April 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions: International Appeal - April 2000 Current Issue
April 2000 Dolce International's Vaalsbroek

International Appeal

Energized by a boom market, overseas centers preen for U.S. planners

By Amy Drew Teitler

If the global economy were a swimming pool, the water would be fine and the international conference center market would be floating leisurely on an inflatable raft. “Purpose-built conference centers international but domestic as well have seen revenue and profits increase steadily over the past five years,” according to Warren Marr, practice leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers, Hospitality and Leisure Consulting in Philadelphia.

The International Association of Conference Centers has 288 members; 100 are outside U.S. borders. Although Marr says international conference centers represent “a very small segment of the lodging industry overall,” that segment has seen significant growth in recent years. Five years ago, for instance, IACC had only 87 members outside the United States.

In particular, Marr says, the resort conference center, which has enjoyed success in the United States, is proliferating overseas. Such facilities marry the business capabilities of a conference center and the leisure options of a resort. “They can take business away from luxury hotels that are also great at catering to conferences,” says Marr.

The increasingly global nature of business has fueled development, adds Marr. A major international company might have large offices in many countries. Choosing a meeting venue might begin with the question of whether to send the Boston sales team to Japan or bring the Japanese employees stateside. And a firm accustomed to using conference centers in the United States might seek similar facilities around the world.

(Note: In many European countries, the term “conference center” denotes what is known in the United States as a “convention center.” For this discussion, the American definition of “conference center” applies.)

Delivering the package
A planner might choose an international destination for its unique sites and ambience, but when it comes to meeting facilities, predictability can be desirable.

IACC centers must meet 28 universal criteria. “No matter where the center is, it has to offer and promote a complete meeting package,” says Tom Bolman, executive vice president of IACC. The CMP a per-person, per-day price must include conference rooms; guest rooms; continuous refreshment service; conference services; a full-service business center; basic A/V; and breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Although Marr says the value of CMPs gives international conference centers a competitive advantage over meeting hotels, negotiations could be in order regarding bundled food and beverage, especially in destinations known for fine dining. “Often, planners will take a group at a conference center for an off-site dinner, but they are still paying for the on-site meal.” Typically, Marr adds, regular clients of a specific center can negotiate that cost in exchange for another amenity.

Going up
Beaufort Hotel and Conf Ctr With no economic slowdowns on the horizon, all lights are green where new construction and expansion of existing properties are concerned. Andy Dolce, chairman and CEO of Dolce International, says his Montvale, N.J.-based conference center management company is in an aggressive expansion phase, with properties planned throughout Europe. Facilities in Dublin, Amsterdam, Milan and Barcelona are in various stages of development, he says, and most have opening dates slated for 2002. A search is on for assets in Germany and London, he adds.

Dolce currently has three facilities in Europe: Chantilly, outside of Paris; Frégate, a resort conference center in Provence, France; and Vaalsbroek, in Vaals, the Netherlands. All three exceed IACC standards, offering planners videoconferencing and Internet dial-up capabilities via modem or ISDN lines.

At press time, the company was receiving bids for high-speed Internet access for all of its European properties. During the next four years, Dolce plans to invest $150 million to $200 million in new and existing properties.

In Asia, only three properties are members of IACC. Of these, Benchmark Hospitality, based in The Woodlands, Texas, manages two: the Tokyo Conference Center and the Beaufort Hotel and Conference Center in Sentosa, Singapore. “The thing about Asian markets,” says Burt Cabañas, chairman and CEO of Benchmark, “is that depending on the company the more governmental or institutional they are they tend to be old-school.”

Cabañas says although newer, more tech-oriented companies fully understand the concept of conference centers, many others still meet in schoolroom-style venues, 10 years behind the meetings culture that exists in the United States. “Most of the destination cities in Asia have been driven by tourism and the transient traveler,” he says. “The focus on meetings has been minimal.”

Benchmark’s newest property, called Eastern Star, soon will break ground in southern Thailand, about an hour’s drive from Bangkok. Conference facilities will be built around an existing Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course.

The company also intends to enter Europe at some point, although it has no immediate plans. “Europe recognizes the [resort] conference center more as a retreat from somewhere,” says Cabañas. Benchmark also is looking at Central and South America, “with Mexico as a focus,” he says. “We are able to fly to 12 cities in Mexico from Houston more easily than we can get to Minneapolis, and the cultural differences present in Asia are not there.”

Initial Style Conference Centers, based in Reading, England, operates 24 dedicated conference centers throughout the United Kingdom. The company, established in 1978, has forged long-term relationships with companies including Xerox, Ericsson and PricewaterhouseCoopers, all of which have their own Style-operated centers that are open to the public at designated times.

“The main difference American delegates would notice would be the size of our centers,” says Sue Wakely, Style’s marketing manager. “However, I think being smaller has distinct advantages in terms of making them feel at home.” Wakely says the United Kingdom is “catching up fast” with technology, adding, “There really should be nothing we cannot achieve for a client, particularly if we know in advance.”

Planners’ priorities
Of the 130-plus meetings Barbara Griswold plans each year, about 40 percent are international, and she does not always attend them herself. As a result, reliability and consistency of service are crucial to Griswold, director, meetings and special events for Pleasantville, N.Y.-based Reader’s Digest Association Inc.

She tends to stick with proven facilities, especially IACC members, for overseas meetings. “I need to know what I’m getting,” she says. “I know the meetings are climate-controlled, all of the A/V is there, the desktops are nonreflective... People will be comfortable without needing the planner on site.”

For Tony Pastor, CMP, it’s all about the wiring. “The high-tech stuff is what has become important,” says Pastor, who, as site and contract specialist for the New York City-based training department of McKinsey & Co., plans more than 100 international meetings each year. “The ability to check e-mail, to have live, Web-based training on site for participants to be connected to the world is a high priority.”

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Marr says the audiovisual capabilities many overseas conference centers include in their CMPs are on par with those of U.S. facilities. However, for groups with very specific requirements or a need for bleeding-edge technology, meeting hotels could prove the better option. “[Hotels] may not have T-1 lines plugged into every conference table, but they can easily have outside contractors bring it in,” he says. “Instead of having a CMP rate, hotels can pass the cost of the equipment right onto the customer as A/V expenses, and get the planner exactly what his or her group requires.”

Some planners avoid conference centers, finding an á la carte approach more appropriate for international destinations. Says Chris Pentz, CMP, president of Pentz Group Communications, “A CMP doesn’t work for my groups. We want a private breakfast and lunch. We like to go out for dinner. Properties I like tend to be hybrids hotels with nice, dedicated meeting space that is attached to but set off from the hotel.”

Pentz, a Philadelphia-based independent planner whose niche includes pharmaceutical, medical and biotechnology meetings, says location is another factor. “You move them out to a conference center, and often you are not in the downtown area. Sooner or later, my attendees want to get out of that building. If you are downtown, participants can get out of the hotel for an hour or so and feel like they are a part of the city.”

However, Pentz sees the appeal and advantages of all-in-one facilities. “American attendees want to have a meeting in a quaint European city,” she says, “but often, they hate the fact that hotels are smaller, and they don’t want to be spread out over four properties.”

Tony Pastor adds, “You have to know your group. You tend to have the same objectives, whether you are meeting in Amsterdam or South Africa. Marry what the facility has, and does best, with what your goals are. If it’s not a good fit, then don’t go there.”

“You won’t find the American speed, and that’s part of the reason to go,” says Andy Dolce. “Planners should be open-minded. Enjoy the local traditions, and don’t try to Americanize a meeting. Take a deep breath. Relax. It’s refreshing.”

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