by J.D. Brown and Margaret Backenheimer | June 01, 2017

Convention centers with attached hotels appeal to many association event planners because they offer everything essential for big gatherings, from guest rooms for sleeping to ample ballroom and banquet space for schmoozing. And while these venues also welcome small to mid-size meetings, groups of this size may feel insignificant or out of place amid so much space, which is why planners often take pains to seek out sites dedicated to smaller functions.

Fortunately, over the last decade a proliferation of stand-alone conference space has opened up a wealth of new choices for association events of up to 400. These smaller centers became popular picks for business during the recession by offering competitive, all-inclusive pricing, a staff focused on the needs of just one group at a time and flexible yet trendy menus. Such facilities are often located in the heart of a city, which allows attendees to choose from a selection of lodging, from five-star hotels to Airbnb-type accommodations, as well as various transportation options.

A big player in the burgeoning business of stand-alone conference centers is Convene, which was founded in 2009 in New York City and has since expanded to create 13 meeting venues in four cities—New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and, as of this month (June::tz), Boston. Facilities are staffed by expert technicians and feature the latest teleconferencing, videoconferencing and audiovisual standards, as well as high-speed Wi-Fi. Other amenities include on-site food and beverage, flexible spaces and event-planning services. A recent alliance with The Hub, another event-space provider, added three meeting spaces in Philadelphia to its roster, including a 41,000-square-foot venue at Commerce Square, designed by the architecture firm I.M. Pei. Convene founders Ryan Simonetti and Chris Kelly are now casting an even wider net, looking at Chicago and Los Angeles for future development.

Another East Coast developer, the Boston-based Metro Meeting Centers, employs a team of meeting specialists to oversee 10 conference spaces, ranging from 280 to 2,800 square feet, all located within a 31-story skyscraper in the city’s Financial District, close to public transportation and parking. Again, planners can expect to find the latest in meetings technology at these spaces as well as customized food choices.

In Chicago, the IACC-approved Summit Executive Centre on North Michigan Avenue offers 20 meeting rooms for groups of up to 220 attendees, while its Summit West location at the Ogilvie Train Station (in the West Loop) supports 13 spaces and can accommodate up to 300 people. Summit facilities feature all-inclusive pricing that aims to be more economical than hotel spaces, “white-glove service” and flexibility on all fronts. Indeed, Summit reported that it was able to meet the menu requests of a group with 24 dietary restrictions.

A leader in the meeting and conference-room industry in Japan also has a major presence in Midtown Manhattan: TKP. The TKP New York Conference Center, opened in 2013, now offers 32,000 square feet of space spread among 12 rooms, the largest of which can host up to 351 people (tkpny.com::tz). Catering, audiovisual-equipment and high-speed Internet round out its services. The Tokyo-based TKP is an experienced conference operator, with similar facilities in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Several other multinational companies now offer a profusion of meeting-venue choices worldwide. Among them is the Luxembourg-based Regus, with 3,000 locations in 900 cities representing 120 countries. Available on an hourly or daily basis, its various workshop spaces and boardrooms come with a reception team, Wi-Fi, presentation tools and support for printing, copying and refreshments. Purpose-built suites are available for videoconferencing, as are office spaces, shared spaces and virtual offices.

Servcorp, headquartered in Sydney, (servcorp.com::tz) is another player in the international meetings field, with 155 locations in 54 cities in 23 countries, ranging from Australia to India to Turkey. In the United States there are 22 venues in a dozen major cities, including four in New York City. Servcorp lists 150 boardrooms across the globe, all in prestigious buildings with original artwork on the walls. The company can also supply groups with virtual offices, coworking space and receptionist or administrative support.

And then there is Unique Venues which, as its name suggests, is a unique marketer of non-hotel meeting spaces. Founded in Denver in 1986 as a listing of college and university conference facilities, it now promotes nearly 1,000 nontraditional venues in North America. Included in its long list of options, for example, is the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, and the Sea of Glass Center for the Arts in Tucson, Arizona.

“We believe in thinking outside the box,” said Chuck Salem, president of Unique Venues. “By stepping outside of the traditional venue to one that has a built-in attraction or ambiance, you automatically begin the conversation and intrigue for your meeting.” His favorites include PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which he described as “a wonderful baseball stadium offering outstanding professional meeting spaces,” and Boston University for its “top-level technology and affordability.”

The bottom line for advocates of stand-alone venues is that at hotels, the emphasis is on filling rooms, whereas at smaller meeting centers, the focus becomes the meeting itself. At such sites, small to mid-size groups can feel they have hit on a space that is just right instead of an enormous venue that engulfs them. And in today’s world of niche markets, this trend is likely here to stay. .