Meeting Places and Spaces [New Jersey Business (NJ)]
(New Jersey Business (NJ) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) For an industry that generally feeds off of the financial success and outlook of other industries, the meeting and conference business has not been as booming as it once was before the economic downturn in 2008. The trend is changing, although slowly, according to many meeting and conference center professionals in the state.
In the last few years, meeting and conference facilities have been seeing a slow uptick in business, but not nearly as much of an increase as the industry was hoping.
"We are definitely seeing a rebound right now," says Steve Sackman, regional vice president of sales and marketing at Hamilton Park Hotel & Conference Center in Florham Park. "Slowly each year, it kind of picks up a little bit more. Customers are willing to spend a little more. We aren't talking about giant leaps, but nice incremental changes each year, which benefits us."
Although companies have begun to hold more meetings and conferences in the last few years, the types of meetings and number of attendees have changed since the economy shifted.
"Business has actually increased in the last two years," says Glen Isemann, general manager of The Olde Mill Inn in Basking Ridge. "It really is the type of business that has changed. We are not seeing the major dinner parties and things of that nature as frequently as we used to, but we are seeing more of them, which is good."
Ed Reagoso, general manager of The Wilshire Grand Hotel in West Orange, says that law firms, telecommunications, pharmaceutical and technology companies, among others, are still holding events, but the volume of people attending is not the same.
"Big companies are still having meetings," Reagoso says. "But, instead of having a regional meeting with 200 people, now it is just a vice president and regional managers. They are having maybe 25 to 50 people at the most."
According to Bernie Sefcik, director of hotel sales at the Borgata in Atlantic City, companies were not having the long events that hotels and conference centers were used to seeing prior to the economic downturn. He says that instead of a conference lasting five or six days, they have been two or three. However, that has been changing as well.
"Back in 2003-2007, the meetings business was booming. Then, in 2008-2010, the economy started to go south," Sefcik says. "Companies were starting to cut their budgets. Their blocks (conference lengths) were much smaller, or they may have completely cut meetings altogether. But it really started to crank back up in 2011, and we have started to notice the uptick."
Russell Clarke, director of sales and marketing for Dolce Basking Ridge Hotel in Basking Ridge, says that no matter what the economy is like, and how tight of a budget a business can be on, there are still meetings that a company has to hold in order for it to function properly.
"We are seeing some growth, and our weekdays and corporate events are pretty strong," says Clarke. "I anticipate they will continue to be strong next year because there are certain portions of business on which companies have to spend money, like new hire training, or sales training and board meetings strategy sessions, for example. Those still have to take place in order for [the company] to be successful."
No matter what type, or how large or small of an event a company is looking to hold, conference and meeting centers in New Jersey have an array of different rooms and amenities to fit all types of needs.
The Wilshire Grand Hotel offers 21,000 square feet of meeting space, which can accommodate groups from five to 525 people. Of its three ballrooms, the 5,600-square-foot Grand Ballroom can hold up to 525 guests. The others can hold between 100 to 275, depending on the meeting. The facility offers free wired and wireless Internet, but has recently tripled its Internet speed for "road warriors" that need something much faster.
"We offer our customers and guests basic Internet for free, so they can check e-mail and browse the web," Reagoso says. "For someone who is here for business, or who needs to download large files and use a large amount of bandwidth, we have a business class high speed that we charge $8.95 a day."
With the smaller budgets companies have to spend on meetings and conferences, Reagoso knows The Wilshire Grand has to stay competitive and flexible with its pricing and service.
"We stay competitive, but we haven't really pushed the envelope with our prices," he says. "Some of the companies we have done business with over the past have been loyal to us, so we are doing our best to be loyal to them. It is about value and service. If value and service is not there, then you are going to be in trouble.
Hamilton Park Hotel & Conference Center offers a total of 27,700 square feet of meeting space. The space can then be broken down into 40 smaller rooms with a main ballroom that is 4,400 square feet. For meetings, the ballroom can be set up theater style and hold about 320 guests, or classroom style and hold about 200.
In terms of technology, Hamilton Park has its own audio/visual and IT staff on-site to assist with any client need.
"We can do anything as simple as a LCD projector, which is built into a lot of the rooms, and rear screen projection in some of our bigger rooms," Sackman says. "We can do video conferencing and distance learning, which is important, because a lot of people who attend meetings aren't physically present."
Not only is having the most up-to-date technology for customers important, but having a multitude of food and beverage options, and being able to work within a client's budget is essential, according to Joseph Amore, director of operations at the Pines Manor in Edison.
