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October 2012

Breaking Convention

By Michelle Russell, Editor in Chief

For meeting and exhibit space, flexibility no longer begins and ends with airwalls.  Today, convention centers are rethinking how groups might utilize their every nook and cranny - and even how their facilities might be repurposed for entirely different audiences. Including the Olympics.

Along the way, we learned that we have to prototype our way into any new space; to continuously iterate, adapt, and evolve our spaces ...  and to think of space primarily as a way to change behavior.  ... We want [people] to act in more empathetic ways, so we make our spaces more human, with more places to debrief, reflect, and connect."
In the preface to Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration, Stanford d.school Executive Director George Kembel was referring to the cutting-edge design-school facility at the center of Stanford's campus.  But he could very well be talking about convention centers today.  At the same time that they're expanding and growing, they're seeking ways to become more human-scale.

"Thinking outside the meeting-room box," said Claire Smith, CMP, vice president of sales and marketing for the Vancouver Convention Centre, "is my new passion." She's not alone.  Convention centers around the world seem to be taking stock of the space they have and exploring how - with a little creativity - they can better serve the evolving needs of the groups who inhabit it.  And often it's those groups themselves that lead the way.

It Happens in the Hallway

"My line right now for us is, 'The foyer is the new meeting room,'" Smith said.  "Everyone wants to do everything in the hallways, rather than the meeting rooms.  Part of that is because we have spectacular hallways, but I am constantly surprised and excited about planners' creative use of our foyers."

Exercise apparel company Lululemon, for example, held giant yoga sessions in the Vancouver Convention Centre's second-level foyer as part of its SeaWheeze half-marathon event this past August.  SIGRAPH 2011, a world conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques, used the hallway between the center's East and West Buildings in August of last year for its International Partners Lounge - "full on with presentations," Smith said.  And during the 2011 International Congress for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, speakers spontaneously moved their sessions into the hallways "to allow for a more informal and inspiring environment," she said.  The view from the center's hallways must indeed be inspiring: Of the more than 40 weddings held at the Vancouver Convention Centre last year, at least half of them - ceremony and dinner - took place in a hallway.

Why the fascination with what typically has been viewed as ingress and egress areas? "I think it's building on the 'hallway conversations,'" Smith said, "where often better collaboration and connections happen in more informal environments and until our meeting-room setups start to reflect that (and sometimes they do), delegates are searching for those casual seating areas and informal gathering spots to continue the conversation."

The Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center has made those kinds of casual seating areas a permanent fixture of its Promenade- a long, light-filled area that connects its meeting rooms.  In doing so, the center took its cue from TED, which it has hosted for the past several years; TED conference organizers bring in living-room-style furniture to create a variety of spaces that support conversations between attendees.

"We loved the concept of mini-meeting spots," Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitor Vereau, told Convene last year as part of an article about hosting TED.  The Promenade has been outfitted with sofas, tables, chairs, and a line of palm trees, dividing the space into a series of intimate conversation areas that also serve as recharging stations for smartphones and other devices that attendees may be using.

A hallway likewise took center stage at Unconventional Evening an event hosted by and at the Sydney Convention & Exhibition Centre (SCEC) in 2010.  To showcase the newly renovated foyer of its Parkside Ballroom, SCEC transformed the space into a spectacular long dining room, its cantilevered glass wall providing a night view over Darling Harbour and the sparkling city skyline.  Meanwhile, the adjacent ballroom- traditionally the setting for events- was used to house the kitchen for the evening.  The ballroom doors were treated with mirroring to create a more intimate space in the foyer and counter any sense that guests were positioned "outside" the ballroom.

Ton can Amerongen, SCEC's chief executive, said Unconventional Evening was designed to highlight the center's unique setting and style and to embrace its spirit of innovation.  "We wanted to remind people of our passion for excellence," can Amerongen said, "and surprise them with an evening that broke conventions, particularly for a convention center."

Olympic Proportions

While most convention centers continue to find new ways for groups to utilize their existing space, some buildings have been called upon to repurpose their facilities for entirely different audiences.  ExCeL London provides an excellent case study of the latter.

On June 18, ExCeL London's management handed over the keys to its facility to the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and made plans to reclaim the building three months later.  During those three months, ExCeL was completely closed down for business conferences and conventions, and used to house a good portion of the largest global event of all - seven Olympic and six Paralympic sports.

In doing so, ExCeL became the most complex venue in Olympic history.  "Normally you would have one venue for the fencing, one venue for table tennis, one venue for weightlifting, etc.  You do not traditionally get this multi-use," said James Rees, ExCeL London's director of conferences and events, who sat down with Convene in his office at ExCeL just a few weeks before the Summer Games got under way.

"And the fact that we had those seven Olympic sports, the practice halls, the warm-up zones, the staffing areas, the offices, the TV studio, the compounds for vehicles underneath the venue - it was the complexity of all the different uses that the one facility [had], which has not been the case ever."

Accommodating displaced meetings business over those three months wasn't too much of a headache.  ExCeL had seven years to plan its "diary," and worked closely with its existing clients.  "Fortunately, we managed to find a home for each bit of business that would normally run in those periods," Rees said, "either before or after the Games."

It was a small price to pay for the exposure ExCeL gained during the Games, which will take the center "to the next level from a branding point of view," Rees said.  "The positive feedback that we've had from Facebook and Twitter and in the media about the experience of visiting ExCeL - we couldn't have asked for anything better, and I think it has really given us greater credence both nationally and internationally."

That brand recognition was magnified by the fact that ExCeL's name remained intact during the Olympics, which wasn't the case with most of the other facilities used for the Games.  For example, the O2 arena - for which the U.K.-based O2 mobile network had bought naming rights in 2005 - had its name switched by the International Olympic Committee to "the North Greenwich Arena" for the duration of the Games, so as not to conflict with official Olympic sponsorships, which included telecom providers.

The only naming condition that the committee imposed on ExCeL was for the center - which is owned by the Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company (ADNEC) - to lose its Abu

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