In Convention Center Design, Environment Matters

March 21, 2016

In January, I attended the Professional Convention Management Association’s (PCMA) Convening Leaders conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia. The PCMA is the leading authority in education, business networking and community engagement for leaders in the global meetings, convention and business events industry.

Convening Leaders is PCMA’s primary laboratory for testing new ideas in all of these areas, and an opportunity to stay at the forefront of industry innovations and their implications for the design of convention center facilities. At the closing session of the conference, PCMA President Deborah Sexton summed up the relationship between a successful meeting and the place it is held when she said, “environment matters.”

One of the most striking aspects of the conference was how public space was used. While there were plenty of sessions that took place in meeting rooms, some of the most interesting ones were in open learning environments. These ranged from non-programmed conversations among groups gathered in lounge seating areas throughout the facility’s public concourses, to open sessions with community tables and bar stool seating.

The key takeaway is that variety matters. Attendees have preferences for their learning environments, and the more options from which they have to choose, the more they will be engaged in the event experience.

More broadly, I believe the future will see the blurring of the barrier between meeting room spaces and public circulation spaces. It will be important to open up “traditional” meeting rooms with larger openings, using tools like operable partitions.

Future convention centers will have a higher percentage of public spaces in their programs. Several presenters mentioned that convention attendees are no longer primarily coming to the event for the education – if this was ever true. Networking is the real motivation, and education helps facilitate meaningful interaction with peers.

The Internet has quickly become the gateway to meet continuing education requirements, but it’s always better to learn new things in the company of others; our peers’ fresh take on the material or solutions to a problem offer insight on the topic that we may never reach in the isolation of our jobs back home. And the networking mostly takes place in the public spaces under more casual circumstances – relaxing with a coffee or just taking a break. This means designers will need to be more conscious of providing space for furniture and gathering spaces, and facility owners and operators must account for it in their construction and renovation budgets.

The challenge this new emphasis on public space places on facilities is how to monetize the investment. As facilities offer such space and convention organizers buy it for their events, they will have to work out the value of these spaces that have always existed, but are being used in new ways and growing larger.

It’s the designer’s job to understand what convention users and planners want so that we can help our clients, the facility owners and managers, to meet those needs. Creating places that facilitate the variety of networking and learning options helps everyone be successful—because “environment matters.”

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