Birchwood Manor

NJ: The Meeting Place

Hotels and conference centers across the Garden State cater to companies.

Most businesses still value the traditional corporate meeting, but in a world of shrinking budgets, executives are becoming increasingly cost-conscious when booking the perfect meeting venue.

“Businesses are definitely looking for more cost-effective ways of holding conferences, and [some] are turning towards universities as a compliment to the standard hotel conference center,” Ryan Klutsarits, director of the conference center and conference services at Montclair State University, says.

Montclair State University boasts an elaborate conference center located on the seventh floor of University Hall in the center of campus. This facility includes a main ballroom that holds 500 people, which can be split into six different breakout rooms. The ballroom is additionally equipped with floor-to-ceiling windows, bringing in great light and providing outstanding views of the New York City skyline. The President’s Dining Room, a boardroom style area, holds up to 30 people and is separated from the main ballroom.

While some companies will look to universities as a more budget-friendly option for their meetings, perhaps the fresh and unique feel that Montclair State’s campus offers is most attractive. “It’s for those who are looking for a different energy in the way they set up their presentations,” Klutsarits says. “The fall and the spring are very exciting times around campus and you can feel that energy even from just walking from your car into the conference center.”

Many companies are seeking a different setting when it comes to booking a meeting space. Something unique or unexpected keeps employees engaged and can greatly enhance retention of material, overall creativity and can boost morale.

Natirar, located in Somerset County, is a 500-acre estate that includes the historic Natirar Mansion and Ninety Acres Culinary Center – an area consisting of a restaurant, cooking school and a farm. A 10,000-square-foot extension onto the mansion is set to be finished next June and will include a ballroom. All of these areas can be used for events and meetings.

“The opportunity for coming to Natirar for a meeting is to use what we have,” Natirar founder Bob Wojtowicz says. “We’ve had corporate groups go out on the farm and go into the cooking school for team building events. We’ve had them go on hikes in our park, and even had a company of 300 people use our lawn for a yoga class. We’re trying to come up with creative ways in which people can not only have their meetings, but also get out, breathe fresh air and have fun.”

Alternatively, Birchwood Manor, located in Whippany, is a uniquely elegant meeting and convention venue, recognized as one of the largest banquet facilities in the state. It is a 32,000-square-foot facility with an impressive 11,088-square-foot ballroom equipped with crystal chandeliers.

While Birchwood Manor’s main business is weddings, it has been able to strategically use the large mansion’s elegant ambience to tap into the growing trend of companies looking for a new feel for their corporate meetings.

The capability to cater specifically to each company’s desires and requirements is absolutely necessary in the industry. Different companies have varying visions, each with a different set of goals they want the meeting to accomplish. Being able to react to a company’s unique requests, as opposed to forcing upon them a standard routine, is vital.

“All the corporate events we do –they are all different,” Michele Korzen, marketing manager at Birchwood Manor, says. “They all have different audio-visual requirements, they all set up the ballroom differently … we provide flexibility. [The company’s] vision of what it needs – we are willing to make it happen.”

The Heldrich Hotel, located in the heart of New Brunswick, was built and designed specifically to handle meetings. The hotel conference center includes a 7,300-square-foot ballroom that can be divided into three separate rooms as well as a range of large breakout rooms, including a 2,500-square-foot amphitheater.

“We specialize in meetings and our space is purposely designed for that,” Pat Weldon, director of sales and marketing at The Heldrich Hotel, says. “We have the technology [necessary] such as flat panels and electricity built into the floor, we are located a few blocks from NJ Transit with easy access to two major cities, and we sit in the hotbed of Rutgers University near healthcare entities such as Robert Wood Johnson University and Saint Peter’s University hospitals.”

The face-to-face meeting at a conference center has been a staple for successful businesses for quite some time. Technology has drastically altered the way we communicate with each other, allowing us to be on a video conference call with dozens of co-workers or clients scattered around the world, in just a few clicks.

When asked about the value of face-to-face contact, Weldon says, “History has proved that the personal interaction, networking and team building that comes from working with a group on a physical property is priceless. People need to meet in person and shake hands if they want to work towards a common goal.”

Having up-to-date technology is a must, but human-to-human interaction with customers is a value not lost on Edward Reagoso, general manager of The Wilshire Grand Hotel. “The person who is executing the meeting is also the one who is booking it. [Here], businesses are speaking to the only person whom they are going to speak with through the entire booking process, up to the day of the meeting.”

Suzanne Fekete, Wilshire Grand Hotel meetings and conventions coordinator, is that person.

She creates and builds upon relationships with hotel customers and works with them one-on-one when setting up and executing events. The shift to a single liaison that handles all things meetings was a minor, yet impactful, change that has made event-planning operations at the Wilshire Grand Hotel run much more smoothly.

“If you have the right person in the position … it can add a phenomenal perspective from the customer and guest’s sight,” Reagoso says. “Suzanne has excelled in the position. She is a very natural and genuine person who wants to make sure that whatever you are booking gets done right.”

The Wilshire Grand Hotel boasts a 30,000-square-foot banquet center, with numerous rooms and areas to break off into as well as a recent internet upgrade that includes a new 200 mg/s Verizon connection, one Reagoso is proud of as being among the best for a hotel in New Jersey.

“The average person who comes to a meeting here has no less than two pieces of equipment that are using Wi-Fi,” Reagoso says. “The most important thing is the internet signal. There is no room for anything less than what the business demands.”

Andrew Finn, vice president of Benchmark Hospitality International, echoes this sentiment, reaffirming the necessity of strong, reliable internet with outstanding bandwidth.

“You must have bandwidth in the [meeting space] … it’s absolutely imperative. It’s the foundation – the ground zero,” Finn says.

Many conference centers provide a private Wi-Fi connection to be used solely by the party holding a meeting. This ensures the strongest, most reliable connection, and eliminates restrictions on what the Wi-Fi can be used for.

“We have a stable guest Wi-Fi that is kept separate from the campus Wi-Fi [at Montclair State] and provides the ability to set up panel discussions and teleconferencing,” Klutsarits says. “Streaming has become very popular these days. We get a lot of requests from companies who want the ability to stream their conference on a link somewhere across the country.”

Savvy companies are utilizing technological advancements in order to enhance the meeting experience. Smaller sections of a larger company may indeed broadcast the meeting via livestream to the rest of the corporation. Meeting companion apps are growing in popularity, working to enhance the in-person experience by providing event agendas, speaker bios, attendee lists with photos, last minute changes to the program and more.

Technology is growing exponentially and continues to find its way into all aspects of the corporate world. Its impact is felt on a daily basis, and the enhancements to meetings over the years have certainly been drastic. These changes, however, have done just that – enhance the experience – and have yet to mean the end of traditional face-to-face meetings as we know them.

“Face-to-face meetings are invaluable. People want to go out and do things and not be stuck in the office,” Jim Wood, president and CEO of the full service destination marketing organization Meet AC, says. “There’s a lot of information that is shared [at meetings], and that information can’t be shared over something like Skype. [Virtual] meetings are short and when they’re done, people are immediately disconnected. However, when they are in a meeting for three days, they’re connecting during coffee breaks, the reception and dinner. Technology simply cannot replace the kind of connectivity that face-to-face interaction provides.”

Those running the best corporate meeting venues understand the importance of staying on the cutting edge of future technological advancements. They also accept – being in the hospitality business – the value of making a human-to-human connection, without the barrier of a computer screen. The best strategy seems to be to harmoniously combine these two types of connections, in order to get the most out of what is afforded to us.


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