When it comes to booking meeting space, the hottest theme these days appears to be, well, themes.


Be it decor, the menu or the very building itself, crafty meeting-space providers are looking to distinguish themselves from the wide array of choices that seemingly threaten to swamp the desks of harried meeting planners and office managers.

Themed sites are one way to bring fresh variety to a company meeting, and the Tristate is full of opportunities. From an event at The Syndicate in Newport, a restaurant/night club themed to the 1940s, to a meeting beneath the giant industry-themed mosaics in Cincinnati Museum Center's rotunda, to an evening cavorting with the sharks at Newport Aquarium, there are plenty of options.


Take the Savannah Center at Chappell Crossing in West Chester, which "evokes thoughts of vacationing in the South and a time gone by," according to director Pam Shrout. By theming it to the South, Shrout hopes the comfort and charm of the surroundings will promote creativity and productivity. "Along with the charm and country club setting, along with the four-acre lake and gazebo, a spectacular solarium that overlooks the lawn area for up to 350, and perennial gardens, we will still be high-tech and state-of-the-art for all executive needs up to 1,200 people. The break away from the norm and the comfort evoked by a themed center can inspire both the corporate planner as well as the socialite looking for something different in the Tristate."



All this goes to prove a corporate assembly never has to be boring. Indeed, one economic research study notes that the top winning characteristic in the meeting space industry has been the introduction of themed environments. Locally, two such new players are Great Wolf Lodge and, soon to open, CoCo Key.


At Great Wolf Lodge in Mason, no less than the CEO of the company tells Cincy Business that the exclusive nature of the resort and the privacy it offers should lure executives as well as families. "People like the fact that our water park isn't open to the public, but only to paying guests," says John Emery, the chief executive officer of the Wisconsin-based company.


Great Wolf, which opened in December, is a 450,000-square-foot indoor waterpark and conference center themed to a northwoods log lodge. Emery says the body and tube slides, water roller coaster, wave pool and lazy river can all generate creativity and offer a needed break from long company meetings.


CoCo Key, meanwhile, will draw its atmosphere and decor from the Key West area in its early days, capturing the relaxation of the Keys and the tropical island feel: Bright colored cabanas, palms, hibiscus, thatched roofs, even parrots, all to be found in a setting that's a constant, balmy 84 degrees. The facility, to open this November at the Sheraton Cincinnati North in Sharonville, will be "a wonderful indoor adventure offering all things to all people," says Beth Kelly, the director of marketing. The 65,000-square-foot facility will also offer water cannons (imagine the team building possibilities here) as well as whirlpools and a "Dip-in Theater."


There's even been some discussion that Kalahari Waterpark Resort & Convention Center could enter the market, as well. By way of example, the Kalahari facility in Sandusky features an 80,000-square-feet facility that includes conference space among its water coasters, wade pools, restaurants and retail shops.


"What we try to do is keep everything under one roof, so no one is ever going outside," says Kalahari's president and owner, Todd Nelson. The resort highlights a theme of African decor and artwork as a theme, Nelson adds, because of the company's respect for Africa's rich culture and distinctive wildlife.


Of course, you can theme an event at any venue, simply by how you choose the menu and decorate the room. From an Australian Survivor motif for a sales meeting to a Star Wars table setting for a planning session, the possible options are only limited by your creativity and budget. And even the budget, suggests one meeting planner, can be worked around. "Make a trip to a costume shop or party favor outlet, and you'll find lots of inspiration that's relatively cheap. Most site managers I know about don't preclude you from bringing in your own table decorations.


"I also tend to suggest themed cakes that are customized for business meetings," she adds, noting corporate logos and promotional/inspirational messages can be included on the frosting. "If every one partakes of the same cake, that sends the message we are all a team."



Whether you're theming or not theming, some general advice for planning a meeting will always holds true, notes Mark S. Wallisa, general manager of The METS Center conference facility in Erlanger.


First off,  "ensure that the necessary steps are taken in advance to maximize return-on-investment," says Wallisa. "In today's corporate environment, senior managers are under scrutiny to measure the ROI of every expenditure including, of course, their organization's investments in meetings."  


The best way to increase meeting ROI dramatically is by using technology to improve the value and extend the life of virtually any type of meeting, suggests Wallisa. "In the past, the value of a meeting accrued only to those able to be physically present and the 'life' of the meeting ended at its adjournment.


"Today, technology allows meeting value to be more widely shared in real time, at less expense. Furthermore, the effective life of meetings can be extended indefinitely by making protected digital recordings of meetings available on the Internet."


Some time, travel and expense-saving examples of such technologies include video conferencing and virtual meetings, webcasting (which more and more finds frequent application in product demonstrations, sales presentations, company wide roll-outs and even shareholder/stakeholder meetings), and even podcasting.


"This is the new kid on the meeting planner's block and we're only just beginning to find ways that it can be effectively used," observes Wallisa of podcasting. "It's an extremely effective means of getting information out to the organization's youngest employees, many of whom are loath to use more traditional forms of communication. Like webcasts, podcasts can be recorded and made available on demand over the Internet or loaded onto CDs and then distributed to employees, customers or vendors."



Once you get past costs, you need to consider such factors as A/V, amenities, accessibility, meeting room sizes, ceiling heights, proximities to other meeting rooms, types of air walls, sound and lighting, food and beverage, types of tables, chairs and other equipment, in-house services, other events taking place in the facility, adequate parking and so on.


Picking a space that's the right "fit" is critical, says Will Greiner, director of the Sharonville Convention Center and a former meeting planner with a dozen years of experience. "The type and quality of the facility should be conducive to the type and quality of the event, because the facility not only needs to meet the requirements of the activities, but it is a reflection of the event."


Scott Mescher, manager of Drees Pavilion in Covington's Devou Park, adds that since each facility is unique, the smart meeting planner has decided what she or he wants to accomplish with their event. "You should know what kind of presentation you want. The number of people. The room set-up you want."


Whatever you decide as a meeting planner, remember to have fun, fun, fun. As the old adage goes, the only thing that can absolutely kill a company meeting is stifled yawns.