One potent offshoot of the exponentially swelling internet is choice. Choice in hotels, choice in dining, choice in meeting venues. In this buyers' market, customers demand nothing but the best in everything they purchase. Hotels are no longer the only entrants in the octagon for conference revenues, but the cage has been opened to restaurants, universities, museums, churches and unused office space.
What's more, the very essence of business meetings and conferences is itself in a volatile state. Laptops, video chats, webinars, smartphones - people can work from everywhere nowadays, and they are. Many don't even have an office away from home to call their own.
This is nothing new and reassuringly, at least in the near foreseeable future, nothing will replace quality face-to-face time. It's still the best means for effective teamwork. However, the combination of technological requirements and increasing choice has changed consumer expectations, particularly when discussing the physical attributes of the meeting space.
The key buzz term is flexibility: to conduct business, spaces can't adhere to fixed schedules or rigid design allocations. To meet modern day work criteria, meeting venues must be both large and small, with looser structures and separated comfortable spaces for private work. I find this to a fascinating trend in the hospitality industry and have followed it intently. For background, read through such reports as the Maritz Research White Paper on this topic published in May 2012.
As well, people now recognize that psychological principles of design play a substantial role towards the overall quality of conducted business. Consumers are shrewd, informed and know what to look for in a venue that fulfills their individual requirements - space that at one end will enhance concentration and at the other facilitate quality interactions.
This shift may not necessitate a full-blown renovation, but here are ten relatively frugal investments to consider, starting with the abovementioned hi-tech upgrades.
I would call this one ‘The Neverending Story', but that's trademarked. Many hoteliers continue to pretend that guests are okay with paying for internet connectivity. Meanwhile, every consumer, especially those on business, understands the need for it to be free. Businesspeople are especially crusty in that they demand a strong signal in all rooms with an easy login and enough bandwidth for manifold devices. Remember that meetings are mostly face-to-face, but face-to-screen is still common. One nifty solution to consider is to offer free connectivity once guests sign up for your loyalty program. Still charging for slow internet? Get with the times.
2. Cellular Reception.
Can you hear me now? "No!" is never good. People shouldn't have to hike a hundred yards when matters are urgent. As a former civil engineer, I can say with confidence that gutting concrete support beams for this purpose isn't advisable. If you find your venue armored like a fallout shelter, consider installing a repeater or two. And as for the ‘No Reception Sharpens Focus' naysayers, there's a solution for that, too - the off button.
3. Tablet Friendly.
They are here to stay. You'd best be welcoming. Offer stands, styluses and attachable keyboards on loan for your business guests. With laptops, mobiles and now tablets chewing at the grid, you better review your power supply and bandwidth capacity. So, does each room have enough plugs? Are they conveniently located for wires to reach them? Quite a few portal systems collapse under the weight of multiple devices accessing the web via the same IP. As these tertiary machines proliferate, be ready to not only offset the internet drain, but also offer a trouble-free connectivity route so you don't frustrate business guests.
Many places rightfully advertise that they have a 24-hour, highly trained techie on call to address all problems and dispel any concerns. This is always a good thing and I'd suggest following their lead. Make sure your technicians are able to respond hastily and that your business guests know how to reach them. Next, ensure that they have adequate supplies at the ready in case anything breaks or if they have to provide extras (like an additional power bar to accommodate more electronics). Above all though, with the heightened pace of technology, your technicians must continually refresh their knowledge and skills.
We run on our stomachs. Give us the right foods and we'll run faster. Give us the right foods at the right times and we'll sprint. The concept of food for meetings has evolved twofold. First, the rigid structure of snacks during break time is gone. Work towards a continuous break system - food on demand for whenever guests get peckish. Second, healthy, clean cuisine improves brainpower. Now that the science corroborating this statement is mainstream, more planners specifically seek locations catering to this health-minded audience, and in turn, more people specifically request such venues.
This one's a push-pull...but not in a literal sense of the term. Natural light can be inspirational and help stave off those dreary, mid-afternoon lulls. On the other hand, sun glare obscures the weak glow exuded by computer monitors and projectors. A simple problem necessitates a simple solution - curtains or blinds, and make sure they're clean of dust.
7. Table Orientation.
The shape of the table can determine the level of interaction and the dynamic of the room. A long, rectangular form creates an intrinsic imbalance amongst seated delegates and can hinder open discourse, whereas at a circular table, everyone is equal and in plain sight of one another. Furthermore, with the dirge of devices one brings to a meeting these days on top of folders and handouts, one needs a lot of space to spread out. If the center board can't be expanded, consider a few well-positioned side desks for extra countertops.
Another push-pull. You want them to be ergonomic and comfortable, but not too comfy (read: midday nap). Match your chair type to the room's purpose. If it's a boardroom, stock armed, upright and leather-backed chairs. If it's a lounge, consider a softer, more cushioned fabric, or even a few sofas or divans. Also, a big pet peeve of mine is when the chairs are too wide, impinging the crucial gap between seats - doubly important for swivel chairs.
9. Flexible Space.
The grand speeches in large auditoriums with uninterrupted sightlines are always inspirational, but for the most part, the modern meeting hinges on technology-intensive skunkworks - highly collaborative projects with small, dedicated teams of three to eight people. Aside from breakout sessions and pre-fitted hotel rooms, consider caching apparatuses that can divide ballrooms or expansive halls to create smaller, interactive pop-up workspaces.
Much like the experience emanating from your lobby, rooms, spa or restaurants, your conference space needs to be memorable. However, don't misinterpret this word. ‘Memorable' does not mean gaudy or distracting. The primary focus is, and will always be, the meeting. Contrarily, that doesn't mean the décor has to be sterile. Make it pleasing to the eye and fresh enough to engage delegates while they are in between sessions. Given that your location is static, this is one overarching attribute that's fully in your control. Consider a theme that's culturally relevant to enhance your décor as a distinguishing feature.
As you tell, the recurring theme through these ten pointers is a shift towards more informal, hybrid meeting spaces. The market for venues is fragmenting with greater expectations for ad hoc configurations. Addressing the increasing demand for ‘smart rooms' means outfitting rooms with built-in technical features and accommodating the ever-expanding technological needs.
Along these lines, you should strategize about what niche best suits your existing space (after you upgrade, of course). The tactics behind whatever plan you follow must also involve new forms of channel distribution. For instance, an up and coming website like www.eVenues.com, which helps consumers find spaces exactly to their specifications, is one such new age medium. Lastly, look to the majors like Sheraton, Marriott and Hilton and some of their latest programs; all are leaders in coalescing work and fun into their hybrid workspaces as a means to stay with the times and steer the future.
(Article published in eHotelier on September 19, 2012)