It's a segment that weathered the recent economic downturn in fine fettle and is already on the upswing. It's also one harmoniously in tune with a post-modern economy hungry for information exchange and customized services.
Perhaps that's why two of the industry's largest managed services companies went out of their way in recent years to establish divisions dedicated to serving this segment.
We're talking conference centers. In the past, conference centers were viewed either as bits of corporate extravagance where prevested company lifers went to get their logoed golf shirts, or as no-frills dispensers of fluid power seminars and baked rigatoni lunches. But today, they are one of the few islands of growth in a maturing foodservice industry.
"Just like the hospitality industry, we got hit in the last few years," admits Tom Bolman, executive vice president of the International Association of Conference Centers (IACC), "but the conference center industry did not go down as quickly or as far, and it came back sooner because its bedrock 25-75 person corporate meeting market is pretty stable. Attendance at corporate meetings is mandatory and even during tough economic times companies have to have such meetings. In fact, even if they're downsizing or making adjustments, companies have to have meetings to do that."
A " Trendy" Dinner
Brandywine Conference Center's biggest annual event is a mid-summer gathering of Whirlpool Corporation's senior executives from around the world.
"We're challenged because they are very sophisticated travelers and many are culinary connoisseurs," says General Manager Janine Oberstadt of management services provider, Creative Dining Services, Zeeland, MI."So how do you blow them away?
"We stretch for the wow factor," she answers."We kill them with service. We keep distractions away—the front desk does a great job—and we try to find a creative slant in the food. For ideas, we try to get a look at the agenda to the extent we're allowed. For example, last year we saw that it was marketing-driven. So we came up with trend dinner. We picked six consumer trends from Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve consumer trend predictions and came up with a sixcourse dinner based on the trends."
For example, one of Popcorn's predictions was that by 2010, 90 percent of all consumer goods will be home-delivered. So for dessert the Brandywine dining team came up with chocolate Chinese takeout boxes filled with mousse and berries and adorned with white chocolate chopsticks. Inside, each had a custom fortune cookie inscribed with a Whirlpool marketing trend.
Another of Popcorn's predictions involved a backlash against "healthy" eating, noting the rise in red meat, wine and cigar consumption. So the entrèe was an Angus filet steak accompanied by mashed potatoes in a martini glass.
"The group was so charmed that Whirlpool CEO David Whitwam asked for a copy of the menu, and we knew then that we had scored a home run," Oberstadt recalls with delight. "The point is that we didn't try to wow them by going over the top with truffle oil or something so much as we just tried to be creative."
Facilities that didn't do much corporate business in the past seem to have ridden out the economic storm with few bruises thanks to the hunger in the corporate sector for conference space.
"Our clientele used to be mostly government and campus groups," says Andy Abelman, director of the Kellogg West Conference Center on the campus of California State Polytechnic University of Pomona. "Now, 60% is corporate business. Even after 9-11 we still had a good second half of 2001, then had a great 2002 and were booming until the beginning of 2003. But then the war, the California budget crisis and the SARS epidemic—which killed our business from China—hit us."
But even after all that, "we remained profitable, just not as profitable as before," Abelman says.
Certainly Aramark Corp. and Sodexho USA think conference center business is worth cultivating. In 2000, Sodexho grouped the conference center accounts where it managed all or most of the services-14 sites at present-into a dedicated division, Sodexho Conferencing. Previously, conference center business had been bundled in with the corporate dining, higher education and healthcare divisions, depending on where the facilities were located.
Two years later, Aramark followed with an acquisition deal for a major conference center management company, Harrison Lodging. It then combined the Harrison business with its extant conference accounts to form a new unit, Aramark Harrison Lodging. Currently it manages 50 sites around the country.
IACC estimates that as many as 400 conference facilities meet the group's defining criteria (see sidebar on p. 28). Of course, many more operate without meeting IACC's definition but still represent incremental new foodservice business.
Most are affiliated with institutions like universities, medical centers and corporations. Where the center is physically located on the host institution's campus, the institution's foodservice provider generally handlesthe catering. Where it is remote sited, self-operation remains an option but the outsource rationale is gaining strength in an age of increased cost-consciousness. "Most of the centers were built by companies for particular internal training needs, but over time, those needs changed," explains Ron Sopko, vice president of development for Sodexho Conferencing. "Now, companies look to firms like Sodexho not only to operate their centers more efficiently, but to market excess capacity and generate revenue to offset operating costs."
