The Complete Meetings Package Today

Internet Connectivity: What to Ask
By IACC CEO Mark Cooper 

When it comes to evaluating a venue for its connection capabilities, I fear we are not giving Internet infrastructure the time or respect it deserves. Equally, I fear that venues are not well prepared to evaluate whether they can support the needs of the event, due to a lack of understanding. 

I used to talk about Internet in terms of Mbps - megabits per second - and about how easy it was to evaluate different areas of a venue with a simple app like Speedchecker for iOS. Although I am still surprised at how many venue representatives I see who now can tell me the Mbps on offer in the meeting areas, I have come to learn that this no longer is a good barometer for judging whether the venue will be able to handle the activity of a large group.  

Internet requirements should be a priority in your RFPs. Asking venues to provide detailed information on bandwidth, infrastructure and support in venue bids is a smart move. It is also important to compile attendees' usage stats post-event, to help specify your group's minimum requirements for next time. 

Here are four questions planners should ask:

1. Is your Internet infrastructure managed internally by staff on-site, or outsourced and managed remotely? The former is better for close event support.

2. Has your WiFi hardware (and access points) been updated within the past two years?

3. Will you be able to provide usage reports for our event?

4. Does the venue have IT support as well as A/V support for clients?

Meeting with an IT technician is by far the best way to fully understand the capabilities and restrictions of the venue's system.

At some point, I hope the industry will find a way to present venues' Internet infrastructure in a way that meeting planners can understand and evaluate - maybe even a rating system. In the meantime, IACC has a free broadband estimator to give basic information on required speeds, which certainly is a good start.

When last M&C visited the complete meeting package or CMP in 2014, it seemed the concept of bundling all of a meeting's costs into the room rate was in danger, as its proponents, conference-center members of IACC (formerly the International Association of Conference Centres), sought ways to be more flexible for their clients. "We actually sell a modified meeting package now," Doug Crawford, director of sales at Dolce's Aspen Meadows (Colo.), said at the time. "For us, planners buying the pure CMP are few and far between."

Taking the temperature of the CMP now, it appears that the early reports of the death of package pricing were premature.

"Absolutely, the CMP is still alive and kicking, and we believe it offers meeting planners a way to purchase venue space and associated services in an efficient and cost-effective way," says Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC. "But we are also seeing more flexibility in what elements are being included as meetings are personalized further. For instance, we are seeing team-building sometimes built in, as well as experiential food-and-beverage elements. Think of buying your standard car model and then adding all the unique extras on top."

Historically speaking
Since IACC's inception in 1981, member venues have relied on the CMP (not to be confused with the certified meeting professional designation) in order to provide their clients with one-stop-shopping, offering room rates often hovering around $250 per might that provide much more than a sleeping room. The CMP typically covers guest rooms, meeting rooms, three meals a day, basic technology and continuous snack breaks. 

IACC centers, ideal for groups of up to 200 people, must adhere to a set of official Quality Standards (find the standards here), which specify characteristics of venue design, priority of business (generally these centers' group-to-leisure ratio is 70-30 or higher), conference and business services, technology, guest rooms, day centers without guest rooms, staffing, CSR and sustainability, and general conduct. 

The CMP directive is under "priority of business," charging IACC members to offer "flexible, all-inclusive meeting packages - both residential and day-meeting packages can be modified to suit a customer's specific requirements as necessary."

Still, some member venues, such as Destination Hotels' Rizzo Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., are reluctant to use the word flexible. "We are totally still using the CMP - and the clients here still love it. It's easy to budget and know what you are getting," notes Nancy Lindemer, director of sales and marketing at the property, which offers 183 rooms and 30,000 square feet of meeting space. "Negotiations are the same - it's pretty easy when the client knows their budget scoop - and we then know what we can to or can't do to align their needs/budget and our pricing."

The only real changes still come in the F&B area. "On occasion, dinner is left out so they can experience Chapel Hill and all the fun of a college town," Lindemer says. "We usually see people upgrading and customizing dinner events for their group for a special evening and to take advantage of all of our outdoor space to get their people outside. Or they add in cocktails, or boxed lunches or working lunches for when their agenda is jammed for the day and there is no time for a break."

Sticking to the basics is also the way of the conference-center world at the Bolger Center in Potomac, Md. "The first time we ever propose pricing will always be in a CMP format," says Bhavna Venugopal, director of sales for the Aramark-managed property, whose CMP rate ranges from $219 to $269, depending on the season. "I never encourage a CMP to be broken up, revealing the contents to a client."

The 14 IACC properties in Benchmark Hospitality's portfolio use the CMP to start the rate conversation. "The Benchmark Conference Plan remains a critical pillar of Benchmark's brand and promise to deliver exceptional meeting experiences, while allowing for customization to meet their specific needs," says Alex Cabanas, president of both the hospitality company and IACC's board of directors.

Technological matters
As in every other sphere of activity, technology as it applies to meetings has undergone explosive change. While it took years for LCD projectors to become a regular inclusion in the CMP list, now, with meetings requiring robust Internet bandwidth, multipoint microphones and a sturdy technological infrastructure, that standard is in flux. 

The current IACC Quality Standards require that the CMP include "basic presentation equipment such as digital projectors and devices used for computer/video image display," but WiFi, every traveler's greatest need, is not addressed specifically beyond the requirement that high-speed Internet access be available. Still, the facilities know what they need to provide; at the Rizzo Center, for example, WiFi is complimentary throughout the campus.

"Free WiFi is huge," says Venugopal of the Bolger Center. "I can't tell you how important that is and how much of a make-or-break item it is - especially for a conference center, where you are not catering to much of a leisure crowd. This is so critical for conferences."