Regional Conference Centers
For planners seeking host locations that are fully committed to the success of their meetings, seminars, symposia, conferences, presentations and more, selecting venues with dedicated conference facilities is important. These locations offer environments that are conducive to learning and provide attendees with all the tools they need to get down to business.
But what is it that makes up an ideal learning environment for meetings?
The National Conference Center in Leesburg, VA, an award-winning conference center and one of the nation’s largest training facilities on the East Coast, offers five key factors to consider when searching for the ideal venue for a learning program.
First, the center’s team suggests not to be taken in by things like the latest colors, furniture or lighting at a venue. While these can be fun and exciting, they often don’t play a significant role in the learning program. Instead, they say planners should look for a facility that offers “blank space” that can serve as a “canvas” to be flexible, moldable and customizable to satisfy a program’s dynamic needs.
Second, understand that while all venues have rules, being introduced to a litany of rules during a site visit could be an indicator that the venue may not be the right choice. Look for a venue that offers flexibility along with a “whatever it takes” mentality. Also, take note if the sales and planning team asks questions that relate to the success of the program, not just what is convenient for them.
Third, when it comes to experiential learning, or learning by doing, be sure the venue provides versatile spaces that can handle a variety of activities, from adventure team building on a challenge course to hands-on activities to role-playing scenarios.
Next, if a specific theme is chosen for a program, select a venue that’s eager to build on and reinforce the theme throughout the entire program, from refreshment breaks to inventive receptions and innovative lighting, audio, visual, décor, and even costumes that can be integrated.
Finally, they stress that food matters at every event. Many small venues have 5-star restaurants, while large conference centers often have a group dining food and beverage program. They say to look for a venue that works with local and regional purveyors and farmers to provide the best quality, freshest food available that was obtained via sustainable farming methods. This, together with a talented culinary team, will help provide a superb dining experience for any group - even a large-scale program.
One venue that offers not only great food and beverage as well as a dedicated meeting environment, but a truly unique history and backdrop to go along with an outstanding support staff is Normandy Farm Hotel and Conference Center in Blue Bell, PA.
According to Karen R. Mandel, the property’s senior business development manager, "Normandy Farm has a superior reputation for serving the finest farm-to-table menu in the region. Our culinary team meets with procurement on a daily basis to source local ingredients that are fresh and healthy, while supporting our local farm community. Special dietary menus have been designed to meet the needs of all alternative lifestyles, including: vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, nut allergy, and more."
When it comes to the support staff at Normandy Farm, Mandel asserts that saying they operate as a well-oiled machine would be an understatement. “Our tenured team of professionals are experienced in all facets of the hospitality and meetings industry, and we support our clients to ensure that their meetings are customized, maximized, and budget wise.”
“From the initial conversation with our expert sales executives, customers’ needs are met with specialists in each area of service,” she continues. “For example, special menu requests are addressed by our executive culinary staff. Check in at our hotel is flawlessly processed by our front desk staff, and hotel rooms are perfectly made up by our housekeeping team for maximum comfort and convenience. Our capable event planners detail all catered events to ensure that every customer’s special needs are addressed and that our banquet staff executes their plan as contracted.”
Mandel says that every department at Normandy Farm has a specific job, yet is keenly aware of how closely each is interconnected with the others. This overlap and understanding of how the departments support each other enables them to provide clients with a seamless transition from one event to the next that she says builds confidence and encourages repeat bookings. “Our job is to make sure that the planners just ‘expect’ perfection when they are here and have the confidence that we will deliver on that promise."
Normandy Farm Hotel and Conference Center recently invested nearly $4-million into upgrading the property, and a significant portion of that expense was put into renovating the conference center, which includes a significant increase in connectivity (to 1 Gigabit per second).
Another part of the renovation included all 113 of the property’s guest rooms in the main hotel being completely remodeled and refurnished with new bedding, furniture and other amenities. What’s more, all of the housekeeping services, such as laundry, are in-house, and all rooms are double inspected for both cleanliness and safety.
When it comes to setting the budget, Normandy Farm offers an extremely robust DMP (daily meeting package), explains Mandel, which includes a per person price for an entire day (or half-day) meeting.
