Updating Hotel Meeting Facilities
When the Washington Hilton welcomed its first meeting, Lyndon B. Johnson was president, banks of payphones lined public spaces and smoking at work was widely accepted. The storied property opened in 1965 and quickly became synonymous with some of the most prestigious meetings in the capital. It has hosted the official Presidential Inaugural Ball every four years since 1969, the Washington Correspondents Dinner for the past 30 years and countless politicians and celebrities.
While payphones have all but disappeared (and smoking is severely restricted), the property’s meeting space had fallen behind the times, lacking the connectivity and flexibility that planners increasingly demand. The property’s largest meeting space, the Exhibit Hall, consisted of 45,000 square feet of indivisible space, filled with columns. It was used for a variety of large events but well suited for none of them.
“You can have a lot of space but no flexibility,” says Bob Donovan, vice president of meetings and travel services at the American Hospital Association. The AHA has been holding its annual membership meeting at the Washington Hilton for close to 40 years; in that time, the event has grown into an 1,800-person gathering of high-level hospital administrators, CEOs and trustees, along with the staff of state hospital associations.
“Meetings have changed a lot, and for a meeting like this, you keep adding meetings to it and adding meetings to it,” Donovan notes. In addition to the main gathering, 35 or 40 states want to hold caucuses, as well as executive sessions and training sessions. “It’s a lot of moving pieces and a lot of breakout space.”
Time for a change
Renovations at the Washington Hilton have taken place incrementally over the years, as meeting space has been updated here and the guestrooms there. When the property changed hands in 2007, the new owners realized a wholesale restoration was in order—to the tune of $149 million. The hotel and its meeting areas had become an amalgam of trends from different decades, and its lack of flexible space meant it was losing out on significant portions of today’s meeting market.
“Our customers told us we need more space, we need more flexible space, we need more breakout space, we need more divisibility and more flexibility,” says Frank Passante, mid-Atlantic regional director of sales and marketing at Hilton Hotels. The total meeting space available at the hotel remains unchanged, at 110,000 square feet—but it is more purpose-built and adjustable. For example, the new Columbia Hall, which will replace the Exhibit Hall, can be used in one piece or divided into as many as 12 rooms.
The two-year process left not one square foot of the meeting space untouched, including a new color palette and improvements in back-of-the-house systems and connectivity. But the crown jewel of the project is a new self-contained conference center geared specifically at small-to-midsize top-level meetings—a hot trend today. “There is tremendous demand for those small-to-midsize meetings: training meetings, high-level board meetings, advisory meetings,” Passante says. “But we did not have the ability to offer it prior to adding the Heights Executive Conference Center.”
The space was purpose-built not only for this size confab, but also to ensure that attendees get the most out of every meeting. “To justify face-to-face meetings, customers today demand productivity.” Passante says. “They are measuring ROI and are trying to make their meetings as productive and efficient as possible. We believe productive meetings happen best in purpose-built space.”
To that end, the new center, which replaced a wing of ground floor guestrooms, consists of nine rooms geared specifically for all-day learning. Hardtop tables with easy laptop connections and ergonomic chairs have replaced banquet chairs and tables with linens, and floor-to-ceiling windows flood the rooms with natural light (with blackout shades available for presentations, of course). Passante says that the new space works for planners on several levels. “There’s really nothing like this in Washington. This is not just terrific meeting space, this is a distraction-free learning environment completely away from the rest of the hotel.”
Not surprisingly, technology plays a huge role in the new conference center and throughout all the redesigned space, from Wi-Fi in the meeting rooms to recessed electronic projection screens. Each room also has a ceiling-mounted projector “periscope” containing the projector mount, power and data outlet. When needed, it slides down from the ceiling; when not in use, it slides up, leaving just a white disk on the ceiling and hiding all the infrastructure above.
“If the expression [was] ‘Time is money,’ it might be changed to ‘Connectivity is money’ as we move forward,” says Ryan Langlois, an associate at Washington, D.C.–based architecture and design firm OPX, which handled the renovation. He adds that just providing connectivity isn’t enough. “You still need power outlets to drive all these devices, and today’s business traveler is not shy about seeking them out.”
To that end, the Heights Center, as well as the Terrace and Concourse meeting spaces, offer laptop touchdown spots—standing-height ledges with power outlets above the counter—in the pre-function space. These spots also serve another meeting space design trend: maximizing opportunities for networking.
“Realizing that business and connections happen at multiple points during a meeting, the design provides for locations to help guests engage with one another at multiple levels,” Langlois says, adding that the computer touchdown stations provide a natural gathering spot. Even the hallways include new seating areas designed to enable more social interactions between meetings, he adds. In the middle of the meeting center, a communal breakout area for food service can serve as a nexus of activity for both the meeting spaces and as a new outdoor terrace.
The center is the ideal setting for executive sessions, says AHA’s Donovan, whose group was among the first to use the facilities, along with almost all of the Washington Hilton’s 110,000 square feet of meeting space. The full renovation wasn’t scheduled for completion until about a month after the AHA’s annual meeting, but attendees got a taste of things to come, and Donovan liked what he saw.
In fact, the AHA was so excited by the prospects of the completed space that it included “Come back next year—it’ll be a whole new show” in the meeting script. Donovan says he is returning to the property in a few months to assess changes to his meeting’s flow for next year, and he sees new energy in the reconfigured space. “I’m sure we’ll make some interesting decisions on how we can move things around next year.”
Donovan is also anxiously awaiting the brand-new Columbia Hall. The 30,000-square-foot, column-free space will host several AHA sessions, eliminating a number of quick turnarounds in the existing space. The event’s 800-person awards luncheon, previously held in the Exhibit Hall, will take place in the new hall as well.
“[Previously], we had to put in 20 TVs—one on every post—so people could see the speaker,” says Donovan, adding that the event, which has attracted such speakers as surgeon general Regina Benjamin and former secretary of state Colin Powell, will be a much better fit in the new hall.
“We can’t wait to go back,” he adds. “I think with the changes they’ve made, we’ll be partners for a long time to come.”
JEANNE O’BRIEN COFFEY covers the meetings beat and is a former editor of several employee motivation and meetings industry publications.