Where Are the New Centers?
Hotel development in general saw an uptick in 2013, but the pipeline for new IACC conference centers has been relatively empty. Some conversations are ongoing in the area of university centers and private facilities for corporations, both with built-in demand, but the market for larger conference resorts or urban facilities has been less active.
"There needs to be a demonstrable growth in corporate meetings," says Dave Arnold, CEO East for PKF Consulting USA. "Once existing centers show 65 percent occupancies, rates will rise and new development will begin." He says conference centers now average about 55 percent occupancy.
Alex Cabañas, president and CEO of Benchmark Hospitality, is more bullish on development. "Within the next 12 to 24 months, we could easily have three or four hotel conference centers under construction, two in university locations, one in a secondary market like the Midwest, possibly two more," he says. However, he adds, limited-service products are blurring the lines of what full-service means, and they're much easier to get financed.
Benchmark does have a 250-room center at Texas A&M in the works, with 25,000 square feet of meeting space, and is in talks with UCLA for a facility there. The company will break ground later this year on a 180-room Personal Luxury Hotel in Nagoya, Japan, with a 20,000-square-foot conference center.
In addition, Neil Pompan, president and CEO of Pompan Hospitality Global and former global president for the IACC, has been hired to help develop a new facility in Clarksburg, W.Va.
Meeting planners could find it a jolting experience the first time they encounter the room rate at a property that is a member of the International Association of Conference Centres. But after learning all about the complete meeting package (or CMP, not to be confused with the certified meeting professional designation) offered by IACC facilities, rates hovering around $275 per night fall into better focus, because planners get much more than a sleeping room for that price.
Offering packaged pricing for meetings is the hallmark of IACC centers, which are ideal for groups of up to 200 people and particularly for corporate meetings, where the host organization pays all the expenses and receives a predictable master bill that has been simplified by the CMP.
To remain members of IACC, properties must adhere to a set of official Quality Standards (find the standards at bit.ly/1ghutkV). Aside from requiring ergonomic chairs and airwalls of a certain thickness, number three on the list mandates that members offer a pricing plan that includes "conference rooms, guest rooms, three meals, continuous refreshment service, conference services and conference technology. For nonresidential centers (without guest rooms), the package includes conference rooms, lunch, continuous refreshment service, conference services and conference technology. In other words: one-stop shopping for planners.
"The CMP offering has continued to be the staple by which 90 percent of our meetings are booked," says Derek Grimaldi, general manager of the Ivey Spencer Leadership Centre in London, Ontario. "The ease of booking and no-surprise approach gives planners the knowledge and confidence to book their meetings and not worry about a constant stream of add-ons."
The CMP was codified for IACC facilities in 1981, when the organization was founded, and the Quality Standards were called the Universal Criteria. The essence of the package has hardly changed.
"There is a backbone to the CMP, and that premise still holds," says Mark Cooper, CEO of IACC. "The standard technology, though, has been the biggest moving part."
It took years for LCD projectors, for example, 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 packages don't vary so much in terms of the overall items," says Deborah K. Gaffney, director of conference planning at Washington, D.C.'s Tax Executives Institute, who uses IACC centers for five-day training meetings. "It's more about how extensive each item is, and A/V can really vary."
"We're seeing a lot of our members going from a five-year cycle of upgrading their technology offerings to a three-year cycle," notes Cooper, and it follows that the amount of Internet access, type of microphones and other tools will change accordingly.
Wi-Fi is another important gray area. At the Boston area's Babson Executive Conference Center, a 211-room university facility that also serves area corporations with its 22,500 square feet of meeting space, "Wi-Fi is completely free in the building," says regional director of sales and marketing Nancy Lindemer. "We don't even have a splash screen or a login. That's throughout the building, including the guest rooms. It's pretty much plug and play."
The basic technology package at the 18 conference-center properties in the Benchmark Hospitality group usually includes a podium, a microphone, a screen, an LCD projector, flip charts and Wi-Fi, says Hal Powell, regional vice president of sales and marketing, who nevertheless notes that meeting professionals will see different elements depending on the facility. Of course, planners can make sure their meeting rooms at any IACC facility are equipped to fit their needs; upgrades will be an add-on to the package price.
Dolce Hotels and Resorts has addressed some modern meeting needs in its CMP 3.0, a standard list of package components across its portfolio. Broken into "traditional" and "select," standard offerings (found at bit.ly/1lqoQ63
) include the ability for all guests to connect up to three devices at no extra charge -- a big bonus for attendees.
The three-meal rebellion
During the depth of the recent economic doldrums, it wasn't unusual for meeting planners to try to break apart the CMP, to negotiate down the elements, a practice that was fought hard by the conference centers. One main target of this activity was the requirement to have three meals a day at the facility. Planners pushed so hard against confining all dinners to the property that most IACC centers now offer a package price that allows for at least one night off-site.
"We actually sell a modified meeting package now," says Doug Crawford, director of sales at Dolce's Aspen Meadows in Colorado. "We've stopped selling dinner. For us, planners buying the pure CMP are few and far between."
The "select" version of Dolce's CMP 3.0 package lets planners pick two meals for each meeting day, allowing participants to get out on their own or the host to arrange a special event off-property, a bonus in destinations like Aspen where the restaurant selection is particularly enticing.
The traditional CMP package works great at Babson, however. "We have an interesting perspective because we're so insulated," says Lindemer of the university-based facility. "My dining room is a dining room; it's not a restaurant. Our clients want to keep their people together. They will occasionally go off-site for a dinner, but more often they're doing a special event with us."
Hal Powell says the groups at Benchmark's 18 IACC centers are encouraged to plan a combination of on- and off-property dining. "We want our guests to experience the best of the destination," he notes. "We also do a lot of outside catering at unique venues, for example at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga [near the 199-room Chattanoogan] or the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs [near the 316-room Cheyenne Mountain Resort]."
Pushing the package
At the Millennium Centre in Johnson City, Tenn., a Sodexo-managed conference center, general manager Ken Misterly, CMP, has noticed that planners are trying to sneak in some meeting time early, on the night of arrival. "I've seen several groups trying to start their complete meeting package prior to dinner with pre-meetings," says Misterly. "Typically, these include the leadership as a one-off before the larger group meetings begin."
Plus, Misterly says, planners are expecting to hold these quick powwows at no extra cost. "Most of the time we are comping the meetings, but we also let the customer know that because the event has value and because we value them, we will comp it." Misterly has established a strict criteria for such one-offs: If the extra meeting does not involve A/V, or it doesn't involve setting or resetting the room, he'll include it
at no cost.
Spreading the word about how conference centers price their packages remains a challenge for IACC.
"While those meeting planners who are familiar with the CMP concept continue to embrace the benefits, properties are still faced with the challenge of educating those who have never been exposed to it," says Derek Grimaldi of the Ivey Spencer Centre in Canada.
IACC's representatives spent much of last year explaining the CMP at all of the major meetings industry shows, manning booths at IMEX in Frankfurt and Las Vegas; EIBTM in Barcelona, Spain; AIBTM in Chicago, and even CIBTM in Beijing. This year, while continuing these efforts at the big shows, CEO Mark Cooper is taking the message regional, as well, visiting events such as a monthly gathering of Meeting Professionals International's New Jersey chapter in January. "We are educating meeting planners as much as we possibly can," he says.