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The conference center concept.

If someone had asked John George, assistant director of government relations for the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), Alexandria, Virginia, a year ago to talk about conference centers, he may have had little to say. But firsthand experience is a great educator.

When 15 NASDSE staff and eight members of the board of directors traveled to Lansdowne Conference Resort, Leesburg, Virginia, they had an important goal in mind: to develop the association's first strategic plan. They sought a quiet environment conducive to serious brainstorming. And they found it.

George, who coordinated the event, says that what surprised and impressed him most about the facility was the "we'll do anything for you" service NASDSE received during its intense weekend meeting. In particular, George recalls his positive experience with the conference concierge-the employee who worked with George on-site to ensure that the meeting went smoothly and efficiently.

"She was literally right outside of our room throughout the entire meeting," explains George. "Any time we needed anything, I told her what we needed and it was done."

According to George, that service came in handy as NASDSE's meeting got under way. "As we were creating our strategic plan, we went through a lot of drafts," George says. "At one point, I handed the conference concierge what seemed like scribbled notes of the plan. Soon after, we had a typed versionalong with copies-of the strategic plan to hand out to meeting attendees. It was a great service to have everyone looking at and discussing the same information."

A changing identityand market

Early conference centers began as university-affiliated facilities-typically located on or adjacent to the grounds of college and university campuses-that hosted small think-tank-type meetings, according to Gene A. Keluche, who chairs the board of International Conference Resorts, Scottsdale, Arizona. In fact, the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), Fenton, Missouri, cites the Arden House at Columbia University, New York City-built in 1951-as the first conference center.

Today the variety of conference center locales is much broader (see sidebar, "Conference Centers Defined"). But the concept of an environment dedicated to small to medium-size meetings is the same, and it is one that quickly caught on with corporations, according to IACC President Roberta Butler, manager of customer sales and public relations for the Factory Mutual Conference Center, Boston.

"[Corporations] used to be the biggest and easiest market to attract, but that's changing because of the economy," says Bill Kirkhuff, general manager, Radisson Hotel and Conference Center, Plymouth, Minnesota. In fact, Meetings & Conventions' 1992 Meetings Marka Report says corporate meeting expenditures decreased $1 billion between 1989 and 1991. In the same time period, association meeting expenditures, excluding those for conventions, rose $400 million.

In that environment, conference centers are exploring other markets, association meetings among them. "Associations used to mainly hold annual national meetings that had thousands of attendees," which ruled out conference centers as potential meeting sites, explains Jim Ball, vice president, The Woodlands Executive Conference Center and Resort, The Woodlands, Texas.

Many associations, like corporations and other businesses, are changing the structure of their meetings to accommodate members who are struggling with fight budgets and little time. 'just because you have financial limitations [because of the economy] doesn't mean your organization stops meeting," explains Vikki Smith, meetings manager, Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc., Washington, D.C. "What it has meant for us is that we have fewer people attending our meetings. Attendance at meetings is now usually limited to the power hittersthe key players who are making decisions for our organization."

Conference center characteristics

If the need is emerging, so too may be conference centers as venues for small association-meetings. ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT'S Association Meeting Trends 1990 survey of 478 associations' meeting practices during 1988 and 1989 showed that 25 percent of associations used conference centers for educational seminars and 8 percent used the facilities for board or executive committee meetings (representing a total of over 1.39 million room nights). Preliminary data from the 1992 version of the meetings study show that 26 percent of the 230 associations surveyed to date used conference centers for educational seminars and 12 percent used conference centers for board meetings during 1990 and 1991.

Sustaining progress made in the association meetings market may be as simple as delivering on planners' expectations. The foremost consideration in John George's mind when he took NASDSE's strategic planners to Lansdowne was an interruption-free, distraction-free environment.

George believes NASDSE's strategists could not have created its strategic plan in the time they did had it not been for the quiet surroundings of Lansdowne. "We had an incredible amount of work to do in a short period of time," he says. "We needed a place where we were secluded from everything else-where we could go behind closed doors and work, work, work without any interruptions. It was an intense two days, but we were able to complete our goal."

