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Mr. Ashen

Group Meetings

Evaluating Event Spaces and Their Success

By David Ashen, Principal and Founder, dash design

Imagine a hotel meeting space that you'd walk into a decade or two ago. Do you see a 3,000-to-5,000-square-foot ballroom designed to seat hundreds of people, along with a patterned carpet and crystal chandeliers? Partitioned walls that subdivide the room to create secondary meeting spaces for smaller events and meetings? Do you conjure up an image of a boardroom for a dozen or two executives, with the requisite large oval table and leather chairs? A vanilla pre-function room for registration before an event and maybe a cocktail after?

Now fast forward to today and take a moment to picture those spaces again. Do they look the same as they did in the descriptions above? If so, it's time to rethink and re-imagine what today's event spaces look and feel like, because current hotel brands, owners, and designers are taking traditional event venues and applying a more holistic, flexible approach to where experiences can be created.

When designing today's event spaces, hoteliers are starting from the outside and working their way in, literally. Pre-function areas have taken on an increased importance, becoming more than simply empty foyers to host a lunch or grab a cocktail and network before being shuttled into the ballroom. Instead, these spaces are designed to be inhabited in multiple ways and at multiple times. Furnishings are more permanent and created with breakout zones in mind, such as areas to take phone calls or check emails, nooks to eat a meal and talk, and lounge spaces to discuss business over drinks. What's more, these zones support other areas within the hotel and add to its overall narrative.

And the concept works. Last year, Renaissance launched its new meeting room initiative which includes a dictate to "inhabit the edge," a term used to describe the better use of the perimeters of pre-function spaces. The brand has seen a positive response. Within one, large space, guests are engaging in social interactions, sitting on laptops and grabbing a seat at a permanently fixed bar, all while feeling connected to the energy of the hotel. Similarly, Yotel offers an engaging experience for guests, who walk into a lobby surrounded on the perimeter with glass rooms and conversation pits. The scene is reminiscent of a lounge, but with Internet connectivity and private areas for interaction, all overlooking the city.

Recently I toured the Le Meridien Atlanta Perimeter Hotel and saw this idea in action, where public spaces that served as "the hub" of the venue included a huge bar, lobby seating, a lounge and various work spaces tucked away into nooks. On any given weekday evening, there are groups of people with laptops open, enjoying big communal dinners. One local company rents part of this space each week to host a standing work session at Le Meridien, providing a more creative, social work environment for its employees. There, they collaborate, work and have dinner together, just off the buzz of the hotel's lobby.

Ask Why - Then Answer

With hotel brands like Renaissance, Yotel and Le Meridien heading in a similar direction, it makes sense to pause and consider the reasons for the shift. Of the number of factors driving the trend toward more interactive, engaging meeting spaces, foremost are the sharp increase in telecommuting, seemingly constant access to technology and bombardment of our senses with stimuli.

The need for spaces that are social and connected is real and profound. Think about it: people are shopping from their iPhone or iPad rather than in a store and texting instead of talking on the phone or in person. Rather than work in isolated small and sterile spaces - even if there is sometimes a need for them - many hotel visitors and businesspeople prefer to convene in smaller nooks carved out of larger public spaces. This connectivity feeds the desire for sensual experiences, where the user can see, taste, touch, smell and interact and feel.

At the Hotel Commonwealth in Boston, in the new addition which includes thousands of square feet of new meeting and ballrooms, the pre-function areas were not thought of as secondary spaces. All areas of the pre-function areas have been designed so that they may be inhabited and activated in a number of different ways. Small groups are staged and create a narrative for themselves rather than passing one another in hallways before entering into separate areas.

A desire to reconnect also leads to public spaces taking on a more residential feel. In an AC Hotel in Kansas City, the Spanish brand within the Marriott chain, the names for each room evoke a cozy, residential feel that is a far cry from meeting in "Ballroom A" or "Meeting Room 200." At the (future) Moxy hotel in Washington, DC, one meeting room will convert from a ping pong table to a boardroom table. Large TV monitors as well as chairs are mounted on the wall, so that the space can be open and social, but also more serious on a dime. The upside for the hotel? The room doesn't "go dead" - it can easily have a second life that extends its ability to remain occupied and rented. Similarly, communal tables and sectional sofas with coffee tables will be available for rent for semi-private functions, with technology seamlessly on hand to support business uses, but with a relaxed residential vibe.

Le Meridian has a television that users can tether or connect to for presentations so people can work together. Sound and light can be moderated and customized, while the environment remains open to the energy of the public. Technology is playing a role in noise cancellation, so expect to see more hotels installing systems that allow the person renting a particular small zone within a public space to control the technology and lighting, bring screens up or down at the touch of a button, or share desktops or laptops with their parties, all while eating, drinking and being part of the mix, rather than tucked away in a completely private space.

