When the event team at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., noticed attendees struggle with access to electrical outlets, it saw an opportunity. “We basically saw makeshift charging stations set up on tables lined with power strips,” says James Smith, assistant director of convention services. In response, the convention center added 10 interactive digital charging kiosks, each with power cords that connect to all types of mobile devices.
Increasingly, venues are responding to—and building for—such changing needs. “As our customers have gone digital, we have, too,” Smith says. In late 2012, the convention center partnered with SwiftMobile to design a free mobile app for convention attendees with floor plans, GPS-enabled maps of the area, and information on local transportation and flights. For a fee, planners can personalize the app with mobile advertising and sponsorship real estate.
While the rise in mobile technology opens new opportunities for efficiency, the trend also poses potential infrastructure issues. At the Hub, which operates three dedicated meeting facilities in Philadelphia, the widespread use of tablets and smartphones has caused client Wi-Fi bandwidth needs to skyrocket. To address this challenge, the Hub worked with Aerohive Networks, a proprietary mobile platform, to build a new network infrastructure. “It was a major undertaking, but now every square inch of every one of our spaces can accommodate any and all mobile devices at all times,” says Bill Decker, the Hub’s president and co-founder.
Aesthetically, the Hub engineers its facilities with a new generation of clientele in mind, a policy partly driven by proximity to several higher education institutions. “Organizations are making different choices. They want to attract young, tuned-in, switched-on people who want to be in an energetic and exciting environment,” Decker says. At the Hub, this means constructing spaces from unconventional materials, including Astroturf, reclaimed wood, and even a repurposed food truck.
Local market demographics have also influenced development at Impact Hub Oakland, a co-working and event space in California (not related to the Hub). Housed in a former car dealership, Impact Hub Oakland includes 30-foot ceilings, green technology, sustainable materials, solar energy, and eco-friendly design. “This is the Bay Area, and all of these things are important to planners,” says Ashara Ekundayo, Impact Hub Oakland’s co-founder and chief creative officer.
Some venues are learning from high-profile events that take place in their spaces. For instance, the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, home to the TED Conference for five years, invested $40 million to upgrade its facilities with the goal of creating an environment that supports collaboration, connection, and community. That includes the addition of a lighting, sound, and video system that is controlled by iPad; electronically operated floor-to-ceiling curtains; and revamped areas for better networking.
In San Francisco, the California Academy of Sciences has struggled to balance its public mission with its role as an event venue. “The most common request we get has to do with access,” says Anne Rianda, associate director of sales and facility rentals. Planners want early entry to the building to set up, and as the venue’s primary purpose is education and tourism, satisfying such a request can be tricky. “We have data that gives us an idea of how many visitors will be in the museum on any given day,” Rianda says. “This allows us to consider meeting the requests of the planners without negatively impacting the visitor experience of the museum guests.”
Cal Academy has also adapted its offerings in response to planners’ suggestions. Many premium options, such as behind-the-scenes docent-led tours and access to live animals, originated from customer requests. “We had a client that had a big party here and wanted a co-branded baseball cap,” Rianda says. The museum worked with its vendors to create the item, and now co-branded amenities are often part of meeting packages.
More meeting planners are looking for venues with a serious commitment to environmental sustainability. At the Listel Hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, the dining and catering departments participate in Canada’s Green Table Network and the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise seafood program, both of which ensure that the hotel uses local and sustainable food and wine in its operations. Beyond the kitchen, the hotel uses solar energy, features a state-of-the-art heat-capture program, and institutes water and air quality control initiatives. Since August 2011, it has operated under a “zero waste” program, meaning that nothing from the property ends up in landfills. All organic waste is composted, all recyclables are reused or donated, and nonrecyclables are converted into energy. A partnership with Bullfrog Power offsets 5 percent of the hotel’s electrical use—enough to power all meeting rooms and public space.
“Planners definitely come to us because of our eco-friendly initiatives,” says Lise Magee, regional director of sales and marketing at the hotel. “These days, those types of questions are almost always a part of the R.F.P. process. Environmental responsibility is an important part of our meeting and event business.”
Successful facilities are anticipating, listening, and adapting to their clients’ needs. “It’s an era of empowerment for meeting planners,” Decker says. From small to large, every request is an opportunity for a venue to improve its operations and expand its business.