Meeting Makeovers

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Whether it's a company's annual meeting, a corporate awards dinner or an off-site conference or training session for a handful of employees or hundreds and counting, businesses are returning to hosting corporate events.

True, these meetings and trade shows may look a little different than their predecessors. But the good news is such events are bouncing back.

Corporate get-togethers were among the first items booted out of company budgets when the economy soured. But event planners and staff members at local venues say the company meeting-in one way, shape or form-is making a comeback.

Ann Daugherty, director of sales and marketing for the Fawcett Event Center at Ohio State University, says her staff has noticed an increase in meetings scheduled for staff training and development. "A lot of times it seems to be related to technology training," she says. The facility hosts a mix of academic and non-academic events.

Technology use, the venue's appearance, the type of meal or snacks guests nosh on, how presentations are delivered, keynote speakers and entertainers-all of these get consideration when corporate events are planned. Something else event planners will tell you: It's not just kids with short attention spans these days. Thanks in large part to technology, adults expect to be entertained and engaged no matter what type of event they're attending.

"It's not the same old, come to the seminar, sitting there for three days listening to speakers," says Susan Leohner, who owns Susan Leohner Events. She has put together corporate and holiday events in the Columbus area for companies such as Ricart Ford, Dominion Homes, Verizon Wireless and Jegs.

Leohner, an event planner for two decades, says she increasingly plans meetings at smaller venues, such as the company president's house. "I don't think I've done a big party in a large hall for a while," she says. "It's nice to do things at a home."

Her corporate event arsenal includes elaborate event décor and production, catering, music and entertaining. "We'll bring in white leather sofas and rugs and coffee tables and chairs," she says. "We can even put games in there, like video games." Even in larger venues, more home-like conversation areas where attendees can lounge during breaks might be set up.

Having endured a bad economy and a lot of stress, companies now seem more interested in holding corporate events where employees "can move around, socialize, just be comfortable," says Leohner. "It's probably not exactly where they were before the recession. But I do see it picking up. It's just a little more casual than it used to be."

More for Less

The Hyatt Regency Columbus hosts hundreds of corporate events annually-from the 10-person corporate board retreat to a company conference or an annual meeting that books 500 hotel rooms for four nights and uses all available meeting space, says Bryan King, the hotel's director of sales and marketing.

A recent trend King has noticed: Companies are waiting until the last minute-at least comparatively so-to book meeting space. In the pre-recession days, organizers routinely booked meetings a full year in advance. "Now, we're booking them a month or two in advance," King says. "That seems to be a trend across the industry."

Clients are waiting a bit longer to book-"when there's a little more certainty and clarity," King says. Why the trepidation? "One bad earnings report or one false move by the Fed or one more country with budget troubles in Europe," he explains. Such factors can potentially hurt a business's bottom line, and when they force the cancellation of an event, the company loses the deposit.

Still, most signs are encouraging. "In 2009," says King, "everyone just stopped having meetings." The return to corporate events has been gradual, but it's something many businesses are determined to do, he says: "People still need to meet."

Event planners say the trick is to successfully mix business and pleasure without bleeding big bucks. Though events are becoming more numerous, the upswing has been accompanied, not surprisingly, by a desire to be more cost-conscious-without looking cheap.

Even giveaways are back, albeit more practical. Adrienne Yates, director of sales and marketing at Franklin County Veterans Memorial, says she's seen corporate event or trade show attendees leaving with items such as environmentally friendly tote bags featuring company logos. Or they'll get USB drives, she says, that contain all the documents shared at the conference. Attendees can then print them on their own, saving the company the cost and task of making copies for everyone.

Mixing Up Menus

Food remains a big deal whether attendees are served a meal or just snacks. "The last thing they want to do is just have a water station at the back of the room," says King. They also don't want guests griping that their meal resembled something off the rubber chicken circuit.

Companies are more focused on health and wellness when planning event menus, says Cynthia Knight of Aramark, the food and beverage provider for the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Yet clients still want to contain costs.

"We have planners that are coming to us now looking for something that's a little more fun," Knight says. Among the newest food trends is offering more daring flavors.

Corporate event planners are choosing menu items "that are a little more interesting," Knight says, noting that's often accomplished by including ethnic dishes or flavors-Indian, Thai or Latin offerings, for example. "Some of them just want to dip their toe in," she says.

