When one of our long-term clients specializing in conventions and sports asked the McKissack & McKissack architectural team to develop an interior design concept to update one of its iconic public lounge areas, we knew we needed to study not only trends in convention center design but also trends that appeal to its clientele. It was no coincidence that the well-established priorities of the technology, advertising, media and information (TAMI) tenants would become the demands of the convention guests. Our firm researched and compiled information from various sources, harnessing a broad range of opinions from architects, designers, facility and event planners.
What we discovered revealed a user base that is acutely interested in comfort, convenience, and quality experience.
The first demand, common to all groups, is the obvious need for excellent and free WiFi. If connectivity and technology systems are not readily available and top-notch, most likely the convention center will not be selected to host new events, and will put it at a significant disadvantage for repeat business and competition among its peers. The ability to seamlessly acquire information, book a conference room, or connect and network with other participants using smartphones, tablets, laptops and other devices must be an easy and smooth experience. An events space must provide its guests flexible options regarding connectivity to either home or the office. Similarly, convention hosts, employees, organizers, and coordinators want instant connectivity and communication with their staff. Architects need to be aware of ways to upgrade the building without complicated structural modifications or expensive retrofits that would be quickly outdated as technology evolves.
More than just a form of communication, wireless connections have become an opportunity to expand a variety of technological capabilities. Digital branding has progressed and the opportunity for creativity is more present than ever. Once relegated to a fantasy in Hollywood science fiction movies, advanced technology is no longer fiction: a combination of cameras, screens, and software delivers tools to count people anonymously, allow them to connect, get informed and communicate. Retailers and owners of digital signage screens can take advantage of their content or videos and generate revenue by collecting engagement data.
The TAMI guest is looking for a rich experience and a stimulating environment. Conference attendees will no longer tolerate three or four days trapped in a room without sunlight; events should be dynamic; interactive; sometimes indoors, sometimes outdoors—but always offering alternative ways to connect. This allows the attendees to tweet and post questions and comments instantaneously throughout the seminars. Most of the time, connectivity and virtual participation is live, and users expect to receive responses immediately or shortly after the event.
Break-out sessions can also happen beyond the confines of a meeting room by flowing into the public areas of the convention center. This requires interactive touch screens that support users’ abilities to initiate a lecture or conversation, not just passive monitors announcing the next seminar. They also enhance collaboration at informal gatherings in halls or lounges by letting visitors use the screens. A “smart” glass wall that offers people the ability to write on the surface using just their fingers, displaying a menu of options, swiping icons or even by making a simple gesture becomes the focus of a spontaneous corporate meeting in these non-enclosed spaces.
Furniture and accessories that define for these casual meetings should be equipped with all the necessary features to complete the conference experience. Simple benches will no longer suffice. The new convention participant is looking for a hospitality-influenced setting that provides unique opportunities to relax and connect in public yet intimate locations throughout the building. Lounge-like seating groupings—with outlets and USB ports incorporated into the furniture—combined with natural light and decorative lamps set a mood similar to a hip boutique hotel. The lounge areas should be flexible and adaptable so that groups can use them in various configurations. Private lounge areas are as important as group lounges, and should supply the same technology interfaces.
To complement the experience, seating and tables offered for public use should be adjustable and mobile, enhancing personal comfort. Personalization is key to a successful interior design, but too many options can be overwhelming. Simplicity is a must.
Participants are seeking opportunities for diverse interactions with their fellow attendees. We have studied situations where people can play games by interacting with screens, using either touch or gesture. Lounge areas should integrate amenities for entertainment, offering activities that will assist in relaxation, stimulate learning, or recharge as participants await the next phase of the conference.
Sustainability plays an important role as convention facilities are increasing their commitment to the environment and preservation of natural resources. When retrofitting a building, there are many environmentally-conscious design choices to make. Examples include mechanical system enhancements, energy efficient equipment, water-saving fixtures, the addition of a green roof, maximizing natural light, energy harvesting, improvement of air quality, and even establishing environmentally-conscious protocols to dispose of litter and recyclables make a difference to the convention customer.
Health and wellness are becoming an intricate part of a rich conference experience, and integrating them into the interior design with originality is key to differentiating between convention centers. At the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, there is a wellness stairwell that includes step count along with motivation walls at every landing. Another popular initiative is yoga rooms or open area sessions of yoga for participants to recharge and continue with the day, even if it is just for 15 or 30 minutes. These exercise breaks can be announced on the screens throughout the facility or privately by texting the participants.
Wellness and technology can team up to provide system-wide improvements. It is insufficient for an on-site restaurant to offer healthy food. It must also provide the ability to intertwine technology by allowing for the ordering and payment via smartphone, touch screens, and tablets, thus letting busy conference attendees avoid long lines during ordering and pick up. Tablets attached to dining and bar tables can be offered to the public to order online or confirm food pre-selection.
TAMI-friendly technology is also found at the intersection of sustainability and convenience—even at the smallest level. Once attendees and exhibitors had to drag around hard copies of registration paperwork, tickets, floor plans and guides. Now that information can now be downloaded to smartphones, tablets, and other devices, saving unnecessary printing and protecting against lost documents.
More frequently, conference planners are choosing a particular location that adds extra value to the convention experience through the opportunity to see an exciting city and explore local restaurants, cultural opportunities, and attractions. The convention center should embrace its home city, and the ways to do this are plentiful. Meaningful art and digital photography can showcase the local scene, with prominently placed display screens being refreshed at any time providing visitors with information, regarding their current location and where a roadmap to other areas of interest. Information kiosks feature apps to book a restaurant, hire a car, and a multitude of other activities. Both inside and outside the convention center, digital signage and wayfinding are an important part of the design options that must be studied and included.
Because creating a sense of community, peer interaction, and networking is part of the TAMI profile, giving convention attendees access to activities that involve some sort of outreach can capture a significant crowd. In New York City, convention attendees are offered the chance to build a bike with parts provided to the participants. At the end of the event, the attendees present the bikes to less privileged children as a donation through the Recycle-A-Bicycle program which provides community youth support and promotes educational opportunities.
Is it possible for a convention center to include all these features in a retrofit or upgrade? It’s an ambitious goal to implement them all at once, but as a planned, multi-phase program, it’s certainly achievable. Working with our client, we learned how complicated it is to maintain these macrostructures; however, technology is shrinking, and materials and equipment are evolving to make economic sense—an encouraging note for owners and operators. While McKissack & McKissack is still working with our convention center client on the best innovative solutions, we hope that together we arrive at the most beneficial design that meets not only their priorities, but enhances the conference experience for the future TAMI client, as well.
About Jennifer Griffith
Jennifer Griffith LEED AP, International Associate AIA is the Director of Interiors for McKissack & McKissack, a national architecture, engineering, program, and construction management firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. She has an extensive interior architectural design portfolio of renovations and new construction for federal government and corporate commercial clients.