“Gone are the days of ‘a la carte’ and in are the days of DMPs,” she proclaims. “Planners are always asked to submit a budget, meet a budget, or design a budget, and that can be very difficult if there are a lot of extraneous and unexpected charges during a meeting. Our DMPs allow planners to provide all of the necessary products and services to their attendees while keeping to a strict, predetermined cost per person."
Mandel shares that she recently spoke with a customer who chose to meet at Normandy Farm, in part, because of its ergonomic chairs. “She said that her previous venue was not IACC-certified (International Association of Conference Centers) and they had Chiavari chairs in their conference center, which are fancy bamboo-like chairs with thin pillow cushions. The lesson learned from her comments reinforced what we at Normandy Farm already knew - and that was the importance of making and keeping your guests comfortable in a meeting setting that usually includes hours of passive sitting.”
Though Normandy Farm exceeds the minimum requirements for IACC-certification, she says the property continues to push the envelope when it comes to maximizing their guests’ experience. “One of our newest additions includes the installation of a contemporary art gallery, which lines the walls of our conference center. We understand that attendees may get fatigued during a long day of meetings, and we decided to do something out-of-the-ordinary to help stimulate creativity."
"IACC is the platinum brand standard for meeting and conference centers and we find that our certification gives us a tremendous advantage over our competition,” explains Mandel. “The profile of planners has shifted in our market given that we appeal to smaller retreats and meetings, under 100, versus the larger meetings. That being said, many of the planners that we work with are administrative assistants or in-house support staff verses CMPs.”
These planners can be less familiar with IACC, she notes, so it gives Normandy Farm a great opportunity to build trust, rapport and unique points of differentiation while educating them about IACC. “Our more savvy and experienced planners associate the IACC credentials with meeting innovation, culinary excellence, and room design to provide trend-forward, productive meetings."
In trending forward, IACC started its “Predict. Create. Shape. IACC Meeting Room of The FutureTM” initiative three years ago, through which the association shares its vision as to what future meeting rooms may look like.
Excerpted here from iacconline.org, this annual report brings together research, trends and innovations with the single goal of predicting, creating and shaping the future of meeting environments. It includes insights from over 50 venues across four continents, as well as suppliers such as global meeting space designers, architects, technology companies, furniture manufacturers and nutrition experts.
“As the industry evolves and expands, just as meeting planners must continually evaluate all elements of the meeting experience, operators and suppliers must also ensure they are meeting and anticipating the changing needs of planners,” explains IACC CEO, Mark Cooper. “The survey was designed to highlight these growing needs; we looked specifically at experience creation, meeting room space and design, technology and internet capabilities as well as culinary trends.”
Among the highlights of the 2018 report findings are: high quality Internet will be the most important meeting element in the coming years; experience creation is expected to become more important; flexible meeting spaces are growing in popularity; easy screen-sharing between devices is becoming more important for collaboration in meetings; and continuous refreshment service, instead of timed breaks, are becoming more common.
(The full report is available online at: iacconline.org/iacc-meeting-room-of-the-future)
A very unique property situated in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania that has continued to keep an eye toward the future as well as a major focus on meetings is Kalahari Resorts & Conventions.
According to Michael Levine, director of sales for the resort, “At Kalahari, our convention center staff plays a crucial role in the success of every event. From site selection through planning, flawless execution and billing, we know what’s important to event planners.”
“Our sales and catering managers have a combined 400 years of experience and an average tenure of over 8 years as part of the Kalahari Resorts & Conventions team,” he continues. “Which means you can count on us to deliver on every promise to create a beyond expectations experience.”
Levine further notes that Kalahari has hosted more than 22,000 groups for meetings, conventions, trade shows, sports competitions, retreats, religious and youth events and more. Offering a wide range of amenities and services along with ample and varied function spaces adds up to an amazing meeting experience for groups who choose to meet at Kalahari Resorts & Conventions.
“Meeting planners are looking for facilities that offer the best of what’s available in technology and connectivity,” explains Levine, “it’s really essential for today’s meetings and conventions. On-site support and space flexibility are important for a successful event.”
