In terms of technology, the country’s leading conference centers are focused on two areas that don’t seem glamorous or edgy but are of utmost importance to meeting planners.
In the past several years, members of the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) have focused on improving bandwidth — the speed with which a computer network can transmit data from one point to another — and on improving their wireless Internet access. Conference centers accredited by IACC meet stringent criteria set by the organization to ensure they are equipped with the tools and facilities needed for productive meetings.
At the National Conference Center in Leesburg, Va., efforts to expand bandwidth are partly driven by the size of the facility. The National Center is the largest facility accredited by IACC, with 250 meeting rooms in 265,000 square feet of meeting space.
Bandwidth brings business
The National Center’s connectivity does help attract clients, proof that bandwidth is a feature meeting planners are concerned about.
“We have more than 900 guest rooms, and we can have a lot of people online at the same time,” said Eric Whitson, the center’s director of sales and marketing and chair of the IACC Marketing Committee.
“We have won business because of it, when one of our competitors didn’t have enough capacity and it created a problem for a client in connecting back to their home office,” said Whitson.
Conference centers that are much smaller than the National Center are also concerned about bandwidth. In terms of size, Chaminade Resort and Spa in Santa Cruz, Calif., with its 12 meeting rooms, is more typical of IACC facilities, yet, like the National Center, it has also expanded its bandwidth to meet client needs.
“Our bandwidth now is 40 megabits per second,” said Gunnar Amudson, the center’s IT manager.
The upgrade allows the center to easily serve one of its largest groups, an accounting firm that brings in 200 people who all access their computers at once in separate breakout rooms.
Complex data drives need
Increasingly complex data, like video, is driving the need for more bandwidth. Even the newest and most technologically up-to-speed conference facilities are making improvements, among them the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which opened two years ago. “That is one thing you have to keep looking at and that is always evolving,” said Keith Purcell, director of sales and marketing.
Compared to other, older facilities in the IACC membership, the AT&T Center has the advantage of being built in a way that makes expanding bandwidth easy. The facility also is tied to one of the nation’s top universities and its computer system.
“The infrastructure was built to handle bandwidth expansion,” said Purcell. “We can put on as much bandwidth as we need, and we are connected to UT’s backbone.”
Demands on the AT&T center might be a little greater than on some of its conference center peers, given its location in Austin, a hotbed for high-tech firms.
The center has already surprised at least one meeting client who warned that the center might need to boost its bandwidth for the group’s meeting. “I told them I bet we could handle it,” said Purcell. He was proved right.
Bandwidth use on the decline
Erin Peschel is the director of sales and marketing for the Conference Center at Northpointe near Columbus, Ohio, and director of sales and national marketing Sodexo Conferencing. She is also a committee chair of the IACC Technology Committee and a member of its Emerging Trends Committee.
Peschel said that the need to expand bandwidth may be diminishing, a result of the prolific use of smartphones.
“We are seeing the usage decline,” she said. “Everyone wants it, but actually bandwidth usage has declined because of smartphones.”
Wireless access also remains a focus at many conference facilities.
“Internet access is absolutely important and a top priority,” said Peschel. “You expect it and you expect it will be free.”
Chaminade has upgraded its wireless system so that there is better range at each access point, according to Amudson. Its 156 guest rooms have wireless Internet.
At the National Center, the focus has been on expanding wireless in public areas. Guest rooms are hard-wired; the debate is ongoing as to whether groups want wireless access in their meeting rooms, said Whitson.
“The expectation is for more and more hot spots in public spaces,” said Whitson.
Although much of the emphasis is on bandwidth and wireless, IACC conference centers are investing in other technology, with a focus on what works for clients.
For some, the basics still cover most of the bases. For example, the National Center’s main business is “training events for 25 to 50 people, so we use a lot of data projectors and flip charts,” said Whitson.
And, when the center does decide to invest in new equipment, it does so with care, because the size of the facility makes buying new equipment a huge investment.
“It is a big-ticket item, so we have to be smart about it,” said Whitson.
Equipment basics like video projectors continue to be upgraded. At Chaminade, audio-visual manager Mike Gonzales is evaluating a video projector that will accept a wireless signal, which would allow the speaker to operate the projector from anywhere in the room.
That can be accomplished by using a long cable, but the move to wireless would make it less cumbersome.
But because few models on the market now, Gonzales is recommending that the center wait another 18 months so bugs are worked out of the systems.
“We don’t want it to be more of a problem than a solution,” he said.
That seems to be a common philosophy when it comes to new technology. Technology has to support the meeting’s needs without stressing out the user.
Client comfort is considered
“It boils down to the client’s level of comfort with the equipment,” Gonzales said. “What we are always looking at with a piece of new equipment is ‘how easy is this to operate?’”
He points to the ubiquitous flip chart, a low-tech staple at meetings, as an example of a tool that works.
“Our biggest seller is a flip chart,” said Gonzales. “It is a piece of equipment that is proven, that people know how to use.”