Check and Check Again

So, how do you know if a revamp of an event space is working for your hotel? It's a question I often field. Quite simply, look at your bottom line. Are your event spaces regularly rented and bringing in steady revenue? Do users gravitate toward a few of them in particular? The answers will give you valuable information and allow you to hone in more closely on the direction you should go in.

Hotel Commonwealth, a property that recently constructed a large scale addition, complete with fresh event spaces, simultaneously remodeled its existing event spaces, keeping the walls in place but rethinking the way the space was used within them. A variety of concepts proved to be the answer, including separate meeting rooms designed with different carpets and finishes so that each had its own distinct personality. Regular rentals of the spaces has let the hotel's ownership know the design suits the needs of the property's guests and visitors.

Sometimes feedback can lead to changes, particularly when the hotel is willing to listen and evolve. For instance, at Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, an interesting series of regular requests for holding meetings in Mercat a la Panxa, the restaurant within the hotel, rather than in its traditional meeting rooms, proved to be invaluable insight. Three years ago, Blackstone converted its old meeting rooms by investing in designs that make the spaces look more like Mercat. The newly revamped rooms are more social and reflect the food that is catered from the hotel's hip restaurant, drawing rave reviews. Many other hotels are doing the same, installing "secret rooms" for meetings or holding lunches in the boardroom, which has been converted to look like a funky, trendy restaurant, allowing for privacy, along with touch of flair.

Another brand that let feedback drive design is The Lexington Hotel in New York City, a project my firm worked on. A Chinese restaurant that was a mainstay of the hotel for more than 20 years, was converted, after an analysis of the cost benefits of keeping the restaurant versus transforming the space, into two 1,500-square-foot meeting spaces with a social area in between. That central area was set up to be congenial, with a large kitchen counter, food, drinks and a 'fridge stocked with cold beverages, inviting guests to be entertained. A residential feel, complete with a lounge and nook with cozy seating, sets the mood. Each of the two meeting rooms has a different art installation, which were realized as two large wall murals, one neutral and the other bold. Afterwards, heavier bookings in the meeting room with the bold installation and a positive, emotional reaction from guests craving an experience, led to the hotel opting to remove the neutral covering in the other room and replace it with the bolder conversation piece, an example of how success can be achieved by listening to the customer.

Even though listening is important, when assessing if a space is successful, be careful not to get caught up in online reviews alone. After all, a glowing post about the cool design is not enough. If a room is not rented, the space is not functional. While positive initial customer feedback is helpful, remember to take a look at the big picture. Will making a change help you gain a new customer or lose an existing customer base? What will the next five years look like? Will your current customer still be around then?

Take a Look to Your Left (and Right)

To be certain that a design is successful, I also recommend that hotel owners look at what the competition is doing, and by that I mean not only other hotels booked with weddings, conferences, conventions, business meetings and corporate retreats, but also the elephant in the meeting room: co-working spaces. Newhouse, WeWork and Serendipity, along with the many other iterations popping up in each major city worldwide, have meeting facilities that vie for market share. Hoteliers are feeling the squeeze.

A hotel should ask how it can differentiate from these options to offer guests a noteworthy meeting experience and keep up with the competition. By enhancing connectivity and allowing users to control the environment and maintain a degree of privacy, even in open areas, a hotel can offer the best of both worlds to its customers. For example, thanks to Pandora, it's become easy to create a mood for each area of a lobby or wide open meeting space. Seating zone one can feature jazz, zone two blues, zone three rock and so on. Another way to stay ahead is through apps. Marriott, for instance, allows parties to find an open meeting space through its app and rent it for an hour or more on short notice. This flexibility can help the business traveler make the most of down time in a given city, while the hotel benefits from an additional way to generate revenue.

Consider Your Brand

Before making any change to your event spaces or patting yourself on the back for a job well done, take a moment to pause and consider your brand. Each has its own customer. The Renaissance or Le Meridian client differs from the Moxy or Autograph guest, so no one plan for event spaces suits all. Their success rests largely on the hotel ownership and the design team working alongside them to create the right fit for the brand. As with any company that resonates with its customers, it involves lots of watching… and even more listening.

David Ashen is a principal and the founder of dash design, an award-winning New York-based interior design and branding firm specializing in hospitality and retail projects. Known for his ability to tailor each project to answer clients’ specific business needs, Mr. Ashen and his design team update spaces and reinvent brands. Clients include market leaders and Fortune 500 companies from all over the world including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York City and Aruba. Among dash design’s recent high-profile hotel projects are: the multi-million renovation of the Lexington New York City hotel; the Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino; and restaurants at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai. Mr. Ashen can be contacted at 718-383-2225 ext. 201 or dashen@dashdesign.net. Please visit http://www.dashdesign.net for more information. Extended Bio...

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