He says that Kalahari offers: complimentary high-speed Wi-Fi in all guest rooms, meeting spaces, exhibition areas and common areas; extensive free parking and available valet services; Internet bandwidth speeds up to 1 Gb/s throughout the resort with capacity to increase to 10 Gb/s; proprietary HELP phone providing exceptional service throughout meeting and convention space; state-of-the-art lighting and AV controls; dedicated convention center loading dock and large grade level access to the main exhibit facility; a full-service business center; pre-function spaces; numerous built in hi-lumen/hi-definition projectors and monitors; along with 10-hour ergonomic convention chairs.
“Opening late 2019, we’re adding 105,000-square feet of meeting and convention space for a grand total of 205,000-square feet,” explains Levine. “We’re also adding 18 new meeting rooms, for a total of 33. All this, plus first-class service and event support, 977 guest rooms, premium dining, flexible, customizable meeting spaces, spa treatments, America’s best and largest in family-friendly entertainment and more - all under one roof.”
When it comes to budget, Levine notes that transparency in pricing is a must. He says that professional meeting planners usually come in with a budget in mind and Kalahari works closely with them to customize an event that meets their goals and stays within their budgets. “We also work with first time planners. We ensure they understand the pricing structure so there are no surprises in the billing.”
Kalahari Resorts & Conventions in the Pocono Mountains is able to offer room styles to accommodate anyone, from single guests to a party of 22. Its guest rooms are available in standard rooms, Kids Bunk Rooms, and 1, 2, 3, and 5-bedroom suites, including Whirlpool, Honeymoon, and Penthouse Suites. And all registered guests get free waterpark admission included with overnight stay.
What’s more, the resort has three full-service restaurants, as well as various other dining outlets. The full-service restaurants include: Double Cut Charcoal Grill, Kalahari’s signature steakhouse experience; Sortino’s Italian Kitchen, a new-aged, red-sauced restaurant where old-school Italian cuisine meets the modern age; and B-Lux Grill & Bar, a new restaurant with unique burgers and shakes handcrafted from scratch.
Additional options include the “grab and go” Marrakesh Market, the Great Karoo buffet with action stations, Ivory Coast for a relaxed dining experience, and The Last Bite, which specializes in indulgent offerings like hand-dipped chocolate, caramel apples, homemade fudge, ice cream and more.
Among those meeting at Kalahari, Levine says that corporate, social and environmental responsibility have become increasingly important to conference planners. He adds that Kalahari believes in these things as well, and is happy to incorporate them into the overall program and attendee experience.
“Kalahari Resorts and Convention Centers strives to reduce our carbon footprint and leads the hotel industry in energy conservation, cutting-edge initiatives and community outreach,” he notes. “There are a variety of ongoing programs at the resort to support these initiatives, like water conservation: each guest room features low-flow showerheads, reducing water consumption by 2.5 million gallons per year; an ozone laundry system that allows for colder water wash; high-efficiency water consumption pumps in the park for extended life cycle; and low-flow dishwasher spray heads for energy efficient cleaning.”
When it comes to recycling, he says that Kalahari has partnered with the Clean The World organization, the largest global recycler of hotel amenities, to collect and recycle resort soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lotions and gels. To date, Kalahari Resorts has diverted 31,000-pounds of soap and bottled amenities from landfills, and the soap that Kalahari has donated to Clean The World has directly resulted in more than 86,000 remanufactured sterile soap bars distributed to people in need around the world.
“When you choose Kalahari Resorts and Conventions, your meeting or event becomes a destination vacation for the whole family, with the best in entertainment and dining all under one roof,” says Levine. “In addition to our outstanding convention facilities, Kalahari Resorts and Conventions in the Poconos also is home to America’s Largest Indoor Waterpark, Gorilla Grove Treetop Adventures, The Arena, a virtual reality attraction, a world-class spa and hydro-oasis, multiple premium restaurant experiences and more.”
“Kalahari Resorts combines a state-of-the-art convention space with all of the amenities needed for a successful meeting, along with the best in family-friendly resort amenities,” he continues. “This combination leads to an average 20 percent increase in meeting attendance.”
Providing planners with the proper setting and tools necessary for their group’s conference is critical. Venues that offer focused, dedicated learning environments can go a long way toward helping planners to meet their conference goals and objectives.
Offering the right space combined with the technology, features and amenities adds to the overall appeal of the property, putting it at the top of mind for planners in search of an ideal meeting environment for their groups.