As business meetings and conferences move away from the traditional expert-to-audience lecture in favor of a more interactive format, America’s convention centers are becoming more experiential in nature with flexible spaces that cater to a variety of functions. In fact, a number of New Jersey conference venues are taking 21st century trends to the next level by offering unprecedented versatility – enhancing events with unique forms of entertainment, state-of-the-art technology, and new opportunities to socialize.
“The competition is evolving daily with many in the market trying to stay on top of the growing and changing needs of our clients,” says David Bowd, owner and operator of the Asbury Hotel in Asbury Park, which hosts everything from brand launches, to employee celebrations, to yearly summit meetings. “Clients of all kinds are looking for new, fresh experiences that are going to be different than what they have expected before.”
The Asbury Hotel, which has 110 guest rooms in a range of sizes, recently completed a $500,000 expansion of the pool area, adding more cabanas, dining areas, and lounges. The Hall & Lawn/Terrace, encompassing 4,800 square feet of indoor and outdoor space, can be booked as a whole or separately, offering two floor-to-ceiling screens, a top-of-the-line projector, and sound and light design capabilities. The venue hosted some 350 events in 2017.
“Convention spaces have seen a big push toward all digital communication and presentation, with very little paper or physical presentation packets,” Bowd says. “Clients are also more concerned about keeping their attendees engaged every second of the day than they used to be. This could be attributed to our close relationship to our smart phones and smart devices.”
Variety and unique spaces are also key at Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment in East Rutherford, which offers 155,000 square feet of space with more than a dozen areas to host events both inside and outside. These include a rooftop terrace for up to 500 guests that overlooks the Manhattan skyline; a main restaurant, lounge and six private suites; and a 2.5-acre outdoor dining and entertaining section that can accommodate up to 10,000 people for a variety of events and festivals. It has been four years since the opening of the new Meadowlands building, whose technology includes: an on-site TV studio where live races are broadcast; a jumbo screen at trackside, along with a digital board to highlight racing specifics; and a state-of-the-art audio/visual system in the Victory Sports Bar & Club.
“Conferences, trade shows, corporate events and cocktail parties continue to be very popular with requests coming in daily for both live racing nights as well independent functions,” says Andrea Lokshin, vice president of sales and marketing, who was hired earlier this year and has an extensive background in marketing, sponsorships, brand building, event management and sales. “Clients are looking for venues which offer a new environment that is exciting and different, so when they tour Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment, they immediately know they have found something special.“
Though the tri-state area is also home to impressive venues such as MetLife Stadium, Prudential Center, NJPAC, Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center, Lokshin doesn’t consider them direct competition. “Each brings different benefits to a potential client or company, but nothing else offers our combination of live harness racing, rooftop views of Manhattan, state-of-the-art technology and gourmet catering.”
About 30 minutes south in Newark is the legendary Robert Treat Hotel, which celebrated its 100th Anniversary last year. There are 170 newly appointed guest rooms and three luxury suites in the hotel, whose 22,000 square feet of banquet and meeting space includes the 13,000-square-foot Tri-State Ballroom; 4,425-square-foot Crystal Ballroom; 10 meetings rooms, each of which can accommodate up to 50 people; and Starlight Roof, a rooftop entertaining space with a view of Manhattan that is available for casual gatherings of up to 125 people.
“As the city of Newark becomes a more popular destination for business and leisure travelers to the New York Metropolitan area, it is crucial to provide an attractive lodging option that meets consumer demand for quality, ambiance and on-site amenities,” says Miles Berger, chairman and COO of the Berger Organization, which owns and operates the Robert Treat Hotel. “And, with myriad choices for social entertaining, corporate conferences and non-profit galas, having luxury banquet space along with high-quality guest rooms keeps the Robert Treat Hotel competitive.”
The Robert Treat recently underwent $2 million in renovations aimed at retaining the hotel’s old-world charm while incorporating contemporary touches and amenities. All common areas and the lobby have been refurbished from floor to ceiling, and the Crystal Ballroom now features a three-tier chandelier and bar with mahogany and marble, while the Tri-State Ballroom’s upgrade includes 18 new crystal chandeliers and new color-changing LED spotlighting. Both ballrooms are equipped with the latest A/V equipment and the meeting spaces have all been upgraded to include full A/V capabilities for corporate clients who require high-speed wireless Internet and electronic projection. In addition, the executive chef has been revamping the banquet menus to bring guests a broader array of cuisine because, as Berger says, “Our clients are looking for more eclectic fare that reflects the cultural and ethnic diversity of our area.”
Although Newark does not have a convention center, the Robert Treat Hotel has hosted numerous mini-conventions, including for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Rutgers University, PSE&G and the New Jersey Charter School Association. “For Newark in particular, the city’s proximity to midtown Manhattan – just 15 minutes by rail to New York Penn Station – makes it an attractive location to host corporate conferences at affordable rates,” Berger says. “The legal sector is well represented here and technology is a growing market.”