Indeed, typical conference center provisions-such as soundproof meeting rooms and always-open refreshment areas that allow meeting attendees to break at will-make it easy for conferees to be productive, according to IACC. So too can the usually secluded location of the conference center itself.

But John Rauseo, president of the New England Society of Association Executives, Braintree, Massachusetts, points out that offering a meeting facility in a secluded environment has its drawbacks. Rauseo says that NESAE holds approximately 12 half-day to daylong educational programs a year. Of those 12 annual even|s, only about two meetings are held at conference centers. "The location can work for and against you. Sure, it's in a nice setting and provides lots of extra amenities, but will our attendees be willing to drive an hour just to attend a one-day event?"

Making time for recreation. While NASDSE's George sought an interruptionfree environment, Joan Giese and the American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE), Chicago, looked for diversion-but only during nonmeeting hours-in the site for their recent board meeting. And they found what they were looking for in the Ocean Edge Conference Center & Golf Club, Brewster, Massachusetts.

Like many other conference centers that in the last 10 years have upgraded their facilities to include such amenities as golf and croquet courses and tennis courts, Ocean Edge has increased the variety of recreational activities it offers.

"Conference centers always have provided an environment totally dedicated to meetings," says Michael Fitzgerald, general manager, Ocean Edge. "We just had to readjust to the different tastes and wants of our customers."

Giese says AONE's board members combined work and play for an effective meeting. "Our board came to our meeting to listen and exchange information," explains Giese. "But you can't expect them to sit in a room for eight hours straight--they'd begin to experience information overload. It worked well to get them to work early in the morning and then have the rest of the day to sit back, enjoy themselves, and reflect on informa| tion discussed earlier in the day."

High-tech help. For the New England Society of Association Executives, an exceptional audiovisual service was one factor in the decision to meet at a conference center last year. After all, NSAE was holding a daylong educational session on desktop publishing for approximately 4050 people. According to President Rauseo, the Ocean Edge Conference Center & Gulf Club provided the equipment--"we've didn't have to haul it in or hire an audiovisual firm to bring it on site."

In fact, says John Scanlan, vice president of resort operations for the Conference Center at Hidden Valley, Somerset, Pennsylvania, most conference centers have high-tech audiovisual centers operated by full-time media technicians who can operate and service various types of equipment. "If you give a presentation and run into problems that can't be resolved, it could mean the difference between the success or failure of your meeting," points out Scanfan.

Flip charts; blackboards; easels, which are usually built into the walls of meeting rooms; color televisions; screens; and overhead, slide, and movie projectors are among the equipment found in most conference centers. Some centers also offer more advanced equipment. For example, photographers, multi-image programmers, and audio and video technicians at Westfields International Conference Center, Chantilly, Virginia, operate a 16-track recording studio, a video editing suite, staging equipment, laser light shows, and a dark room with computer-generated slide production and processing.

The complete meeting package. If there is anything controversial about conference centers, in the minds of meeting planners interviewed for this article the object of disagreement is the complete meeting package. When you book a meeting at a conference center, you typically purchase a complete meeting package-which includes each conferee's room and three meals a day, refreshment service, conference space, conference services, standard audiovisual equipment, and service charges coveting food and beverage gratuities.

"The complete meeting package has always been popular because it's a way for meeting planners to identify what the total cost of their meeting will be in advance so that they don't have surprises later on," contends Ball, of The Woodlands Executive Conference Center.

Not all meeting planners agree. Some believe the package has been too rigid. For example, until recently organizations paid for meals under the complete meeting package regardless of whether their attendees ate them. Says Vikki Smith, of the Society of the Plastics Industry, "I've found that conference centers are not very flexible when it comes to the complete meeting package. They want to sell me on the full package, and that just doesn't accommodate the needs of our organization.

According to Smith, a complete meeting package doesn't give you a breakdown of how much each event or service costs. "The conference center just lumps everything under one price, so you don't have any idea how much it costs for a lunch or dinner," explains Smith. And complications can arise-for example, when a member company wants to sponsor a particular event, it is difficult to determine the price of that one event.

At the American Organization of Nurse Executives board meeting last summer, Giese faced another limitation. "We didn't want to go into the main dining room for lunch-we wanted to have the board eat in a separate room," she says. '"We had to pay extra for that."

