanticon, in Denver. "Once you're satisfied that the atmosphere and environment are appropriate, then you've got to be able to negotiate a package that's win-win. And I did that with Scanticon. It was a delightful meeting."

Anthony Toth suggests, "Look at their business arrangements; ask for sample contracts, get assurance about their technology like phones, faxes, display space, and the general fitness of their sleeping rooms. Sometimes they say they're undergoing refurbishment and here's a room, but that could be the only refurbished room in the whole place. Know their plans if |the renovation~ isn't complete."

"I like to look for things that test their service, things like how many rooms they're prepared to devote to nonsmokers. If they look at you like you're crazy," warns Toth, there may be problems. "I |also~ want a full schedule of their taxes and surcharges. And the other important thing for you guys coming from the states is, 'Are you quoting Canadian or American dollars?' For Americans, I would lead with that question."

Of course, some planners have their own way of choosing a center. Carol McMillan, director of training for the Girl Scouts of America, New York City, doesn't have to worry about choosing a conference center. Her association already owns one, in Briarcliff Manor, New York. Says McMillan, "We set it up so we could handle all of our training courses there for our adult volunteers and staff across the country."

Getting there

Transportation must be considered; although it may seem odd that an isolated spot can also be convenient, most centers are located within an easy bus ride of an airport. Just how long a bus ride, however, can make a big difference. "Transportation is important," Toth says. "They should provide you with a fairly detailed schedule of arrivals and departures of various types of transportation." Davis chose the Meadowvale because it's a short drive from Toronto International Airport. "The problem with a lot of them is it's hard as heck to get to them," complains Barbara Taylor, vice president for programs and research at the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, Washington, D.C. She runs several programs each year at Graylyn Conference Center, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for groups of approximately 30 trustees. "Unless it's a fairly long meeting, you can't justify having people travel that distance to the city and then travel another 2 1/2 hours to where the meeting is being held. Our program is only 48 hours in length."

Amy Duncan found her center's remoteness to cause minor difficulty. "We needed to plan for ... a free evening to facilitate transportation, because it wasn't easy for people to walk to any attractions, and to cab it would be very expensive."

Accessibility of another sort was a concern for Ginny Richards, conference planning manager of Vietnam Veterans of America, Washington, D.C. VVA will hold its national convention in Norfolk, Virginia at a mini-convention center. It will be Richards's first conference in a facility of this type. "Accessibility does affect our choice of where we hold our meetings, and we have found it to be a problem," she says. She needs 20 accessible rooms for members, several of whom have impaired mobility, and few hotels have that many, she reports. "I always carry Americans With Disabilities Act information and a tape measure when I do a site visit; I think it's important for anybody looking at sites to do that. Hotels have been willing to do what is necessary for me. It doesn't seem as though they're moving as quickly as they should to come into compliance with ADA, but they're gradually coming over."

Since most conference center meetings combine work and play, the type of recreation available also matters to planners. "It was the first conference center we tried," says Fitzgerald of Kingsmill. He liked "the amenities, service, hotel, and location |near Colonial Williamsburg~. You can do a lot of things before and after. We're definitely going back."

The Nonprofit Option

Cost shouldn't keep you out of the conference center experience. Some of the most charming conference centers are also the least expensive--in part because they also have the fewest "extras" and are run by religious or service organizations.

Annette Wofford, comptroller for the National Society for Experiential Education, Raleigh, North Carolina, uses the Aqueduct conference center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the Avila conference center in Durham, North Carolina, for board meetings. Both provide a homey atmosphere: "At Aqueduct the meeting room is like a living room with sofas, club chairs, a huge stone fireplace, and windows. Avila provides a meeting room that is all rocking chairs and a wood-burning stove. They're very comfortable. Neither place is austere, but they're not hotels," she says.

Many properties are rustic. Rooms generally do not have televisions or telephones, and in some centers the only bathrooms are shared. Food usually resembles good home cooking, with simple, substantial meals. Instead of ordering from room service, conference participants can raid the refrigerator at midnight for ice cream. Sports are more likely to include canoeing, swimming, and hiking than golf, and in general, luxury is not the theme. But, as Wofford notes, "We didn't go there to watch TV." Simpler accommodations translate into lower cost: Wofford reports paying less than $100 per person per day for Aqueduct and less than $50 for Avila.

Philosophy plays a bigger part in the running of these centers, too. "The one thing that is common to all nonprofit conference centers is a mission statement," explains Larry Hill, of the International Association of Conference Center Administrators, San Rafael, California. Hill is also the executive director of Seabeck Christian Conference Center, Seabeck, Washington. "If you're holding a meeting that also has a mission, then you can find a good match." What's more, many nonprofit centers can accept only nonprofit groups as customers. "In the state of Washington, for instance, I can't do any business with any for-profit businesses. If Microsoft wants to hold a retreat, they can't come here," Hill says.

How do you find a nonprofit conference center that's right for your group? "Far and away the most common avenue for people to find conference centers is word of mouth," Hill explains. But directories also help.

The International Association of Conference Center Administrators publishes a directory of members, which also includes descriptions of properties. Write to IACCA, 199 Greenfield Ave., San Rafael, CA 94901. There is a charge of $10 for each directory; no telephone orders.

Retreats International publishes the 1993 Directory of Retreat Ministry Centers for $15, including shipping. The 76-page book includes nearly 600 retreat houses in the United States and Canada, with contact information, programs, and types of rooms available. Write to Retreats International, P.O. Box 1067, Notre Dame, IN 46556; no telephone orders.

The American Camping Association publishes the 1993-94 Guide to Accredited Camps. In addition to 2,100 camps, it includes more than 400 conference and retreat centers. It includes contact information, type of rooms and facilities, and capacity. The cost is $10.95 plus $2 shipping; call (800) 428-2267 or write to the American Camping Association, 5000 State Rd., 67 N., Martinsville, IN 46151.

Conference Centers Defined

Though they sound a bit alike, conference centers and convention centers occupy opposite ends of the meeting scale. Where convention centers host massive gatherings, conference centers think small. Most cater to meetings of only a few people, often just a dozen or two. Some hotels include "conference centers," but the term generally applies more specifically to smaller, more isolated properties.

The International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), St. Louis, has strict criteria defining which properties qualify for membership. A facility must offer a complete conference environment, including guest rooms, dining, and recreational facilities. It must be staffed by skilled professionals who are trained to serve the needs of meeting planners and conferees. It must have comfortable meeting rooms with upholstered chairs, hard-surface tables, and capability for and access to audiovisual equipment. Conference activities must generate a majority of the facility's room nights and income. And of course, the facility must be in "a location where surroundings do not distract from the learning process."

IACC will soon bring all its conference center information to the public in computer-accessible form. "IACC On-Line," to be inaugurated in the second quarter of 1993, will offer an expanded version of the IACC directory and will allow users to leave messages for individual conference centers from which they would like more information. To sign up for IACC On-line or for a free directory of IACC members, contact the International Association of Conference Centers, 243 N. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63141. Telephone: (314) 933-8575; fax: (314) 993-8919.

For information about conference facilities in more than 80 European locations, write for a free directory from the European Federation of Conference Towns, 40 Rue Washington, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium. Telephone: 011-32-2-452-9830; fax: 011-32-2-452-2150.

Stephanie Faul is a senior editor of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles; conference centers
Author:Faul, Stephanie
Publication:Association Management
Date:May 1, 1993
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