The New Age of Business Meetings

When it comes to amenities for business meetings, these days it's less about the food and nearby entertainment venues (although those will always be important) and more about connectivity and teleconferencing capabilities. Cutting-edge and convenient, user-friendly technology is paramount to creating a meeting-friendly environment.
Here is a look at what hotels and conference centers, which have raised the bar for creating excellent business meeting environments, are offering business today.

KEEPING GUESTS CONNECTED
It used to be that meeting hosts didn't want attendees to connect to one another via phones or computers, notes Marti Alexander, director sales and marketing for the Star Plaza in Merrillville. “Now, hosts want, and are frankly relying on, attendees to be connected,” she says.
Cory Chambers, director sales and marketing for JW Marriott and Marriott Place in Indianapolis, gives part of the credit to the growth in mobile devices, which allow people to receive “quick bytes” of information “on the fly.”
“You've got to have connectivity everywhere in the building,” he says. “The biggest challenge hotels face is that technology can be difficult to implement if it involves infrastructure change. We have cutting-edge technology and bandwidth capabilities (200MB, expandable to 1,000MB) because we had the luxury of starting from scratch.” The 1,005-room JW Marriott will be the largest JW Marriott in the world when it opens in February, and is the largest of a collection of five Marriott hotels connected to the expanded Indiana Convention Center.
Chambers says technology has changed the way hotels and meeting facilities conduct business. “As a result, we have to have a mobile presence,” he says. “We have to make ourselves available via the channels our guests want to communicate with us on, such as Facebook and Twitter.”
University Place Conference Center & Hotel, located on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus, just placed mobile marketing on its technology menu. Attendees at the conference center can have interactive conversations with people using the mobile technology before the meeting starts. “It's a faster way to reach people when they are networking,” says Lisa Howe, director sales and marketing. “It enhances the time that they are away from the office so they can make connections with the people who came to meet them in the first place.”
QR-Code Generator technology is one of the latest offerings from Purdue University in West Lafayette. This new technology generates mobile barcodes (which can be read by iPhones) that direct meeting attendees to a specific Internet site. “We are going to use it to provide people registering at a conference with the most updated agenda,” says Geni Greiner, director of conferences. “They can click their iPhone over the image and it automatically downloads to their phone.”
The technology can also be used by a keynote speaker to direct participants to a PowerPoint presentation or to provide a map for trade show attendees. Greiner notes that QR-Code Generator technology won't work for every attendee (in tests, iPhones were 100 percent successful, but Droid devices and other phones didn't perform as well), but it is very convenient for those who can retrieve the information. At Purdue, iPhones can also be used as “clickers” to respond to surveys or questions requiring a simple “yes” or “no” response or a vote. “Our television viewing has changed audience participation,” Greiner says. “We vote for people and we text in our thoughts or comments to newscasters.”
The Conrad Chicago uses iPads to share information with clients regarding the meeting space, meeting and banquet sets, menus, hotel social media and guest rooms.

REDEFINING VIRTUAL MEETINGS
“Even while our economy is recovering, businesses still understand there is a need to meet,” Alexander says. “So, while the size of meetings may have lessened, groups are getting back to actually holding meetings again. We have noticed a trend that more regional meetings are being held, rather than national.”
Teleconferencing technology enables local or regional groups to connect with other groups nationwide and globally. Requests for videoconferencing capabilities and teleconferences to connect attendees with participants at remote locations are on the rise, according to Christine M. Smith, marketing and communications manager for the Conrad Chicago. The hotel recently increased its bandwidth to 15MB to enhance the virtual meeting experience.
Interactivity is key when it comes to virtual meetings. “We can create an interactive session where a person on the West Coast can actually field questions from an audience in our auditorium and they can talk back and forth,” Howe says. Thanks to a system of multi-feeds, University Place can connect members in breakout rooms with the teleconference in the main room so they don't have to leave their small groups.
Hot Seat, a product created by Purdue faculty and students, allows the audience in a lecture hall to log onto a Web site and post questions to the speaker. The speaker can preview the questions on his computer and control the display–opting to show them all or select specific ones. One nice feature is that the software actually ranks questions so the speaker knows which topics generate the most questions, and can respond accordingly.
TheWit Hotel in Chicago has only been open since June 2009, and features “the greatest pipe” in Chicago in terms of Internet service and connectivity according to chief operating officer Lou Carrier. Its technology platform was built to support substantial upgrades and can accommodate the most sophisticated and complex technological requests. But Carrier says theWit's focus is on proven, user-friendly technology. “We decided to take care of the needs that 90 percent of business professionals and the meeting community required,” he says. Each ballroom space is equipped with digital projection units mounted and ready to go, and master panels in every meeting room control sound and lighting so everything can be handled conveniently and instantly.
Skype, which Carrier calls the “next generation of videoconferencing,” is popular in one-on-one situations and is just beginning to be utilized in group settings at theWit. SCREEN, the hotel's plush digital theatre, is the facility's nod to state-of-the-art technology. It can handle everything from one-on-one Skype teleconferences to international teleconferences for up to 45 people.
“We thought SCREEN would be an interesting sliver of our business, but it has turned out to be rather profound,” Carrier says. “It's a fantastic venue for a finite group of executives or scientists or people in the marketing or fashion communities who are presenting products. The clarity of the picture and presentation and the real-time intercommunication between the audience and the presenter–it's the next best thing to being in the same room with the person.”

COMPLEMENTING THE MEETING EXPERIENCE
Hotels are also offering up other amenities to their meeting and conference attendees. Groups at the Star Plaza can set up their own individual Web page within the hotel's Web site, listing their negotiated rates and other pertinent information.
Guestrooms at the JW Marriott will feature interactive media via ICE (Interactive Customer Experience) TV. With ICE, the television screen in the guestrooms can be personalized with a video message from the company CEO or the presenter, for example. Guests can also make reservations via the television's “virtual concierge.”
Carrier says suites at theWit are often used for small business meetings, so the 60 suites and other guestrooms feature high-power jack packs, 42-inch to 60-inch televisions and NEC digital touch-screen phones that enable guests to do anything from requesting extra pillows to ordering their car from valet service. The hotel uses Hot Sauce technology, a rapid response and tracking system that sends a guest request to the closest available member of the service team, ensuring that requests are handled quickly and efficiently.

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