Venue Trend: Small Is the New Big

As event and meeting professionals look for new ways their attendees can connect, network, and brainstorm, venues are crafting spaces better suited for more casual gatherings.

By Martha C. White June 26, 2014, 7:00 AM EDT

Marriott International's Workspace on Demand program allows small groups to book spaces for intimate gatherings.

Photo: Paul Barbera

When it comes to venues, the next big trend is thinking small. Properties are carving out spaces for more casual, even impromptu, meetings among small groups. This reboot—borne out of the twin trends for collaborative work spaces to appeal to socially minded millennials and the growing value event hosts see in creating comfortable spaces—is taking place at hotels as well as co-working spaces and even at a few forward-thinking convention centers.

“There needs to be a sort of space that’s carved away that’s more to meet each other casually or talk or engage one-on-one,” says Andres Toro, vice president at Shiraz Events. “They’re looking for intimate spaces.”

Here are some ways the trend is reshaping venues across North America.

Free Wi-Fi and tabletop outlets
The single biggest factor contributing to the mobility of today’s workforce is the explosion of wireless devices like smartphones and tablets that let people stay connected to work without being physically tethered to a desk. That means secure and reliable Wi-Fi is a must for venues like co-working site Workspring as well as small meeting spaces from Marriott International and Starwood Hotels & Resorts. Venues also are installing more charging docks and ports so mobile workers can power up their batteries. At the 49 Westin “Tangent” workspaces in the United States and Canada, tables by Steelcase include central charging stations, multiple screens for presentations or videoconferencing, and the capability for users to share documents between their respective machines.

Playtime is encouraged
Mental batteries need recharging, too. To court millennial workers—who are growing in size and influence—some of these new spaces overtly embrace fun. “We’ve been dealing a lot with this trend of disruptiveness to help people feel creative and innovative,” says Marsha Flanagan, vice president of learning experiences at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events.

Westin Tangent spaces include Xboxes for playing DVDs or games. Even when there aren't video game consoles for attendees, these new crop of spaces aim for an aesthetic that's light-years from an ordinary meeting room. Bright colors, natural light, and even access to the outside encourage participants to take breaks.

Access space gets repurposed
The David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh didn’t have a crystal ball to see the small, informal meeting trend when it debuted 12 years ago. What it does have are alcoves adjacent to the main hall that provide access to the center’s public spaces from the show floor for displaying large exhibits like cars or boats. Jamie Huckleberry, the center's director of event services, says groups are now using these nooks for small meetings. “The space was never built with that intention but we’re working it that way,” she says.

“What we’re finding with convention centers is there’s not a lot of space established or designed like that,“ says Kathy Doyle, director of global customer conferences for Cisco Live and Cisco Connect. This demands a D.I.Y. approach. “We really need to come in and create these collaborative spaces.”

Convention centers plan ahead
“I think convention centers have to be as much a meeting facility as an exhibit facility,” says San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau vice president of sales and services Steve Clanton. “You’re not going to see these giant empty cavernous rooms anymore.” San Antonio's planned 2016 convention center renovation includes space where people can get off the show floor and meet. “We’ve already put a lot more couches and chairs throughout our building,” Clanton says. “You can't just have people sitting on the floor. There has to be a couch, a place where they can hook up and get free Wi-Fi.”

Seats have more substance
Although adding lounge-style furniture in places where groups will work isn’t a new trend, it is one that venues continue to refine. Workspring, which is owned by office furniture company Steelcase, has what it calls “collaborative seating” that borrows features from both soft lounge furniture and adjustable swivel office chairs and adds a personal tabletop to the side. “We noticed lounge seating has become part of the meeting. Sometimes, people don’t want to just sit at tables,” says Workspring marketing coordinator Lisa Wright. Huckleberry says groups now ask about beanbags, exercise balls, and other alternatives to typical chairs.

Democratized online booking
Marriott Hotels & Resorts partnered with LiquidSpace—a site where users can book meeting space by the day or even by the hour, sometimes even on the same day—to create the “Workspace on Demand” program, which is available in more than 400 United States hotels across nine of its brands. The spaces, meant to hold as many as 10 people, include some areas that don’t resemble traditional meeting or breakout rooms at all, like private nooks in the lobbies and high-top tables with some degree of privacy. Anyone can go to the site and book the spaces, sometimes within mere hours of meeting.

Spontaneity rules
In some cases, there’s no formal booking of these collaborative spaces at all. Venues are carving out small areas within their facilities to encourage people to gather whenever inspiration strikes. Long Beach, California, which hosted the TED Conference before it moved to Vancouver this year, spent four years and $40 million reimagining the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center. “We looked at how TED created a plethora of seating and pod spaces to encourage networking,” says Steve Goodling, president and C.E.O. of the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau. It's a theory that has been embraced by hotels, but it's still rare at convention centers. “We believe in an environment where you can take advantage of the moment,” he says.

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