Salads, too, are getting a makeover. "So it's not just your traditional green salad," Knight says. Changing it up with risotto or hearty vegetables can be popular.

Classic favorites that Mom used to make, albeit in smaller portions, are popular now. Leohner says mini servings of beef stew or individual servings of macaroni and cheese, along with a fixings bar where attendees can top their pasta with bacon bits, sour cream or chives, get high marks.

Stations for assorted beverages, specialty coffees and decadent desserts also are popular.

Daugherty says food at the Fawcett Event Center reflects what many folks are ordering at restaurants or making at home. "A lot of it is a little lighter," she says.

But that doesn't rule out an occasional splurge. "There are some fun things, too," she says. A coffee bar or maybe a sundae bar offers a welcome surprise, Daugherty says, "things you wouldn't think of when you go to a meeting and have an afternoon break."

The size of a meeting or event influences menu choices. Knight says the bigger the crowd, the more varied the tastes. With large groups, you're not likely to please every taste bud. Sandwiches are always a safe go-to for lunches due to their mass appeal.

But that doesn't mean they have to be the same old, same old. The classic sandwich's stature can be elevated quickly and made "just a little fancier," Knight says-serving sandwich fixings in a wrap, or using rice cakes or a heartier bread such as ciabatta, for example.

The trick, Knight says, is to stay away from "something that's too intimidating." Hosts want guests to leave feeling satisfied, and that includes giving the food a thumbs-up.

Presenting with Panache

The real purpose of any corporate meeting or event, of course, is to impart information. But with the advent of technology, filling a seminar with presentation after presentation after presentation doesn't cut it anymore. Attendees expect to be entertained, not subjected to Death by PowerPoint. The instant gratification people have come to expect from mobile devices now applies to events, too.

"Instead of having a speaker for a few hours, it will be shortened, and between speakers you might have someone with a guitar play," says Leohner. "Or maybe a comedian will follow another speaker."

If guests are loving the presentations and feeling excited and motivated-or suffering through them-they're likely to share that with colleagues, friends and family instantly by texting or tweeting, even if it's on the back channel.

"Everybody in the auditorium is tweeting about the speech and Facebooking immediately," Leohner says. "Everybody Everything? moves so much faster than it used to be."

Corporate event planners also want venues to offer Wi-Fi- preferably at no charge. "If you can go to Denny's or McDonald's and get free Wi-Fi, that's what you expect to get here," says John Page, who coordinates technology at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

But it's not that simple-particularly in a large venue such as the convention center. "Certain sections of our facility are free of charge," Page says. Others have a cost for access.

King says the Hyatt Regency recently upgraded its wireless bandwidth. How much is used at any one time often depends on a particular meeting's format. "Is one person on Wi-Fi, or are all 250 people attending on Wi-Fi?" he says.

Higher usage comes with a higher cost. "If they want to use five lanes of the road, and there are only eight lanes," says King, "who is going to pay the toll for using all those lanes?"

Other Bells and Whistles

Another trend Leohner says she's noticed is the use of LED lighting, which uses less energy and comes in several colors, to bring a festive look to a meeting space. One possibility: illuminating a conference room with corporate colors. "It's amazing what they can do with LED lighting," she says.

Digital signs are also a growing trend, says Page, particularly in larger, multiroom venues. Digital displays that tell event-goers the who, what, when and where of the conference sure beat the days of hanging banners outside meeting rooms, he says. Constantly putting up and taking down those signs "has become passé."

There's no doubt that today's technology has influenced how the corporate world plans and hosts events-everything from seminars to annual meetings to trade shows and celebrations. Registration can occur in advance online. The agenda and other materials can be shared and reviewed via email or the Web. Presentations can be loaded onto a laptop at the venue right before they're delivered to the audience. Afterward, they can be uploaded to the company's website or posted on a Facebook page. And webcasting can be made available for those who want to participate but aren't able to attend.

Venue operators say the technology component of meetings is here to stay. That means their facilities must offer those services-and stay on top of the latest technology-to compete for corporate events. They want to attract that business because they have a bottom line, just like their clients. "We're companies, too, with a lot of employees," King says.

Debbie Briner is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the August 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.