Addressing profound changes in how their customers are approaching learning, training, networking and teambuilding, many conference centers are in a process of reinvention. An innovative mindset is transforming everything from meeting room layouts to tech services and even places to relax and exchange ideas.

Helping facilitate these innovations is IACC, which launched a two-part study last year called IACC Meeting Room of the Future, surveying meeting planners and venue operators on the changing preferences of conference delegates. Highlights of the findings revealed the need for venues to provide a participatory atmosphere, including more spaces for networking and socializing outside the meeting room. The need for more flexible meeting spaces, collaborative technologies that allow greater communication between speakers and the audience as well as fast, secure bandwidth were also identified.

“What we found is that planners want spaces that are a lot less institutional—more homelike but of high quality,” said Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC. “No more beige walls, but art, design and colors that inspire instead. It was also clear that we have to provide more spaces outside the meeting room where people can continue discussions and solve problems together.”

Changes in the way people want to learn is calling for more flexibility inside the meeting rooms, he added.

“It’s about less content and delivery of static information to an audience and more about creating an atmosphere for debate and discussion,” Cooper said. “It’s getting away from theater-style seating and a stage to seating that encourages interaction. You may need to change the layout of a meeting room several times a day to allow for this.”

A more collaborative atmosphere also affects the scope of technology required, bringing the need for more screen-sharing and communication that can flow between presenters and the audience, Cooper noted.

The study also revealed that Internet infrastructure is of utmost importance to meeting planners, he added.

“It’s about providing fast connectivity that adapts to different environments,” he said. “Not just single Wi-Fi service shared by everyone, but dedicated bandwidth for certain meetings and types of communication such as live streaming.”

Benchmarks From Benchmark

Among conference center operators involved in orchestrating the IACC initiative is Benchmark Hospitality International. Many of the company’s IACC-member facilities are implementing the changes recommended by the study, said Hal Powell, regional vice president of sales and marketing.

“What we’ve noticed is that our guests, especially Millennials, multitask and expect everything to be fast and simple,” he said. “They want wireless connectivity everywhere and ample bandwidth. It should be easy to log in and to run two or three devices at once. We’ve made a real push to make the guest rooms and conference rooms have ample places to plug in.”

Flexible places for informal meetings are a priority as well, which has resulted in the creation of more breakout space at such properties as the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center in Roanoke, Va., Eaglewood Resort & Spa in Itasca, Ill., and Doral Arrowwood Resort in Rye Brook, N.Y., Powell said.  

“Companies really like to have casual areas for networking outside the meeting rooms, places with soft furniture and library-type settings,” he said. “At the Roanoke, which completed a full renovation last year, you’ve got a number of different seating options in the conference area, including high-top tables where small groups can gather to talk, grouped around a wide-open refreshment area.”

Along with more flexible layouts and seating, conference centers are taking a more flexible approach to providing what each customer wants, he added.

“People want a much more personalized experience now; it can’t be one size fits all,” he said. “We need to ask about your culture and your specific needs. Probing questions to learn about the attendees and their demographics.”  

While once conference centers encouraged groups to spend all of their time on property, a major change is persuading attendees to experience the local destination, according to Powell.

“We help groups enjoy some local restaurants and do a catered function at a venue such as an aquarium,” he said. “It’s all about helping people walk away with a great experience.”

The National

Among conference centers making a sizeable investment in reinvention is The National Conference Center, a 917-room property with more than 265,000 square feet of meeting space outside of Washington, D.C., in Leesburg, Va. The National is wrapping up a property-wide renovation with an emphasis on flexible social areas, farm-to-table cuisine overseen by chefs from the Culinary Institute of America, vibrant colors and customized artwork.

Among the changes already completed is the repurposing of a former lobby gift shop into a Living Room with groupings of sofas and lounge chairs, bookshelves, flight monitors, large TVs and high tables. The new space can be used for cocktail receptions and informal business meetings. Also new are National Secret, an intimate lounge that evokes a speakeasy atmosphere with a fireplace, candlelight and silk draping, and Black Olive Bar, a space for convivial gatherings with local craft beers, Virginia wines, live entertainment and pub games.  

The second phase of the renovation includes updated technology for the meeting rooms as well as new landscaping and fire pits for the courtyard areas on the 65-acre campus.

Feedback from customers is positive about changes at The National, said Chuck Ocheltree, chief sales and marketing officer.

“They asked us for more places to gather and hang out, places for interaction and working together as a team,” he said. “People want much more than a traditional classroom.”

Along with new lounges, The National rethought some its meeting room layouts, placing theater-style setups with seating placed in clusters or in circles. Major technology upgrades are also in progress, including expanded bandwidth, large TV monitors for projecting presentations from laptops and capabilities for virtual meetings and on-demand learning.

“What we’ve done is improve bandwidth so that we provide private bandwidth for different groups at the same time,” Ocheltree said. “Private bandwidth ensures connectivity without interruption and it’s faster.”

Skamania Lodge

Innovations are also underway at Skamania Lodge, A Destination Hotels property, which offers an IACC-member conference center in Stevenson, Wash., along with a breathtaking setting on the Columbia River outside Portland, Ore. The 65-acre property recently upgraded its meetings technology and transformed its Meadow Room from a traditional boardroom into a more relaxed area with lounge seating and a pool table.

Currently in progress at Skamania are further improvements to meeting room flexibility, including the addition of soft furnishings to a conference room that will enable it to be used as a hospitality suite.

“It’s important for groups to have these relaxing spots,” said Kara Owen, national sales manager. “We’re seeing demand for them from companies in creative industries such as engineering and design. They help clear the brain.”

Skamania also added new treehouse accommodations in a forested setting near the main lodge, two elevated structures designed with large windows to make guests feel as though they are sleeping in a canopy of trees. Sleeping up to four in each, the treehouses offer spacious decks and indoor-outdoor fireplaces.

“While not necessarily designed for a meeting, the treehouses are being used by conference guests,” Owens said. “There’s a fire pit and casual seating in between the treehouses. It’s a great place for small groups to gather.”