A "Specialized Thinking" Place
Contracted or self-operated, conferencing is evolving as well as growing.
"Twenty-five years ago, Xerox built its conference center to teach people how to repair photocopiers," says Mike Fahner, vice president of sales & marketing for Aramark Harrison Lodging. "Today, people who use conference centers want to learn management skills in an environment that promotes thinking and learning."
And those thinking and strategizing sessions are increasingly specialized.
"It's really the custom programs that have had the biggest growth," says Eric Montell, associate director of retail, catering, executive dining and concessions for Stanford University Dining Services. Stanford Dining manages catering for the university's Schwab Residential Center.
"Instead of sending one or two employees to a more general program, companies now prefer to have a customized conference designed for their specific needs and then send 60 people to them. Our school sees this as a huge growth opportunity."
Along with the evolving mission of conference centers is the dramatic change in expectations about amenities.
"Before, you worked in Box A and lived and played in Box B," says Fahner. "Now its much more integrated. People fire up the laptop while sitting in the coffee bar. So we don't sell our centers with a 'here's-yourmeetingroom-andhere's -your-mealwhereeverybody-can-pick-one -item' approach or a 'here's-the-coffee-break-withregulardecaf-and-tea-and-it-comes-at-10-and-leaves-at-10:30' approach. Rather, we sell a complete package with continuous breaks and different features over the course of the day."
At the Brandywine Center for Strategy & Leadership Action near Covert, MI, the guests often include worldly executives and engineers from across the globe. The center functions as the in-house conference facility of international appliance manufacturer Whirlpool Corp.
"Our operations team looks at what we'll need to offer about five days before people arrive," says General Manager Janine Oberstadt of Creative Dining Services, which manages the facility for Whirlpool. "The mix of people and the locations they are coming from gives us a really good idea. For example, for guests from India we'll offer jasmine rice and yogurt at meals."
It's not always cultural/religious considerations. Sometimes, some groups have just shown a tendency to favor certain sorts of cuisine, Oberstadt notes. "Engineers, especially from the Midwest and Southern divisions, tend to be less adventurous culinarily, preferring more meat and potatoes."
Operators employ various strategies to manage catering at conference facilities for which they have responsibility.
Management companies operating a conference center maintain onsite staffs, with a portion of these employees are assigned to the dining department. Cooking is often from scratch and overseen by an executive chef.
At conference centers where the foodservice is operated by the host institution's dining services , arrangements vary, depending on the affiliation, the clientele and the amount of catering being done.
At Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, catering for the complex's Searle Conference Center is handled by a unit separate from the hospital's retail and patient feeding operation. Executive Chef Ernst Griessmeyer manages foodservice at Searle as well as at the hospital's Room 500 executive dining room.
"We use the same people at Searle as in Room 500, including waitstaff, dishwashers and cooks," Griessmeyer says. "This gives them incentive and overtime."
Stanford's Montell says he picks "the cream of the crop of our department" for assignment to the Schwab Center "because you really have to flex up. You go from one level during the academic year to a much higher level during the summer," when the Center hosts a variety of very-high-level conferences and training programs.
Schwab uses some 50 staffers, from servers and dishwashers to cooks and managers.
"Our staff really likes to work there during the summer because they learn a lot of things. We spend a week or two prior to the opening of any conference going through training sessions. We have them prepare all the buffet food and then lay it out as if the participants were really there. And we train the servers by having them serve our employees the food."
Even for operators who don't host many high-end events, the occasional formal banquet allows the staff to break the routine.
For most of the year, the conference center at Elliot Hospital in Manchester, NH, hosts staff meetings and outside presentations. The dining services department employs a catering manager to work with the groups, and the events are manned by hospital staffers as needed.
"A few times a year we're called on to do something more elaborate," says Operations Manager Joe Stanislaw.
"It usually means a sit down dinner with full china and wine service. Occasions like those let us show we can provide anything they want."
What is a conference center?
Any facility can call itself a "conference center." There is no legal definition of the term. Yet, at least one entity is trying to bring some standardization to the industry.
The International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) has developed a list of 31 criteria (found on its website at www.iacconline.com) it says distinguishes a conference center from other types of meeting facilities like hotels and convention centers.
