Not another boring meeting

People want fun, hands-on conferences that give them instructive takeaways

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Meeting goers can bond while riding horses at
Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg.
Courtesy Salamander Resort & Spa

You’ve spent day one of a two-day business conference exploring your leadership and communication styles while on the back of a horse. Now, you’re rolling up your sleeves and preparing a gourmet dinner with your team.

Welcome to meetings and conventions in 2014. Though still in the midst of a slowly recovering economy, conference venues throughout Virginia are doing more than simply laying out the welcome mat. With sequestration a not-too-distant memory and additional budget cuts looming, government and military meetings are held at a premium. Corporate groups, trade associations and individual participants also are carefully considering expenditures for off-site meetings. So that calls for something creative.

People want time away from the office to be productive, cost-effective and yes, fun. According to the U.S. Travel Association, personalized, customized service, with a nod toward simple, local foods and activities, are trending for 2014.

“Our clients are asking themselves what is the return on their investment on the meeting, and their attendees are doing the same sort of thing,” says Rick Eisenman of Eisenman & Associates Inc., an association management, meeting planning and consulting company in Glen Allen. “It’s a money crunch, and it’s a time crunch,” adds Eisenman.  “Attendees want something that helps them with their job. They don’t want to just go to some nice resort for three days and go back and do the same thing.” 

Fortune 500 companies, as well as other firms seeking a different take on meetings, are booking space at the 168-room Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg. It’s easy to reach — an  hour’s drive from Washington, D.C., and 30 minutes from Washington Dulles International Airport. Opened last August, the 340-acre resort features a cooking studio with daily culinary classes and corporate team-building events. About 53 percent of the resort’s business so far has come from groups, with 65 percent of that figure made up of corporate groups, says Matt Owen, corporate director of public relations.

Salamander was designed with corporate meetings and retreats in mind. “There’s the ability to have a sense of exclusivity,” he says. “They can keep the group together in an environment in which everyone is comfortable.”

That comfort extends to the stables where meeting-goers mount horses as part of the resort’s Equi-Spective Experience or visit the cooking studio where they participate in a cook-off using recipes submitted by the company CEO. “People look for unusual things,” Owen says, noting that the equestrian program develops leadership and relationship skills. “It’s a very, very powerful program of self-discipline that you cannot conduct anywhere else.”

While Salamander capitalizes on its location in the middle of Virginia’s horse country, The Homestead is counting on its new owner, Omni Resorts, to generate new meeting business for the resort, which was founded in 1766.  “We’re no longer leading the battle ourselves,” says Jeff Ford, the Homestead’s director of sales. “We’re part of a national chain, and that opens up a lot of doors from the group-meeting perspective. To have a company that good of a match with our principles should lead to a lot of future reward.”

Omni, which purchased the Hot Springs resort in July 2013, is inviting meeting planners from major markets such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C, to take a personalized look at the Homestead during a weekend visit. “Lots of people have heard of the Homestead, but not everybody has been here, so we want to bring people in to kick the tires, so to speak, and see what we offer,” Ford says. “Once people come here and see it, then they’ll buy it.”

During the recession, group business mostly came from regional organizations within driving distance of the Homestead. “Now it’s becoming more far-flung from that three or four-hour drive,” Ford notes. “It’s expanded out to five or six hours, and it will keep expanding as the economy gets better.”

Omni’s Select Rewards program also is attracting the attention of meeting planners.  “They can contract with us and choose rewards, such as a donation to the group’s favorite charity or money for group training,” Ford explains. “Wherever the hot spot is with that particular organization, Select Rewards can address that.”

Most of the Homestead’s business comes from corporate groups, as well as national and state associations. Virginia state associations have held meetings at the Homestead for more than 100 years. Although the property recently completed a $26 million renovation, it still sells itself on old-style Southern hospitality. “When you come to the Homestead, you’re really not looking for anything different,” Ford says. “You’re looking for what the Homestead is known for: quality food, quality service, spa and golf.”

Salamander and the Homestead are among Virginia resort properties seeing a resurgence in meetings business. “At the beginning and middle of the recession, a lot of planners shied away from resorts, but those properties are definitely springing back,” says Joni Johnson, national sales manager for the Virginia Tourism Corp.

However, the state’s largest regions still are dealing with hotel vacancies, largely due to the decline in government meetings. “Over the past year, hotel occupancy has been down across the state, particularly in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads as a result of the government shutdown and sequestration,” says Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association.

“The industry is refocusing on corporate and nonprofit users in the wake of that government meeting drop off.”

Meeting planners, especially those representing government offices, also are following shorter booking windows. Fifteen to 20 percent of Salamander’s  meetings are booked within 30 days of the group’s arrival, says Owen. “Ten years ago that was unheard of.” The economic downturn, though, changed habits. “Everyone’s become a lot more flexible.”

Planners are taking on more duties at the office, making it that much harder to effectively plan conferences. “A lot of folks are getting stretched down,” says Devin Heath, vice president of sales and services for Richmond Region Tourism. “They’re doing jobs two people had done before.” To assist, Richmond Region Tourism staff often does the legwork for companies or associations, reaching out to venues, hotels and restaurants. “We look at it as a partnership,” Heath adds.

Richmond recorded its best ever year for meetings as well as overall tourism in 2013. “It was a very positive year,” Heath says, adding that the Capital city made it onto Frommer’s list of Top Destinations for 2014. “Richmond became noticed. We’ve really become a hip and nouveau style destination.”

Richmond’s tourism office has developed a Dine Around package where conventioneers can spend an evening sampling food at three or more of the city’s 900-plus restaurants. “Food is a big part of meetings and conventions,” Heath notes. “People want a creative culinary experience. When you have the opportunity to try something new with a group, it can be a fun experience.”

Groups also can hear the chef explain the menu while creating the meal, or they can take matters into their own hands, working as a team of chefs to prepare a meal. “There are all kinds of really neat, exciting experiences,” Heath says.

In the end, it’s those kinds of hands-on experiences that leave lasting impressions on meeting-goers while at the same time recharging their batteries. “It’s a good thing,” says Eisenman of Eisenman and Associates, “because you don’t do a meeting just because you’ve done it for the last 100 years.”

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