Go big—it’s what convention centers are made to do. In hosting conferences or trade shows, these large-scale facilities must also go all out in order to not only maintain relevance in the industry, but also enhance attendee experience. Going green, focusing on wellness and sourcing food locally are trends that aren’t going anywhere soon (if ever), and Minnesota’s convention centers have adapted seamlessly to meet the demand, and then some. MNM+E talked to convention center sta statewide about how areas like sustainability, food and beverage, technology and more have shaped the structure of today’s meetings and events.
SOCIAL MEDIA BUZZ
“No one wants to just sit still and be spoken at during a conference anymore,” says Kate Setley, director of marketing and event management, Saint Paul RiverCentre. “People want an interactive experience instead, and one that builds in the opportunity for active engagement.” Setley has noticed social media being included before, during and after many events. Meeting planners request videos or photos to be submitted as part of pre-event contests, are encouraging live tweets with a designated hashtag during meetings, and then soliciting feedback and short videos after the event is over. “Conventions no longer end when load-out happens at 5 o’clock,” Setley says. “And from a venue perspective, it allows our team to stay connected with attendees. If it’s too cold in a breakout room, for example, I’ll see tweets about it right away. It allows us to stay on the pulse of what’s happening, and we receive a lot of information we wouldn’t get otherwise.”
WI-FI: “LIKE FRESH AIR AND WATER"
Unlimited and reliable wireless access has passed the point of nice to have and is now a musthave for meeting facilities. “I recently attended the International Conference of Convention Centers,” says Burt Lyman, executive director, Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato. “One of the hot topics was the installation of redundant Internet support, so that if one system goes down, the other one kicks in.” Lyman’s facility, like many others in the state, has ramped up its capacity for usage spikes during events. “People usually walk into a convention center carrying at least two devices, a smartphone and a tablet, and sometimes a laptop, too,” he says. “Wi-Fi has become a given, like fresh air and water.” And along with all those devices comes the need to keep them constantly charged. “We’ve included plenty of power locations for charging, and we’ve also added USB ports,” Lyman says.
In the Mayo Civic Center’s 202,631-square-foot expansion, slated to open spring 2017, space flexibility is built into areas like the new grand ballroom, expanded meeting rooms and lobby areas. “We paid close attention to rightsizing, so every gathering will have that Goldilocks ‘justright’ feeling,” says Brad Jones, executive director, Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau. “For example, our 40,000-square-foot ballroom, which will be the second largest in Minnesota [based on 2013 data], will be able to accommodate up to 4,312 people. But we’ll also be able to reconfigure that space in half, or in half again, so it’s never too big or too small.”
Attendees increasingly expect to enter a convention facility and immediately begin having an experience with the brand of the conference. “We’re hanging banners in places we never thought they would go,” Setley says. “Planners want to be able to take a neutral space and make it their own.” Jeff Johnson, executive director, Minneapolis Convention Center, has created a high-tech option for branded signage, using large-scale video screens that are similar to the types used in stadiums and arenas. Screens are now at the front entrance area and the new visitor information center, and there are plans to add more screens in front of exhibit halls. “Instead of being called Exhibit Hall B, a room can now have the name and logo of the sponsor or the meeting theme,” Johnson explains. “It’s a way to make everyone feel more welcome, as if they’re in a building that belongs to their group.”
ALL IN ONE
Full-service lodging is increasingly popular for many convention attendees. “We’ve seen a rapid appetite shift toward hotels offering integrated restaurants, reception areas, patio space, spas and retail,” says Jones, who notes that approximately 1,400 hotel rooms will be added in the Rochester area in the next few years. “Time is at a premium for many people, so they’re seeking an all-in-one experience that allows them to stay in one place and have all the amenities they desire.”
CHANGE IN SCENERY
Meeting planners are increasingly asking convention facilities to break from tradition and offer new ways to allow attendees to interact in meeting spaces. Instead of classroom or theater-style setups in breakout rooms, Setley is receiving more requests for small circles of chairs, or tables set at rounds, to encourage collaboration and creativity. “We recently hosted a conference which served lunch right in the middle of the trade show area to encourage attendees to explore exhibitor booths,” she says.
That creativity has extended to the great outdoors, as well. Johnson points to the Minneapolis Convention Center’s use of across-the-street open green space as a location for the Creative City Challenge, an annual public art competition with the winning exhibit being temporarily installed in the Convention Center Plaza. The space, which also hosts a summertime Creative City Market of locally crafted goods, allows people to explore something new and rejuvenate during a long day. “The use of that space is really an example of placemaking at its finest,” Johnson says.
The Mayo Civic Center is an easy three blocks away from the pedestrian-only Peace Plaza in the center of downtown. The center will have its own outdoor space as well; the Riverfront Plaza, tucked in between the Mayo Civic Center and Zumbro River, will be available for open-air receptions, events and small concerts when the expansion is complete. “Planners want not only a quality meeting experience in your venue, but a way to offer attendees authentic and interesting experiences outside the facility,” says Brad Jones. “Our plaza area allows visitors to get outside and enjoy downtown shopping, nightlife, restaurants and bars.”
