by Sarah J.F. Braley | March 01, 2006

Barnet Hill

Barnet Hill, a Sundial Group facility, is just outside Guiltford in Surrey, England.

One significant advantage to working in a well-established niche market is the ability to deliver a recognizable product to customers an advantage the member facilities of the St. Louis-based International Association of Conference Centers offer their meeting planner clients.
    These centers provide high-quality meeting space that adheres to a strict code called the Universal Criteria a set of requirements concerning ergonomic chairs, soundproofing, F&B and more all in the interest of providing an optimum learning environment. Most member facilities are full-service properties (complete with sleeping rooms) that also have passed a rigorous inspection to gain membership in the organization. They offer meeting planners one-stop shopping in the form of the complete meeting package, which includes everything from room rate and basic A/V (yes, an LCD projector is part of the package) to continuous F&B breaks for attendees who wander in and out of meeting rooms.
    The downside to being a niche market is a certain restraint of growth that comes when opportunities to expand in desirable destinations dwindle and developers have to look to new places. In the recent past, the number of IACC-approved conference centers in the United States has remained relatively static at just over 200, and the largest area of growth has been in a new category called ancillary centers, where the meeting space is up to IACC standards but the attached hotel is not.
    “The barrier to entry in some of the markets in the States is saturation,” says Jeffrey V. Farina, chief development officer for The Woodlands, Texas-based management company Benchmark Hospitality and current president of the North American board of IACC. He also notes that it’s just too expensive to build in the most desirable U.S. markets. 
    “Because of the somewhat limited opportunities in the United States,” Farina says, “right now many of the opportunities are global.”

Branching out
IACC long has had a worldwide membership its founding fathers envisioned this eventuality when naming the organization. Currently, the association counts 95 international center members (see “Planning Abroad,” below), most of which are run by local owners and management companies. But conference center management companies based in the United States have been slow to venture abroad. 

Dolce Chantilly

French host: The IACC-approved Dolce Chantilly near Paris

    That trend is changing, and to support it, IACC added two executives to its global board of directors last year to encourage international development. One was Philippe Attia, vice president of operations, Europe, for Montville, N.J.-based Dolce International, which owns and manages two IACC-approved properties in France (Dolce Chantilly, near Paris, and Dolce Frégate in Provence). In joining the global board, Attia helped bring other Dolce International properties into the IACC fold: Germany’s Dolce Bad Nauheim, the Netherlands’ Dolce Kasteel Vaalsbroek and Spain’s Dolce Sitges. With all this movement in Europe and several centers in development, there is talk of adding a Western Europe chapter to IACC; at the moment, aside from the North American chapter, Australia, Denmark, Sweden and the United Kingdom are the only countries with chapters.
    Also new to the association’s board is Kozue Honda, general manager for Benchmark’s two Japanese properties, the private Tokyo Conference Center Iidabashi and the public Tokyo Conference Center Shinagawa. She has since begun to reach out to other centers in Japan, according to Tom Bolman, CAE, IACC’s executive vice president.
    “We want to give planners as many options as we can of bona fide centers around the world,” says Bolman of the organization’s global initiative. “We’ve found a number of conference centers in South Africa; that appears to be an area ripe for expansion.” 
    Other recent entries include several centers near Sydney, Australia, all existing properties that either were IACC-ready but hadn’t applied for membership or centers that were encouraged to raise their standards. “The Australia chapter has gone from 15 to 29 centers in the past 18 months,” says Bolman. The association also recently received an application from a brand new ancillary center in South Korea.
    Interestingly, not one facility is in Central or South America. “Years ago, there was a conference center in Mexico, but they diluted the concept,” Bolman notes. “Adding the international people to the board was to reach out to areas where we don’t have much membership. If we found somebody in South America, we’d add them immediately.”