"Two things separate conference centers from hotels," says IACC Executive Vice President Tom Bolman."First, at least 60 percent of the business must be derived from conferences or meetings with an average size of 25 to 75 people. Facilities that handle many larger conventions or trade shows are convention centers or convention hotels. Then, at least 60 percent of the meeting space must be dedicated single-purpose conference space."
Other criteria: bona fide conference centers have to offer a complete meeting package. This includes a per person charge that covers the guest room, three meals a day, continuous refreshment service, conference services and audio/video equipment.
"The center can't just have coffee breaks, for example" says Bolman. "They have to have kiosks where snacks and beverages are available to conferees throughout the day outside the meeting room, unless the planner requests it for in the room."
The dining facilities also have to accommodate the conferees on their schedule, not the schedule of the conference center, and there have to be enough dining seats to handle the attendee population at two seatings of one hour each.
Bolman estimates that there are only 350 to 400 facilities that meet its criteria. Of those, 235 are currently IACC members.
Searle Conference Center
Location: campus of Rush University Medical Center, Chicago
Affiliation: Rush University Medical Center
Function: hosts meetings and conferences for the hospital staff and administration, including medical staff meetings, as well as presentations by outside parties, such as medical products vendors; in addition, about 30% of the hosted events are seminars and conferences drawing attendees from outside the hospital and focusing on new surgical and medical techniques and technologies.
Activity Level: busy year-round during the week; generally closed on weekends unless a late-week seminar spills over into Saturday.
Capacity: six meeting spaces, including a large lecture hall with seating for 200, two smaller 120-seat meeting rooms and three smaller meeting rooms; total capacity is around 500.
Residential Facilities: no
Catering Services Provider: Retail Catering division of the Rush University Dining Services Dept.
Top Manager: Ernst Griessmeyer, executive chef
Dining Facilities: meals are generally served in the adjacent Garden Room, which generally accommodates about 120 guests; the nearby Room 500, the medical center's private club dining room, hosts special event dinners.
Onsite Kitchen: yes, shared with Room 500.
Staffing: a dozen FTEs assigned to Room 500 are rotated into duty as needed in Searle.
Catering Package: no set menu; Continental breakfasts and plated sit-down lunches are the norm, with menus determined by Griessmeyer in consultation with conference organizers.
Asilomar Conference Grounds
Location: Asilomar State Park in Pacific Grove, CA
Affiliation: public facility of the state of California park system
Function: hosts a wide range of group events ranging from family reunions to association meetings, especially for religious, medical and university groups.
Activity Level: busiest from early spring through November; usually, there are three to five different groups onsite at a time, though there can be as many as eight or nine; a few times a year, one group takes over the whole facility. The average stay is 2 to 3 days.
Capacity: about 800
Residential Facilities: 313 guest rooms
Catering Services Provider: Delaware North Cos. Park Services
Top Manager: Pat Sheridan, general manager for Delaware North
Dining Facilities: the dining hall seats about 800 and can be subdivided into as many as three spaces.
Onsite Kitchen: yes.
Staffing: 250 employees, including managers.
Catering package: basic conference package includes three meals a day, the meeting room and the guest rooms, breakfast is from 7 to 9 every morning, lunch from noon to 1 and dinner from 6 to 7:30. All the menus are pre-set, plated meals, served family style in the dining room; for a slight upcharge, groups can select a particular meal, served either buffet or plated. Meals can also be served in the meeting rooms or outside and groups can order special themed events.
Brandywine Center for Strategy & Leadership Action
Location: Covert, MI, on 120 acres of picturesque oak, pine and Lake Michigan sand dunes
Affiliation: Whirlpool Corp.
Function: primarily conference and training activities for the 65,000-employee company's global management team, including an annual top executive retreat in mid-summer; Brandywine also hosts a few outside groups, primarily charities Whirlpool supports, Habitat for Humanity, which holds its annual strategy retreat here.
Activity Level: busy most of the year. In 2003, about 16,000 individuals rotated through for training with a typical stay of three days.
Residential Facilities: 50 guest rooms.
Catering Services Provider: Creative Dining Services (CDS)
Top Manager: Janine Oberstadt, general manager for CDS
Dining Facilities: indoor dining room seating 120; there is also a wraparound deck for seasonal outdoor dining.
Onsite Kitchen: yes
Staffing: Total staff of 33, half of them full-time; five of the full timers work in kitchen. Staff is augmented as needed by employees from other nearby CDS managed sites.
