By Martha C. White Posted July 18, 2012, 2:27 PM EDT
No boring ballrooms: From beanbag chairs to balconies, meeting space is getting reimagined.
Today’s meeting hosts need some space. But not just any space: They want it eco-friendly and well-lit, with cozy seating and top-notch technology at their fingertips. Planners are demanding rooms and layouts that cultivate creativity and connections so they can get measurable results on their expenditures. They want space that’s user-friendly, inspiring, and, above all, not boring—and facilities are delivering. Here are the top meeting venue innovations of 2012:
If meeting space fools you into thinking you could be in a well-decorated home, hotels are doing something right. Instead of sterile and corporate looks, venues are configuring and furnishing meeting space to be relaxing and homey. One central element of this more residential look is cozy furniture. “It’s a more comfortable atmosphere to relax and take in information,” says Peggy Roe, vice president of global operations services for Marriott Hotels & Resorts. Venues can’t add couches and easy chairs fast enough. Some are going extra-casual with ottomans and even beanbag chairs. (Can recliners be far behind?) “We really looked at making sure there was an addition of soft seating,” says Erin Wade, director of catering sales for Starwood’s New York hotels. “Some of our groups don’t want a formal boardroom. They want it to be more interactive and laid back.” “They don’t want the boring meeting room. They want a hipper design,” says Lana Trevisan, corporate director of food and beverage for Gansevoort Hotel Group. “I’ve seen a huge switch in that.” At the Gansevoort Park, Trevisan says the Blue Room is popular with meeting planners who like its white leather banquettes and anti-boardroom look.
2. Niches for Networking
Venues are developing pre-function space that includes small areas for two or three attendees to gather during breaks. Building on the belief that collaboration fosters creativity, hotels are responding to organizers’ need for space that facilitates this. At a recent management conference for its own executives, Marriott International partnered with furniture company Steelcase to create a variety of prototypes in this vein. One had a long, high table with tall stools and plug-in recharging docks for devices where as many as 10 participants could gather. Tying into the residential theme, other seating was heavy on couches, easy chairs, and beanbags that were modified to offer back support. These seats were grouped in clusters surrounding low tables. Another prototype: a modernized phone booth where attendees could make cell phone calls in relative quiet and privacy. “One thing is people often look for individual spaces to do conference calls on breaks,” Roe says.
3. New Technical Equipment
“More hotels are outsourcing A.V., which does have an effect for the buyer because there’s better quality,” says Bjorn Hanson, dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management at New York University. “The number of pixels, it’s the brightness of lights on projectors, the ability to tie sound into what’s on the screen.” All of these elements combine to create a richer experience for presentations as well as videoconferences. Starwood’s Wade says the company worked with tech providers Cisco and Tata Communications to develop what it calls TelePresence suites at 16 of its properties, which allow for a videoconference in a boardroom setting with high-definition video. “As North American companies expand globally, it cuts down on having to send people overseas,” she says.
4. More Control of Lighting
We’re already using iPads for everything else under the sun, so it makes sense that venues are using them to let planners control the lighting and sound from within a meeting room. “We can run lighting, A.V., the entire building from our iPad,” says Kristin Kurie, president of the Wilderman Group, a company that manages a trio of municipally owned conference facilities in the Southeast. “A.V., room temperature, and lighting are controlled in-room by the user,” says Christopher Kelly, principal at urban conference center brand Sentry Centers. “At every opportunity, we try to make it user-friendly.” Giving a meeting planner the tools to change the room environment on their own helps with productivity. “I think a big part of what meeting planners are looking for is a little bit more inclusive packages, rooms that are equipped with monitors or projectors,” says Oliver Ferry, regional director of entertainment sales for Morgans Hotel Group. “We’re getting more requests for videoconferencing via Skype, for instance.” Some venues also are making use of new LED technology for decorative lighting. Starwood’s Wade says at one of the brand’s properties, LED light panels let planners to raise or dim lights, and even change its colors.