All that may be changing, though, according to at least one conference center official. '"We know our cuisine is very good, but we realize that sometimes a group needs a change-they want to get away from the conference center and have a meal out on the town," says Scanlan. '"We're willing to work with them to accommodate special needs."

"We must be doing something right," adds Jack Schmidt, director of sales and marketing, Lansdowne Conference Resort. "Most conference centers enjoy about a 75-85 percent repeat business. It's all the little extra things that we doand are happy to do-that make the difference."

Additional Amenities

When Vikki Smith, meetings manager, Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc., Washington, D.C., books a meeting for her organization, price, location, and overall aesthetic appearance of the property usually determine her decision. Characteristics like the following "would just be icing on the cake," says Smith.

Conference center planners. When you book a meeting at a conference center, a single conference center manager-sometimes called a conference coordinator or planner-works with each organization from the conception of the meeting to its completion. The conference manager helps the meeting planner design the pro* gram, coordinate the details, monitor the meeting, and conduct the postconference evaluation.

User-friendly furnishings. It is not by coincidence that conference center chairs-often referred to as eighthour chairs-are padded, have armrests, flit, swivel, recline, have casters, and are ergonomically designed. "Our chairs are specifically designed for education and learning," says Jack Schmidt, director of sales and marketing, Lansdowne Conference Resort, Leesburg, Virginia. "People need to be able to sit and remain attentive for long periods of time. They're making critical decisions, and they need to be comfortable."

Conference center meeting rooms also are equipped with hard-surfaced tables-an International Association of Conference Centers, Fenton, Missouri, membership requirement. Schmidt explains that Lansdowne's 30-inch-wide wooden tables are more like desktops, which makes it easier for people to take notes.

Jeff McNeily, executive director, Pennsylvania Auto and Truck Salvage Association (PATSA), Harrisburg, agrees that comfortable furnishings help participants sit for long periods of time and remain focused on the meeting. He says that was the case when his association held a 2 I/2-day series of brainstorming sessions last May at the Nemacolin Woodlands, a conference center in Farmington, Pennsylvania. Approximately 24 people attended the meeting-including PATSA staff and spouses-to determine whether the organization should continue an 18-year-old group insurance program.

"We called in a few experts who had extensive backgrounds in insurance so that we could get advice on the direction the program should take-whether we should embellish it or cancel it," he explains. 'We were sitting, listening, and exchanging ideas for long stretches of time, so it was nice to be comfortable."

Lighting. Most conference centers offer three ways to alter the level of lightness or darkness in their meeting rooms. As a meeting planner, you may choose to use incandescent, fluorescent, or natural light depending on the purpose of your meeting. Chandeliers, for example, are designed for social rather than business functions, explains Schmidt. "It has been proven that different types of lighting have an affect on the productivity of an individual," he adds.

Conference Centers Defined

Conference centers come in a variety of packages. Although certain characteristics are common to all conference centers, Understanding Conference Centers-published by the International Association of Conference Centers, Fenton, Missouri-defines four different types of conference centers.

* A conference center devotes at least 70 percent of net area of meeting space to conferences and generates at least 60 percent of occupied room nights for conferences.

* A resort conference center devotes at least 70 percent of its net area of meeting space to conferences and generates at least 60 percent of total sales and a minimum of 60 percent of occupied room nights from conferences. The facility also provides at least one major resort amenity, such as an l8 hole golf course on the grounds or contiguous to the center, and a combination of lesser recreational amenities, such as a swimming pool or racquetball courts.

* A nonresidential conference center-which offers meeting rooms but does not have sleeping accommodations-devotes at least 70 percent of its net area of meeting space to conferences and generates a minimum of 70 percent of total sales for conferences.

* An ancillary conference center-a larger hospitality complex, such as a dedicated floor or wing of a hotel or resort-devotes at least 70 percent of its net area of meeting space to conferences. The conference center also generates at least 70 percent of total sales for the facility and a minimum of 60 percent of occupied room nights.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:choosing conference venues for associations
Author:Mascari, Patricia
Publication:Association Management
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:Rewarding chapter excellence.
Next Article:Media encounters made easier.

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