Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

December 2012

The User-Centered Center

By Barbara Palmer, Senior Editor

the new, but we’re going to be offering a range of settings that we don’t think clients will be able to find anywhere else.”

One such space is anchored by Nourish Café (Sentry Centers employs its own executive chef), with dining areas furnished with tables and chairs in a deliberate mix of shapes and heights. “One of the things that Michael and I have learned is that table height can indicate what to expect,” Bromberg said. “We call it the Starbucks Effect: If you’re at a high-top table - a communal table with stools - a certain kind of behavior is expected. If somebody wants to disappear and check email, they don’t sit at a round table, because you know they know other people are going to sit there, and there’s going to be a conversation going on; they go find the lounge chair that’s in the corner. People choose the appropriate setting among all the options we give them for what they need to do. They intuitively get the whole thing.”

Which is why Sentry Centers wanted to create a venue that is responsive to individuals. “Traditionally, meeting spaces have been designed for the meeting rooms themselves,” Kelly said. “But a lot of people are going to conferences because they want to be networking in between, before, and after the sessions. And oftentimes, the greatest success that people have, especially at association conferences, is not the learning that happens inside of the room, but the networking that happens outside. And so we provide comfortable spaces for people to have breakout conversations that aren’t necessarily planned, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important.”

There also will be places where attendees can get their own work done. “Everybody is plugged in these days with technology, and even if you’re out of the office, you’re still expected to be on call,” Kelly said. “And so the social spaces support the interaction for networking, but we’ve also designed and built in spaces that are fantastic for individual work, as well as small collaborative work.”

No More Back-of-House

One thing meeting planners won’t encounter at 32 Old Slip is Sentry staff hidden away behind the scenes. Attendees will arrive via escalator directly into a foyer where meeting planners will be based at built-in registration desks that also function as workstations, with another planner workstation outside the auditorium. Sentry staff also will work in the reception area, so planners as well as attendees have ready access to them at all times.

Putting operations staff in the middle of the space was a design challenge. “Those spaces get messy sometimes,” Fazio said, “and we had to think of how do you design something like that that provides the level of accessibility and easy accommodation that the participants are looking for, without looking like we’ve trashed up our reception area.”

“This notion of trashing things up is very near to my heart as a designer,” Bromberg added, laughing. “In most traditional meeting rooms and conference-center rooms, when nobody’s there, they look gorgeous, right? And then, the planners come in with their boxes and their easels and their signs. And people come in with their stuff, and two minutes later it’s a disaster.

“I can sum up our whole design principle by saying, ‘We know it’s going to happen, so how do we make it beautiful? Let’s not ignore it, let’s accommodate it,’” Bromberg said. “There’s a rule that there will be no skirted tables at Sentry Centers, which is a pretty big deal.” That principle required the designers to think about the life cycle of everything in the facility - from glasses to chairs to cases of soda to flipboards. According to Fazio, they asked themselves, “How does it get stored? How does it get set up? How does it get used? What happens after it’s used, and how does it get put away?”

The result of all that research and analysis is an environment that is in tune with users’ work patterns and needs - including some, Fazio said, that users weren’t even aware they had. “I love that moment when someone is able to do something that they didn’t even know they needed,” he said, “or they didn’t expect it was going to be able to happen to them in this space, and they say, ‘How did you know that I needed that?’ That would be a home run for us, and that’s, I think, going to happen at this center.”

There’s no doubt that the new center will be beautiful, Fazio said, but that’s not enough. “Wooden walls, terrazzo floors, and cool lighting - all of that turns heads and is the stuff that people will remember in terms of how it looks,” he said. “But what we’re really looking for is different behavior.”

Sidebar: It’s All in the Details

Sentry Center map

After talking to meeting planners and staff, and observing the behavior of people when they meet, Sentry Centers is applying dozens of tweaks, large and small, to its newest meeting space in Manhattan’s 32 Old Slip building.
  1. Location, location, location Acknowledging that meeting planners’ jobs are difficult - “We know how harried they can be,” said design consultant Joyce Bromberg - centrally located, dedicated workstations in the Foyer and outside the Forum will give them a home base, complete with built-in storage for all their “stuff.” (The workstations are designed so that they can be converted to bars at the end of the day.) And just to make sure the day starts as smoothly as possible, Sentry Centers will send a complimentary driver to pick planners up in the morning.
  2. Always-on technology At some point at almost every smaller meeting, Sentry Centers’ Chris Kelly said, someone says, “You know, we should really call so-and-so, and ask their opinion.” So meeting rooms will have conferencing phones and teleconferencing platforms set up “in perpetuity,” Kelly said. And every room will have computers hooked up to projectors.
  3. Seamless food-and-beverage When Bromberg and architect Michael E. Fazio talked to Sentry Centers staff, they learned that staff members want to provide great service but dislike feeling as if they’re intruding and interrupting the flow of meetings. So at 32 Old Slip, built-in refreshment stations will be located just outside every meeting room, where meeting attendees can pop out anytime - not just at breaks - for a fresh cup of coffee or refreshments. And all of the door mechanisms will be silent.
  4. Creating a “shared mind” One goal of every meeting, no matter what the size, is to preserve ideas and content, Bromberg said. So 32 Old Slip will be liberally supplied with pens and paper, dry-erase markers and boards, chalk and chalkboards, Post-It notes - any and every way that people can display content where it can be seen and learned from. Rooms can “flex to anything,” Bromberg said, but in this room configuration, mobile whiteboards are positioned at the end of every table, and can be moved around the room to share ideas - or even rolled out to another location.
  5. Retreating The Lounge area will have a whiteboard wall, and will be furnished with sofas, chairs, and ottomans. It can accommodate an intense brainstorming session, Bromberg said, or serve as a place where attendees can let off steam or even lie down.
  6. Breaking bread Arriving attendees will immediately encounter the Nourish Café; Bromberg calls its long communal tables “a great touchdown space” for people as they are coming out of meetings. There are computers nearby, and refreshments are always available to attendees in the café kitchen area.
  7. Thanks, TED Like the Lounge, this room is furnished with couches, chairs, and ottomans, but also offers high-top tables and stools, and a huge screen where content from the auditorium can be simulcast. The idea, which allows for people to interact with content in a more relaxed environment than the Forum, was taken from the TED conference.

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