Catering Package: tailored to individual group needs, from elaborate top executive dinners to informal barbecues and Continental breakfasts for employee training groups; large international guest component is accommodated with culture-specific dining options ranging from vegan fare to meat-and-cheese breakfasts; like many other operators, Brandywine is also seeing more requests for high-protein/low-carb meal options.
Schwab Residential Center
Location: campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA
Affiliation: Stanford University Graduate School of Business
Function: venue for senior executive level training programs and conferences offered by the Stanford GSB.
Activity Level: full slate of graduate programs and a limited number of executive programs during the academic year and special conference events during the summer; during the academic year, there will usually be one or two conferences going on at a time.
Residential Facilities: 280 guest rooms; during the academic year, 220 are set aside for GSB students and 60 for executive programs; during the summer, all are used to house conference and executive program attendees.
Catering Services Provider: Stanford University Dining Services
Top Manager: Eric Montell, associate director of retail, catering, executive dining and concessions for Stanford Dining Services
Dining Facilities: banquet room can accommodate events of up to 325 people; at other times, it can be subdivided to accommodate as many as four separate groups.
Onsite Kitchen: yes
Staffing: 50 employees
Catering Package: everyday dining operates on a six-week cycle menu while special event function menus are determined in consultations between the executive chef and conference/GSB representatives.
Conference Center Dining
From simple baked filet of sole to exquisite roast quail, conference center dining runs the full gamut of culinary options. Managers and chefs who work in this segment must be prepared to serve a simple Continental breakfast buffet in the morning and an elegant banquet with table service and fine wines that evening.
At the conference facility of Stormont-Vail Medical Center in Topeka, KS, a typical day's catering will involve 10 to 15 meals, says the hospital's director of nutritional services, Russell Moore. Most are breakfasts and lunches set up in communal areas such as hallway alcoves. Guests file through and eat where they meet.
But the occasional grand dinner gives Moore's staff a chance for something a bit more elegant."We'll do carved beef for the annual medical staff dinner; for example" Moore notes. "Dinners are generally sit-down occasions and our chef, Alan Harris, likes to do it 'as is.' He'll inquire as to what the group is looking for and then come up with something."
On the other hand, elegance is the norm at Stanford University's Schwab Residential Center. There, senior executives and international VIPs come in for high-caliber training programs and conferences. Meals have to reflect the expectations of the clientele and reflect on Stanford's Graduate School of Business, which operates the programs at the Schwab Center.
"The challenge is that you have to keep it interesting," says Eric Montell, associate director of retail, catering, executive dining and concessions for Stanford Dining Services. "There are only a certain number of fish in the sea and animals on the ground and only a certain number of ways to cook them, but you don't want to give the impression that you are serving leftovers. So, for example, if beef was for dinner the previous evening, you can't have a beef item again at lunch. It takes us four to five months to develop our menus for each year."
Schwab offers a seasonal six-week cycle menu.
Other centers prefer more off-the-cuff immediacy.
"We don't have a printed menu," says Linda Lafferty, director of food & nutrition at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, of the offerings at Rush's Searle Conference Center."We have suggestions. Ernst Griessmeyer, our executive chef, makes recommendations based on what's available and on market prices. He works with conference organizers to develop any menu at any price point they would like."
Formal dinners may be the splashiest events most conference center caterers put on. But that doesn't mean other meals get short shrift.
Even breakfast can be a chance to put on a major guest-pleasing production.
"Breakfast here is a full breakfast, not just coffee and muffins," says Pat Sheridan, general manager for management services provider Delaware North Parks Services at the State of California's Asilomar Conference Grounds."We usually have eggs and some kind of meat and potatoes one day, and we alternate that with waffles or pancakes the next."
The attention to culinary factors reflects a market reality in the segment. Food has become more than just an adjunct to the conference center experience for the typical attendee. Caterers must acknowledge that reality.
"If you go into our conference centers today, you'll see three or four entrees, a very large salad display, slices of protein and cheese in a scramble setting and so forth," says Ron Sopko, vice president of development for the Sodexho Conferencing division of Sodexho USA.
"That's a lot different from when the company ran its own catering and managed it from a cost standpoint. Now it's much more commercial in nature and the foodservice element is probably the piece that everybody remembers the most. It's what brings them back."