"We have several food and beverage packages that we can fit within a client's budget," Amore says. "Some are sit down breakfasts and lunches, and some are buffets. We prepare everything inhouse and everything is made to order."
Amore sees meeting planners leaning toward healthier and more specific food options than in the past.
"When it comes to food, we have seen a big trend in healthier food and maybe not as much food either," he says. "Customers are just looking to be healthier. In the last couple of years, we have also seen a trend towards specific needs as well, like vegan and peanut allergies, or gluten free and kosher meals. We can provide all of those things."
The Pines Manor has over 30,000 square feet of meeting space with the largest ballroom being 16,000 square feet. The ballroom can hold up to 1,000 people classroom style, but the facility can hold events accommodating anywhere from 10 to 1,500 people.
"We have separate smaller rooms, but our main ballroom has portable walls and partitions that can be moved around to create specific space," Amore says. "If it is an event for 300 or 600 people, we can grow or shrink depending on client needs."
The Olde Mill Inn has 16,000 square feet of space in 18 private rooms, as well as the Grain House restaurant across the street, for various types of events.
"Our restaurant has a room called the Grain Room, which can seat up to 40 people," Isemann says. "We can use it for meetings or social functions and it has a deck it opens up to. We also have a Fox and Hound Room, which can seat about 80 people. The Hunt Room can hold 120 people with its own private entrance in the back of the restaurant. It has a fireplace and doors that open up to a tented patio."
Isemann says there a few packages that the Olde Mill Inn offers to meet different needs - from the complete meeting package, to the day meeting package - and everything can be negotiable.
"A lot of times, companies are looking for the one price per person," he says. "Let's say the complete meeting package would cover overnight rooms, plus the meeting space and a lunch. Some clients don't need that, so they look for options for the day. Now, we are a lot more willing to sit down with them and work within their budget, especially regarding food, because we have our own chefs that can tailor items for specific needs."
At Dolce Basking Ridge, there is 21,000 square feet of meeting space broken up into 31 different types and sizes of rooms: It can be two ballrooms, an amphitheater, smaller breakout rooms or permanent conference style rooms. The largest can hold up to 325 people and the smallest is a six-person conference room. The facility also has 171 hotel rooms to accommodate overnight meetings.
Dolce recently opened up 3,000 additional square feet of meeting space by converting old sales and administrative offices into four new meeting rooms.
"We were handcuffed a little bit in reference to the size of meeting space in relation to the number of guest rooms," Clarke says. "We needed more space to take the pressure off of us, so we could completely sell all the meeting space and the guest rooms at the same time.
"In our new meeting space, and as we are migrating forward, we are installing smart boards. They all have drop down screens and some of our meeting rooms have built-in rear screens;' Clarke adds. "We also have meeting planner kits in each room that have sundry items, from paperclips, thumbtacks and tape, to rulers, staplers and sticky pads. It is essentially an office within an office within a hotel."
Not only a conference and meeting facility, but an entertainment facility, the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa offers over 70,000 square feet of event space, which can be broken down into 22 rooms. That includes the 30,000-square-foot event center/ballroom, which breaks out into four rooms by itself. In addition to the 70,000 square feet, Borgata has the 18,000-square-foot Water Club, which the company considers to be a "hotel within a hotel."
"We can break the Water Club into 13 meeting rooms. In addition to that, we use our indoor pool for various receptions;' Sefcik says. "We also have a board room in the water club that is separate from the meeting space as well."
Sefcik says that an abundance of Borgata's business stems from attendees who went to a conference at the facility and soon wanted to hold one of their own events at the casino hotel.
"We get phone calls from people all the time who attended a conference, and we get business from that," he says. "It is not uncommon to have a conference and introduce new people to the property, and then they are back three or four times within the year."
This "piggy-backing" business is a reason that Borgata's financial outlook has been growing, and the company looks forward to 2013.
"We had an excellent 2012 compared to 2011 and I was very pleased to see how we are doing this year with our group business," Sefcik says. "I do think that the slow period in the meetings business occurred in 2009 through 2011, and that there has been a strong comeback in 2012. We are looking forward to continuing that next year and beyond."
From large or small meeting spaces, to overnight rooms, technology and food and beverage offerings, the options available to companies looking to hold an event in New Jersey are limitless, no matter the type of meeting or conference.
(c) 2012 New Jersey Business & Industry Association
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