For Kristi Anderson, convention sales and service manager, Sanford Center, giving attendees an opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors is always a positive meeting enhancement. “Our outdoor patio is right off of our Lakeview meeting room, overlooking Lake Bemidji,” she says. “We can even bring in a portable bonfire.”
Green initiatives and a focus on sustainability are nothing new for Minnesota convention facilities, but several of them are introducing next-level enhancements of this environmental focus. “We’ve been committed to recycling for years, but we’ve stepped up our game recently with a focus on compostable cups, plates, napkins and more,” says Tony Goddard, director of community services and facilities, St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center. And because conventions can generate an enormous amount of waste, his team (including Bill Dunsmoor, manager) has made a push toward preventing waste from happening in the first place. “We’re encouraging conventions to go all-paperless and post agendas and brochures online,” he says. “In addition to creating a significant waste reduction, it also allows planners flexibility for edits when agendas change.”
For Sue Ellen Moore, director of sales at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC), a little bit of creativity can help make a positive environmental impact. “We recently hosted a conference in which the planners addressed their biggest waste factor—lanyards and name tag holders. They developed a creative name tag contest and encouraged attendees to create and bring their own tags and recycled lanyards. To encourage participation, they presented awards for categories like most legible and most creative.” At another conference, planners created buttons with the message: “I’ve been caught greenhanded.” Whenever a staff member noticed an attendee engaging in a sustainable behavior, such as filling their own water container at one of the complementary water stations, or putting paper into a recycling bin, they handed out a button to the green attendee. “It became a coveted item that people wanted to earn,” Moore says. And what happened with the buttons at the end of the convention? “We gathered them all in a basket to reuse next year, of course,” Moore says.
“I attend quite a few conventions throughout the year, and I’ve been noticing more and more facilities paying attention to common areas,” Lyman says. “Anyone who’s ever attended a convention knows that you usually learn more in peer-to-peer conversations than you do during lectures, so larger and more comfortable common areas for informal chatting is certainly a trend worth noting.” His view is seconded by Jones. In his work with the Mayo Civic Center, he’s become convinced that networking and face-to-face time are critical to a meeting’s success. “We’ve developed an environment that’s ripe for connecting with others, and we’ve added soft seating with views that connect attendees to the outdoors,” Jones says. “Those spaces help people get together to share knowledge and ideas in a creative and relaxing way.”
BYE, BYE BANQUET
“We’re noticing that some of our large associations, which used to do awards banquets in the evening, moving away from that trend and instead offering vouchers to local restaurants,” says Goddard. “It not only helps with cost control, but eliminates the food waste that happens when people RSVP to the banquet and then don’t show up. It’s a positive trend for our downtown restaurants, too, because they experience increased weeknight business.” The awards are then given away at the luncheon events, according to Goddard.
“Conferences are adding wellness components to their traditional focus on networking and education,” Moore says. “Being located on the beautiful North Shore, we’re an ideal location for 5K runs or lake walks. Some groups are starting off their sessions with yoga classes or early morning stretch time.” She’s noticing the wellness emphasis in catering choices, too. “We’re serving a lot fewer doughnuts and a lot more fresh fruit.” Anderson has also noted an uptick in the number of planners who request physical activity as part of their meeting. The Sanford Center has built a lifesize Jenga and cornhole sets to use during team-building activities. “People need to get back to learning how to converse with each other, and a fun activity is a great way to do that.”
Having an in-house catering department allows the DECC to provide meeting planners with a consistent focus on high-quality, locally produced food. “We began looking at our sustainability and environmental mission statement back in 2003,” Moore says. “Our food and beverage manager at the time looked in our walk-in cooler and found boxes and boxes of cookies that had been imported from Canada.” That discovery led to a search for local sources, and the DECC now features locally baked rolls, cookies, bars and what Moore refers to as “our fabulous lemon cake.” Along with an increased focus on local foods, the demand for special meals just keeps growing. “Ten years ago, 3 percent of the meals we served were special requests,” Moore says, “and we now have conferences in which more than 20 percent are special requests.”
Did You Know?
Fun facts about Minnesota’s convention centers.
» “Most people are surprised to learn we have 2,070 hotel rooms attached to the Mayo Civic Center [via skyway], so attendees can move directly from room to meeting, without having to go outside. On a snowy January day in Minnesota, that can be a big valueadd,” says Jones.
» In a quest to create “a unique Minneapolis experience,” the Minneapolis Convention Center has added the Craft Bar and Lounge in the main lobby. “We’ve entered into a partnership with the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, and every quarter we feature a new lineup of locally crafted beers from Surly, Lift Bridge, Big Wood and more,” Johnson says. “People attending conventions will be able to enjoy beer they can’t find anywhere else but Minnesota.”
» In an industry in which turnover can be fairly steep, the operations staff at St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center is justly proud of its depth of experience. “I’ve been here 25 years,” says Bill Dunsmoor, manager, St. Cloud River’s Edge Convention Center. “Our least senior full-time person has been here 20 years. Meeting planners love coming here and seeing the same familiar faces, and often comment that our staff seems to know their needs before they do.”