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Mr. Rahe

Group Meetings

An Exploration of Conference and Meeting Space: Why isn't there enough?

By Eric Rahe, Principal, BLT Architects

Fortunately, the industry is now beginning to refurbish and expand properties as business conditions and demands improve. The extended delay in the refresh cycle has now given way to what industry observers have been predicting for the last year - refurbishment of guest areas including lobbies, guestrooms, and food and beverage space, and it's no surprise that conference and meeting center renovation is part of this cycle.

What has been a surprise is the extent to which meeting and conference space is a major component of the expansions and renovations in which our firm is now involved. New ballrooms, conversion of office space and retail to meeting rooms, conversion of guestrooms to meeting rooms, sub-division of existing meeting space and repurposing of lobby and related common space into informal networking areas are examples of projects recently initiated by our clients. The typical attributes of a refurbishment cycle - the need to remain competitive, to take advantage of changing tastes and style and to incorporate new technology is a clear driver of this activity. But many of our projects involve substituting meeting space for other existing assets so something more than the refresh cycle must be underlying this trend.

The need for more meeting space seems counterintuitive. Our ability to meet and connect virtually, outside of a defined venue, grew exponentially while the supply of meeting space stagnated over the last three years. The social media heavyweight, Facebook, is on the cusp of becoming the largest domestic company by share value; the unprecedented sale of tablet computers and the popularity of affordable video-conferencing, such as GoToMeeting, all suggest our desire to meet is now driven by personal control, portability, low cost and extreme flexibility. It was not that long ago when politicians made headlines criticizing businesses' wasteful spending on conventions and all companies are driving profits by reducing costs. So why meet out of the office at a structured event with the associated cost and schedule commitment? Several factors are driving this trend:

Face-to-face still matters

The appeal of meeting with like-minded people is hard wired into us and does not seem to be lessened by an abundance of information technology. If anything, the explosion of information makes it harder to decipher what is of value to our professions, our businesses and our clients. Conferences hold out the appeal, either real or perceived, that content has been filtered and that attendance is a time and cost efficient way to connect with colleagues and customers. Equally compelling is the opportunity to learn new skills and best practices and complete required training or education with our peers. Recessions do have certain positive attributes like shaking complacency out of businesses and the resultant competitive need for businesses to continually train and upgrade their workforce reinforces the need to network and learn. And physical presence to establish your relevance stills holds an edge over blogging with the current generation of decision makers (this may or may not be true with future generations of conference attendees).

Cost

Continued corporate emphasis on cost management is driving a more regional focus on venue selection as companies look for opportunities to hold events closer to their businesses, employees, and customers. Over the last few years, there has also been a trend, accelerated by the recession, for planners to chose hotels over convention centers due to cost and simplified logistics and this is creating a need for more large, flexible meeting space in hotels. As many hotels do not currently have the ability to accommodate a program that would normally go to a second or third tier convention center, those that are expanding will provide regional options to the traditional convention city or resort locations favored in the past.

Effectiveness

There is a growing consensus that the physical environment of a meeting can directly impact its effectiveness, the learning and retention of its participants and consequently, its relative cost. Other than companies with sophisticated training facilities, well designed conference and meeting space that offer adaptable spaces, technical sophistication in audio-visual systems, and personalized service can make a compelling case that their venue will provide measurable results and return on investment.

Meeting on demand

Similar to on demand trends in consumer entertainment and manufacturing and distribution, our clients have commented on the increase in on demand inquiries looking for and booking meeting space on short notice. Hotels whose bread and butter business is based on the small meeting (less than 20) are finding that the more flexible space or small rooms they can create the better. One caution they note is that operable partitions are increasingly noted as a negative. Small meeting users prefer the attributes of a boardroom and have very high expectations regarding audio-visual capability. In fact, each of our clients contacted rated audio-visual capabilities and lighting as the first or second most important factor to their customers. Hotels that can provide a range of space including a number of small fixed wall rooms, high quality audio-visual, and flexible booking packages including ala carte amenities are well positioned to meet this demand.