Another general corporate trend filtering to business meetings and conferences is corporate responsibility, according to Patricia Weldon, director of corporate sales and marketing for The Palace at Somerset Park. “Many clients wish to allot time for community involvement, or Corporate Responsibility Programs, in the schedule, and the programs are varied,” Weldon says, giving the example of a client who recently participated in an art project that was installed at a local children’s hospital. “Other groups build bicycles for families in need, and others package supplies for our troops or areas in need, such as Houston after the hurricane.”
The Palace includes such spaces as the 10,330-square-foot East Ballroom, 7,680-square-foot West Ballroom, 3,900-square-foot Grand Foyer, and 10 smaller meeting rooms. In 2017, the facility upgraded its gardens, constructed and landscaped two outdoor pergolas, and installed eight fire pits on outdoor terraces. New LED lighting was also installed in the two largest event spaces, and 20,000 square feet of new carpeting laid for the entire main floor, with plans in 2018 for new carpeting throughout the conference space.
“We increased our bandwidth to stay current in the marketplace, installed the newest LCD projectors in several meeting rooms, and installed a 60-inch flat panel screen to enhance any event,” Weldon says. “We are able to handle the simplest meeting format with built-in LCD projectors and screens, to a full-service production, including pipe and drape, single or multi-screen production with a 16-channel Mackie Mixer and sound system.”
Atlantic City remains a popular convention spot, offering some of the latest in creative spaces and state-of-the-art equipment. Hosting more than 500 groups annually, Tropicana Atlantic City has more than 100,000 square feet of meeting space, most of which has recently been upgraded. The Tropicana Showroom has Broadway style seating for close to 2,000 people, making it attractive for general sessions, while the 18,000-square-foot ballroom and 20,000-square-foot Grand Exhibition Center can accommodate elegant banquets for up to 1,000 attendees.
In addition, the newly renovated Havana Tower has 16,000 square feet of meeting space that splits into 21 separate rooms, while smaller groups might prefer one of the unique lounging or dining spaces, such as Top of the Trop, which features oceanfront views; Boogie Nights, a 1970s and ‘80s-themed dance club; or one of award-winning Chef Jose Garces’s new restaurants, Olón, Bar Olón, or Okatshe. And, addressing the trend of more engaging activities for convention attendees, Tropicana Atlantic City’s Escape AC offers four Atlantic City themed spaces: The Poker Room, The Boardwalk, The Casino Cage, and Backstage – each providing unique 60-minute, team-building experiences.
“Convention groups are not looking for a hotel to simply provide rooms, space, food and AV,” says James Zeires, vice president of hotel sales at Tropicana Atlantic City, who emphasizes his facility’s advanced audiovisual arrangement and experienced in-house staff. “Clients are looking for partners who embrace their vision and can bring that vision to life,” he says.
About a mile up the road, the Atlantic City Convention Center (ACCC)has 500,000 contiguous square feet of exhibit space with 45 meeting rooms and halls ranging from 29,400 to just under 200,000 square feet, making it one of the East Coast’s largest convention centers. The facility recently completed a $1-million wi-fi system upgrade, allowing clients state-of-the-art connectivity, while also installing a new marquee on the building to welcome guests coming into Atlantic City, and replacing equipment such as staging, chairs, tables, waste receptacles, and concession carts. In addition, there are plans for $17 million more in improvements, including the renovation of all restrooms, enhancing of Exhibit Hall A to give it more of a ballroom feel, improved LED lighting in the exhibit halls and atrium, and wayfinding signage upgrades and new laptop lounges.
“Going Green” has consistently been one of the ACCC’s main operating objectives, and several initiatives have been implemented or are in the works to better conserve and reuse resources through recycling, retrofitting and seeking alternatives to energy. Food and beverage options are also continually being improved and now include: event specific signature drinks; an upgrade to the standard concessions and catering menus with gourmet items and locally sourced options for clients; and new bars and concession carts with LED screens.
Regarding technology, in addition to lighting, audio and video, the facility offers new interactive technologies, including mobile applications, digital signage, attendee tracking, audience polling and response systems. And beyond the physical event, meetings now include audio conferencing, video conferencing and streaming social media. In addition, the ACCC is partnering with PSAV, a leading global provider of event technology services, to present emerging technologies such as mobile charging stations, video mapping, blended image technology and innovative LED technology.
“Mobile charging stations are not flashy, but they are important for allowing attendees to stay on the go,” says Mark H. Gautier, AC director, event technology at PSAV who further explains there is a built-in locking compartment that allows attendees to leave their phone for 30 minutes while it charges. “As equipment becomes more advanced, it can be used in creative ways. With video mapping, we can transform any two-dimensional or three-dimensional surface by projecting an image onto it.”
ACCC General Manager Dean Dennis believes the future is bright for convention centers, which will likely continue to focus on these trends:
- An emphasis on safety and security for attendees without creating inconvenience and while controlling costs
- Using technology to create improved experiences for attendees and guests
- Presenting more unique food and beverage options, including themed events and highlighting locally sourced products
- Promoting social media as a big part of events, with attendees able to utilize apps and sites for meeting specific opportunities
“There are more than 430 convention centers in the US, so planners are really looking for unique features in the destination or the venue that can attract attendees,” Dennis adds. “It is a business that must sell both the destination and the building with equal creativity.”