Feeling Expansive

With new openings and facilities in the works, conference centers are on the rise

The World Trade Institute

Wall Street workroom: Benchmark Hospitality's new World Trade Institute

Call it a quiet success story. While the hospitality industry has mostly hunkered down to survive this long period of travel-economy doldrums, small growth has come in the conference center segment. According to a report compiled for the International Association of Conference Centers by David Arnold and Dana Ramus of the Philadelphia-based office of PKF Consulting, these specialty meeting properties lately have been generating higher revenues and operating income than hotels, both per available room and per occupied room.
   Meanwhile, a number of new IACC-certified centers opened in 2003, with more on the way for this year and the next. And as economic woes ease, so might funding portals, allowing long-discussed projects finally to go forth.
   Member properties of the St. Louis-based IACC (www.iacconline.com) must comply with a long list of requirements, called the Universal Criteria, to be certified. These rules include strict specifications for conference-room chairs, continuous breaks set outside meeting rooms and the minimum amount of dining seats required to meet the capacity of a facility for lunch in two seatings.
   These criteria took on more potency in January, when the organization’s board moved to abolish the Universal Criteria’s grandfather clause, which exempted current members from new criteria that were put in place after they were accepted for membership.
   “Now, all members must undergo an independent inspection every four years, and they must comply with the Universal Criteria that are in effect at the time of the inspections,” says Tom Bolman, CAE, executive vice president of IACC. The inspections are being carried out by Fairfax, Va.-based Bare and Associates. One quarter of IACC members will be looked at this year; over the next four years, every property will be checked for compliance.
   Following is a roundup of new centers available now or soon to meeting planners worldwide.

Ancillary Centers: “We’re Worthy”
Geoff Lawson

Geoff Lawson

The fastest-growing segment of the International Association of Conference Centers’ membership is the ancillary center, an IACC-approved meeting facility without sleeping rooms that is attached to a noncertified hotel or other venue.

Some members think ancillary centers dilute the IACC product and confuse the public; not so, says Geoff Lawson, current president of IACC North America and regional area director for conference center owners Dolce International. “These centers strengthen and reinforce the conference center concept,” he says. “There are criteria they need to meet, and they are branded under the IACC logo, adjacent to the accommodations. When you’re in an IACC center, you know it.”

Two ancillary centers were welcomed into IACC in January. The 7,250-square-foot Ortiz Executive Conference Center (361-879-0125; www.portofcorpuschristi.com/OrtizCenter.html) is at the Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz International Center in Corpus Christi, Texas. The 19,500-square-foot Conference Center Niagara Falls (www.niagarafalls-cc.com) opens in mid-May in Niagara Falls, N.Y., as part of a 116,000-square-foot convention facility. - S.B.

2003
The Washington Mutual Leadership Center at Cedarbrook (206-901-9268; www.cedarbrookcenter.com) in SeaTac, Wash., began welcoming guests in January 2003. Seattle-based Columbia Hospitality manages the 110-room property, which is used primarily by Washington Mutual for its employee-learning events, but on days the center is free, including most weekends, it is open to outside groups. The center, which sits on 18 wooded acres, offers 30,000 square feet of meeting space and is five minutes from Sea-Tac International Airport.
   Gaithersburg, Md.-based Sodexho Conferencing opened the 123-room Conference Center at NorthPointe (866-233-9393; www.conferencecenteratnorthpointe.com) in Columbus, Ohio, in March 2003. The meeting facilities are set in a villagelike atmosphere with cobblestone streets and have a total of 20,000 square feet of meeting space, including a 6,000-square-foot ballroom.
   Benchmark Hospitality, based in The Woodlands, Texas, opened two day centers meeting facilities that have no sleeping rooms last year, one in New York City and one in Tokyo. The World Trade Institute Conference Center (212-346-1195; www.benchmarkhospitality.com) debuted in New York City’s financial district last September. The center has 28 meeting rooms for a total of 20,000 square feet of space, including a 2,000-square-foot multifunction room.
   The Tokyo Conference Center Shinagawa (011-81-3-3556-0023; www.benchmarkhospitality.com), in the southeastern section of the city, began hosting meetings in July 2003. The facility offers a total of 18,632 square feet of meeting space in 10 rooms.

The Estancia La Jolla

Breakfast in bed: The Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa sits on a former horse farm.