Personalized experience

The trend for greater interaction and personalized experiences in all aspects of consumer spending is also driving demand in the meeting industry. I am struck how much business is conducted in local coffee houses and breakfast cafés. With laptops on the table and coffee in hand, I have observed customers rehearse sales presentations, conduct job interviews and business strategy sessions, with no apparent concern that this is a non-traditional meeting space. In contrast, it provides convenience, flexibility, informality, low-cost, more than adequate Internet connectivity and a distinct experience; coincidentally the same attributes that need to be considered when developing new conference and meeting space. A number of operators with whom we have spoken have noted that restaurants, museums, and civic centers are now non-traditional competitors for their customers who are considering a meeting venue.

The question may not be "why isn't there enough conference and meeting space," but "why isn't there enough of the type of space desired by the current buyers of convention and meeting space?" In an effort to create the right space our clients are asking for more rooms with natural light and adjacent leasable outdoor space such as patios, terraces or conservatories. Alternative meeting space is being created in spaces such as restaurant private dining rooms, hotel libraries and wine bars providing the repeat customer the opportunity for a unique experience with each visit. Traditional banquet furniture is giving way to restaurant style furniture including communal tables, cocktail tables, and bar stools. Permanent but concealable back-bars in lieu of portable bars and cook-to-order stations offer a fresh take on the traditional meeting room. In the pre-function areas a long, wide corridor is no longer sufficient. Now considered the informal meeting or networking area, pre-function should include nooks, niches, bays, and casual food or beverage zones. Ideally, like meeting rooms, it should feature natural light and adjacent outdoor space. Beyond creating diversity in the character of individual meeting or pre-function areas, the clustering of meeting space to create individualized zones is in high demand. While this approach can create service challenges and redundancies, the ability to offer a definable area of your hotel to a group, independent of other conference guests, where customer meetings, dinner and lunch can occur within separate but connected rooms or "experiences" is increasingly popular. Hotels that are offering a range of unique and customizable spaces will yield the greatest benefit from the improving market.

Simultaneously, consumers are redefining value. Their measure is no longer solely dollars, but includes a perceived worth in a tie to their community coupled with purchasing decisions that supports social responsibility and resource sustainability. Green is a minimum and LEED is better. Tie-in with local community vendors or restaurants provides a distinct experience and can make the difference in securing the booking.

Netflix has not caused the demise of movie theaters but theaters are evolving into more interactive social experiences, for example, the rise of the dinner and a movie concept. IPods have not caused the demise of concerts, but the live music experience is now more personalized with control shifting to the artist and their networked fan base. It appears unlikely that social media will dramatically change our desire to meet face-to-face and the demand for meeting and conference space, but that space will need to respond to the customer desire for greater interaction and personalized experiences.

Creating non-traditional meeting space and location may be one of the most promising opportunities in developing or renovating meeting and conference space. Hotels and conference centers that provide a diversity of spaces for meeting, networking, and socializing; adaptability in both their physical environment and service, high quality audio-visual and lighting and opportunities for users to personalize the experience with regional or local tie-is to their community are those that will realize the greatest benefit as the hospitality industry returns to pre-recession levels.

Special thanks for their insight and contributions to this article go to: Mr. James Early, Director of Operations, Newark Liberty International Airport Marriott; Mr. Bob Franklin, Vice President of Sales, Revel Resort; Ms. Theresa Galaro, Director of Catering, Hyatt Regency Princeton.

Eric M. Rahe is a principal and member of the executive leadership team at BLT Architects. Eric’s thirty years of practice span the hospitality, residential, retail, commercial office, and educational sectors with a special focus on large-scale hospitality and resort projects. Mr. Rahe has led projects at more than 17 hotels, ranging from limited service hotels to large-scale, multi-billion dollar resorts. Having developed a strong interest in how the design process influences the success of each project and a passion for clarity in design and communication, Mr. Rahe has built a reputation for his analytical approach to understanding his clients’ needs and managing large and diverse teams. Mr. Rahe can be contacted at 215-563-3900 or hmt@blta.com Extended Bio...

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