by Sarah J.F. Braley | March 01, 2008

Tom Bolman, executive vice president of IACC

IACC executive vice presidentTom Bolman tests anergonomic chair
todetermine if it meetsconference center criteria.

One-stop shopping sounds like too simple a concept to be offered for something as complicated as the meeting planning process. But that’s what the member properties of the International Association of Conference Centers strive to provide.

Unlike the other 30 organizations that belong to the Convention Industry Council, the umbrella organization that watches over the meetings industry, St. Louis-based IACC was not founded to support a particular group of people with their own raison d’etre. Instead, it was created to support a facility concept: the purpose-built conference center, designed to facilitate consistently top-notch meetings. Members are mostly owners, general managers, on-site conference planners and others who help run IACC properties.

Small but strong

Launched in 1981 with 22 member centers, IACC currently has 319 active member facilities throughout the world, 205 of which are in North America -- a very small percentage of all the meetings properties available. But people who embrace the concept of a “true” IACC-approved facility are passionate about the service and space they provide.

“It’s a specialist organization,” says executive vice president Tom Bolman, IACC’s top staff person since 1986. “Just like you go to a cardiologist for your heart, we think you should go to a conference center for a meeting to get the best result. We help our members provide the most productive environment available anywhere for small meetings, averaging 25 to 75 people.”

Some -- like Dave Arnold, CEO, East Coast, of PKF Consulting in Philadelphia and an expert on conference centers -- argue the passion is being lost as ownership profiles have changed from small companies to larger entities, such as real- estate investment trusts. These owners demand more return for their investments through weddings, leisure travelers and other nonmeetings revenue.

“If I was one of them, I’d probably do the same thing,” says Arnold. “But over time, it compromises the whole conference center concept.”

To shore up the ideals at the heart of IACC, in 2004 the association partnered with Bare Associates International, a Fairfax, Va.-based mystery-shopper organization, to keep an eye on the continued quality of the member centers. The first four-year period -- the honeymoon, according to Bolman -- just finished. “We’ve transitioned to what looks like a long-term marriage,” he says.

Following the rules

What sets the IACC properties apart is the association’s set of Universal Criteria (found here), a series of 34 strict quality standards that facilities must continuously meet to belong. Bare’s inspectors use the criteria to measure each facility’s compliance.

No center has been dropped as a direct result of the audits. “Members that were determined to be less than 100 percent compliant are now on the Schedule of Remedies; they are expected to become compliant with the criteria they missed within the time allotted on the schedule,” Bolman explains. Four or five centers chose not to renew their memberships before being audited, as they realized they would not pass.

For instance, the 326-room Scottsdale Resort & Conference Center, a Benchmark Hospitality property, no longer is an IACC member, even though 14 other Benchmark properties are and Burt Cabanas, the company’s chairman and CEO, strongly continues to support the concept. One issue as the inspections began was the fact that the facility used skirted tables that did not comply with the Universal Criteria.

“We are not IACC-certified because we do not have permanent meeting rooms set up,” says David Reed, the resort’s director of sales and marketing. “We are probably one of a handful of conference centers in the country that don’t fit IACC criteria. It hasn’t hurt us much, having the wrong type of tables.”