2004
Due to open June 1 is the Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa (858-550-1000; www.estancialajolla.com), a Destination Hotels & Resorts property in La Jolla, Calif. Formerly a horse farm, the 210-room Estancia will sit on 9.5 acres of land. Its conference facilities, called the Learning Retreat, will total 25,000 square feet of space, including a 6,000-square-foot ballroom and a 125-seat amphitheater. Through the windows, attendees will gaze on open-air loggias, courtyards and gardens. The property will be across the street from the University of California San Diego’s Eleanor Roosevelt College and next to the Salk Institute.
   Opening in July is Columbia Hospitality’s Bremerton Harborside Kitsap Conference Center (360-377-3785; www.kitsapconferencecenter.com) in Bremerton, Wash. Set on Puget Sound and about a 45-minute ferry ride from Seattle, the center will include a 110-room Hampton Inn and a marina. The conference facility will offer 10,000 square feet of meeting space, including the 6,000-square-foot Puget Sound Ballroom.
   Marriott International will unveil a conference center in its backyard on Nov. 1: the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center (301-984-0004; www.conferencecenters.com). Steps from a Washington, D.C., Metro station, the property will have 223 guest rooms and include a concierge level. The meeting space will total 35,537 square feet in 21 rooms, including a 23,303-square-foot ballroom.
   Taking an overseas detour, Montvale, N.J.-based Dolce International is scheduled to begin operations at the Dolce Sitges (011-34-811-33-94; sitges.dolce.com) in Sitges, Spain, in October. Featuring dramatic views of the Mediterranean Sea, the 260-room property offers golf, four pools and a spa. Meetings will be held in the 23,411-square-foot Conference Centre’s 34 rooms.

Now Open to the Public
Mike Fahner

Mike Fahner

Over the past several years, many corporations that have built conference centers for their workforces have found the facilities expensive to run and turned to outside management companies to handle the properties and market them to outside groups.

For instance, ARAMARK once managed the Xerox Document University in Lansdowne, Va. “We put in a business model to create an organization to sell the excess to the outside,” says Mike Fahner, vice president of sales and marketing for what is now Philadelphia-based ARAMARK Harrison Lodging. “That model has been copied with varying levels of success and today is kind of the norm. There are very few corporate centers we own that don’t do this mixed model any more.”

Fahner notes, however, that many corporations, colleges and universities are selling their conference centers altogether, getting out of the facility business while remaining the centers’ main customer. In fact, the 950-room Xerox property is now the National Conference Center (703-729-8000; www.aramarkharrisonlodging.com), but Fahner says Xerox still books 40,000 room nights a year there.

Accepted into IACC as an ancillary center in January was McDonald’s Corp.’s Hamburger University in Oak Brook, Ill., which is now marketed to outside groups by Hyatt Hotels Corp. The 218-room Hyatt Lodge (630-990-2523; www.thelodge.hyatt.com) next door handles bookings for the center. - S.B.

2005
In New Brunswick, N.J., the Heldrich Hotel and Conference Center (www.benchmarkhospitality.com) is scheduled to begin welcoming groups in spring 2005. Built by Benchmark Hospitality, the property will have 248 guest rooms and 50,000 square feet of meeting space in five large conference rooms and 10 breakout rooms.
   Also coming in spring 2005 is a full-blown resort in Utah with an IACC-approved conference center. Built by Dolce International, the Zermatt Resort & Spa (866-937-6288; www.zermattresort.com) in Midway, Utah, will have 250 rooms. Indoor and outdoor meeting and event space will total 64,000 square feet. Minutes away are the Wasatch Mountain ski destinations of Deer Valley and Park City.
   In the Mission Bay area of San Francisco, now undergoing various urban-renewal projects, Philadelphia-based ARAMARK Harrison Lodging is building the Mission Bay Conference Center (www.aramarkharrisonlodging.com), to open sometime in 2005. The day center, which will be owned by the University of CaliforniaSan Francisco, will offer eight meeting rooms and 15,000 square feet of meeting space.
   Reports from New York City-based Sentry Hospitality show the River Winds Golf and Conference Resort (www.sentryhospitality.com) in West Deptford, N.J., is still a go, with an opening scheduled for the end of 2005. A golf course and a $30 million sports center already are up and running. The resort will have 272 guest rooms, 40,000 square feet of meeting space plus an 11,000-square-foot ballroom, a spa and a 150-slip marina on the Delaware River.