A fresh approach to designing meeting space connects the experience of everyone who will use it - attendees, planners, and support staff - into a seamless whole.
It’s not as if the latest space taken over by New York City–based Sentry Centers - the second floor of the 32 Old Slip office building in Manhattan’s Financial District - was shabby to begin with. Just a few blocks from Wall Street, with prime views of the East River, the space formerly was an internal training center for Goldman Sachs.
But, except for oak paneling and glossy terrazzo floors deemed too gorgeous to remove, Sentry Centers is, in the words of company founder Chris Kelly, “starting absolutely from scratch” - ripping up carpet, carting away outdated technology, and knocking down walls - as it turns the training center into a 20,000-square-foot, state-of- the-art conference and meeting facility.
The makeover, however, goes far beyond a physical renovation. In planning the new space, Sentry undertook a design process that deconstructed the idea of meetings themselves, breaking them down into their component parts and putting them back together in a flexible framework to support how people really work today. Even the very definition of “meetings” was up for reinvention.
“We understood that people weren’t coming to us to have a meeting, which is a common misperception,” Kelly said. “People are actually coming to us because they need to get something done”— learning new information, for example, or making an important decision. “We’re looking at ourselves not as a conference center, but as a destination where these types of collaborations can occur.”
‘Ask, Observe, and Engage’
The space at 32 Old Slip is the third Manhattan conference center developed by Sentry Centers, which Kelly and partner Ryan Simonetti founded in 2009. Convene toured the space, which was under construction, on a rainy, windy Friday morning in mid-October - its opening, then scheduled for early 2013, will be delayed because of extensive damage that the 32 Old Slip building sustained during Superstorm Sandy.
Kelly and Simonetti lease commercial office space and then renovate it, adding best-in-class services such as food-and-beverage, technology, and meeting planning. Their model, which capitalizes on the trend of corporations outsourcing meetings to off-site venues, has quickly gained traction: More than 70 percent of the Fortune 500 companies based in New York City, Kelly said, have held meetings in Sentry’s first two centers, located on the Upper East Side and in Midtown Manhattan.
Elements of the first two centers reflect Sentry’s user-centered approach to design, but the new space will be the first one in the company’s portfolio to fully carry out that vision. What will set 32 Old Slip apart, Kelly said, “is that every single aspect of the entire experience, from aesthetics to technology to food-and-beverage to [client] brand positioning, has been created from this place.” He added: “We really studied the meeting attendee and our core customer, the meeting planner. We’re taking a very user-centered approach to pretty much everything we do - not only from a physical-design perspective, but also from a processes and services perspective.”
Sentry has been working with design and innovation consultant Joyce Bromberg, founder of The Bromberg Group and former director of research for the office-furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc., where she led teams that studied workplace environments in industries including health care, banking, and education. Bromberg, who began consulting with Sentry Centers as it planned the opening of its second space, is teamed up with designer Michael E. Fazio, a principal at ARCHIDEAS, an architecture and design firm, where he is director of the interior design group. Bromberg and Fazio both have been focused on design research for more than two decades, and their collective experience makes them “pretty well versed in group work,” Bromberg said, “and what it means to make for a great collaboration or great meeting or a great conference from a space point of view, from a technology point of view, and from a process and culture point of view. And we feel strongly that all of those things have to be in sync.”
As they collaborated on the design of the new conference-center space at 32 Old Slip, Bromberg and Fazio conducted research focused on the experience of users at Sentry’s existing centers. “We spent a lot of time talking to external-meeting planners and talking to attendees,” Bromberg said. “We talked to every staff member at Sentry. We looked at it from everybody’s point of view - the user, the server, the meeting planner - and we tried to design it so everybody has a great experience.” That didn’t mean dragging staff into empty conference rooms, but talking to them where they’re actually working. “That helps to trigger thoughts,” Bromberg said, “and allows the interviewer to ask questions that get deeper to the heart of the matter.”
Their methodology, which Bromberg described as “ask, observe, and engage,” is designed to uncover users’ needs at a number of levels. Asking people directly what they want only gets you so far, Bromberg said. It doesn’t unearth implicit needs - which are needs that people know they have but don’t articulate, because they are second nature. Observing both meetings and the work functions surrounding meetings “gave us a great deal of information.”
The toughest needs to get at, Bromberg said, are latent needs. These are “things that people don’t even know they need until you give it to them - and then, they are like, ‘Oh, my God! How did you know?’ And it seems like magic. You need all three [ask, observe, and engage] in order to understand how to change the game for user experience.”
Choosing a Work Posture
One major element of the original Goldman Sachs training center at 32 Old Slip that will remain in place is a tiered auditorium - renamed the Forum - that seats 250 people in angled rows. The updated auditorium has been opened up to more light - and river views - and equipped with simulcast and webcasting technology. “We’re fusing the virtual with the real world,” Kelly said, creating the capacity to link remote sites together and allow full participation by online audiences.
32 Old Slip also will be equipped with technology that will allow information presented in the auditorium to be broadcast into every room of the facility, including informal spaces with a range of furnishings - from tables and chairs to lounges and ottomans - that groups or individuals can arrange as they wish, giving meeting attendees almost unlimited options about how they want to interact with content and each other. “I think this is a big idea that no one else in the conferencing business has tapped into - that people are no longer just working in offices, sitting upright in chairs, at right angles to their desks,” Kelly said. “Technology has freed everything up. Things are becoming more relaxed. People want to be able to choose not only where they work, but how they work in a given setting.”
People have a new expectation of flexibility in their work and professional lives. “If I can work anywhere, anytime, at home, on my couch or at Starbucks, and can do so in comfort,” Kelly said, “then I fully expect the same at work or when I attend a meeting. …We asked, ‘How can we give people control? How can we allow alternative postures? How can we allow people to work more comfortably if that’s what they want?’ It’s not saying you’ve got to throw out the old and just have