PCMA 2015: Recapping Trends, Discussing the Future of Convention Centers

Last week, we previewed our workshop on convention center design trends that was hosted at the Professional Convention Management Association’s (PCMA) Convening Leaders conference January 12-14.  A team of Populous designers traveled to the conference in Chicago to meet with meeting planners – an audience who is integral to the buildings we design. We met with planners from across the globe, listening to the emerging trends shaping their desired meeting experiences and discussing how convention centers of the future might better facilitate an improved guest experience. 

Last Monday, our deep-dive into emerging trends produced some intriguing results ranging from conventional design challenges such as vertically stacked facilities and access to fresh air and sunlight, to production technology, entertainment opportunities and the challenges of catering to multi-generational and multi-cultural audiences.  As a group we discussed and distilled the emerging trends into categories and combined them with current trends facing the industry such as advanced technology, outdoor event spaces and wellness. As Oscar Cerezales of MCI, one of the participants, explained “The meetings market is facing a paradigm shift, requiring the need to reshape, which brings with it both challenges and opportunities for new convention center designs.”

Tuesday, the Populous design team set up shop in the main foyer of the convention center – we split up into three teams to discuss and develop ideas focused on trends and how convention centers and cities might evolve to address these needs.  Being located in the main foyer provided an exciting opportunity for conference attendees to stop by throughout the day and offer opinions and comments on the design content our teams were developing.  We were able to discuss which emerging trends were specifically tailored to certain types of events and which trends could alter the meeting industry as a whole.  Our concepts and theories changed throughout the day to reflect the fantastic input we received from participants.  The three main areas of focus were:

  • Vertical Adaptability + Wellness
    Many urban convention centers have developed an infrastructure to support them in dense urban cores – hotels, restaurants, public transit – but then find it challenging to expand due to site constraints.  The team looked at opportunities to embrace vertical adaptability as a design feature to enable urban convention centers to maximize their footprint while addressing persistent issues within the meetings industry.  The team conceived of 4 stacked convention “units” that could each provide exhibit, ballroom and meeting program that could be combined or sold as individual units.  This convention tower could provide meeting spaces with both physical and visual connections to the destination, while also providing distinct convention “units” that could be sold concurrently for different events, giving each event their own sense of place instead of feeling like one event in a much larger facility.The team also looked at wellness opportunities inherent in a vertically stacked facility, celebrating the stairwells as wellness wells that reward attendees with honor badges and digital feedback as to how many calories have been burned while attending an event using stairs instead elevators and escalators.
  • Environmental Psychology in Unique Meeting Spaces
    The next design group began by focusing on the need to address different learning styles of an ever evolving multi-generational and multi-cultural attendee base.  We focused on different learning techniques and how facilities could be designed to provide a balanced approach to many different ways to communicate and receive content.  Instead of forcing every attendee into a box, or meeting room, we conceived of a flexible meeting experience that could take place at various locations ranging from the back of a traditional meeting room, in between the meeting room and the prefunction, and perhaps locating meetings, speakers and audiences in the prefunction much like you might see a street performer set up shop on a busy city street.  The findings were fascinating, creating multiple moods of learning to address sequential learning styles, kinetic and tactile learning styles and ultimately spatial learning styles.  By challenging the traditional segmentation of convention center space from meeting room, prefunction and circulation, the design team conceived of a blending of spaces that provided maximum flexibility for both the attendees’ varied learning styles and perhaps a desire by the presenter to communicate content somewhere other than from behind a podium.
  • Bespoke Wellness
    Bespoke Wellness could be defined as “wellness on your own terms.”  With the rapid rise of personalized wellness technology, wearable tech, activity tracking smartphones and GPS enabled smart watches, convention attendees now have a simple way to understand their own physical experience while attending an event.  The design team looked at ways a convention center could address 5 basic elements of personal wellness: social, career, physical fitness, health and personal comfort – how might our facilities be designed to allow an attendee to tap into each one of these facets of wellness while attending a long, multi-day conference. Social Wellness focused on the desire for disparate attendees to locate a social hub within the building where you might casually bump into important contacts, grab good food and drink or relax in a café type environment.  This space could change throughout the day beginning as a breakfast bistro in the morning, a healthy lunch café during the day and a desirable cocktail lounge in the evening.  Career, health and personal comfort wellness looked at ways you could continually connect to your world outside of the convention center.  The design team conceived of a series of teleportation pods equipped with comfortable seating and proper technology to allow users to FaceTime or Skype with family, connect with colleagues at the office, or simply get comfortable and get some work done on their own terms between conference events. Physical Fitness might be the first thing that comes to mind when mentioning wellness, but how might a convention center embrace and promote physical health?  The team looked at fun ideas ranging from rock-climbing walls in large prefunction spaces, wellness wells – stairwells previously mentioned with vertical adaptability, and opportunities for group yoga and group fitness on the grounds of the convention center to promote outdoor events and inclusion of community residents.  Another concept looked at how the convention center might act as a wellness portal that encouraged attendees to escape into the destination city on a series of prescribed routes ranging from one mile to five miles that allowed guests to visit museums, coffee shops and sites that traditionally might not be visited on a dense conference attendee schedule.  The convention center could provide a bike share program or even rentable jogging equipment like the Westin Boston Waterfront currently does to encourage guests to stay in touch with their fitness schedules.

The Populous design team presented our findings Wednesday morning and the results can be viewed here.  It is always an enlightening experience for our designers to connect and discuss the future of our facilities with those who use them most and want to have a hand in shaping the future.


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