5. Natural Light
Venues are acknowledging that it can be soul-deadening to spend a full workday without knowing if it’s sunny or raining outside. “There’s a productivity factor from the natural light,” Kurie says. New properties and renovations are adding more windows in order to incorporate more daylight into ballrooms, breakout rooms, and break spaces.“ One of the key things we wanted to do is create meeting space that’s very interactive and engaging,” says Tristan Dowell, director of Hyatt Hotels & Resorts’ boutique Andaz brand. The function space in the Andaz 5th Avenue in New York has floor-to-ceiling windows. The greater incorporation of natural light also stems from the growing number of venues built or retrofitted to be LEED-compliant. Operators and sales managers say more planners want to hold events in environmentally friendly settings, and natural light is one of the few visible hallmarks of a green building. “Organizations are increasingly sensitive to corporate social responsibility, which is a trend that now informs what’s going on in meeting venues,” Kurie says.
6. New Names
Hotels are rechristening their meeting rooms to emphasize the flexibility of the space and get away from the dull connotations elicited by names like “Ballroom A.” Marriott Hotels & Resorts dubs its large ballrooms “great rooms,” while Hyatt Hotels & Resorts’ Andaz brand refers to meeting rooms as “studios.” The Starwood Hotels & Resorts brand W uses both terms. The nomenclature is intended to highlight the fact that these spaces fit the kind of nontraditional meeting formats organizers are using to a greater degree. “Designers are trying to find ways to appeal to social [events] as well as meetings,” says NYU’s Hanson. By emphasizing something about the room with a name that reflects something special about the space, that becomes a “premium room,” he says.
7. Urban Outdoor Space
Why should resort destinations have all the fun? Big-city hotels are adding patios, terraces, and other outdoor areas that groups can use as break areas during the day and as reception space in the evening. “The majority of our rooms have an outside space,” says Gansevoort’s Trevisan. “We’ve incorporated that a lot into our meeting spaces.” She says when meeting planners see the outdoor spaces, they realize it can be a great way to keep groups energized over the course of a long day. At the Andaz Wall Street in New York, an adjacent patio is popular for groups seeking space for a reception or coffee break that gets them out of the building and into the fresh air. “People want more of an engaging experience in the meeting space,” Dowell says. “Most new Ws have outdoor space,” Wade says. The W New York has two spacious terraces on the 17th floor off the presidential suite. “We’ve explored the option of tenting the terrace space because it is in such demand. We’re responding to those trends because we’re definitely hearing our customers ask about them.”
8. Open Kitchens
“Some of the best parties start and finish in the kitchen,” says Dowell. With that as the starting point, Andaz has built open, operational kitchens within the function space of several properties. “It becomes a part of your event,” he says, and engages attendees on a deeper level. At the Andaz 5th Avenue, two large open kitchens are situated in the center of the meeting space. The Andaz West Hollywood has a prep kitchen integrated within its function area, and a meeting space at the Andaz Liverpool Street in London has an open kitchen as well as a wine cellar. Watching the chefs at work encourages people to talk to them and ask questions and sparks conversation between attendees, as well. “We want to have that level of interaction in everything we do,” Dowell says.
9. Fewer Stages
As part of the push to make meeting space more multipurpose and flexible, venues have been eliminating fixed stages during renovations. “Stage are rare now,” NYU’s Hanson says. “They take up lots of space and they can’t be used for an event when there isn’t a need for a stage.” While this is probably good news for most event planners, those actually looking for space with a built-in stage may find the task more challenging.
10. Eco-Friendly Spaces
Although it’s long been a priority for certain socially and environmentally minded groups, the desire for green meeting space seems to have finally gone mainstream. More planners are seeking LEED-certified or eco-friendly venues. According to the 2012 American Express Meetings & Events Global Forecast, 73 percent of meeting planners have an increased interest in hosting greener meetings. “I think clients have an expectation that the buildings will be environmentally friendly,” says Kurie. LEED certification is the gold standard in terms of verifying a venue’s earth-friendliness, but retrofitting existing space can be challenging and expensive. As a result, companies have been searching for other ways to quantify and measure a venue’s environmental impact. Hilton Worldwide has a program called LightStay that analyzes the economic impact of 200 operational practices, from food waste to air quality. It also provides a “meeting impact calculator” that tells planners what the environmental impact of their event will be at a particular property. American Express Meetings & Events is working with Green Hotels Global on what the company calls an “environmental reporting program” that measures the environmental effects of meetings.