Demand for contemporary, flexible meeting space fuels wave of hotel expansions

GrowthSpotter contributor

Forget the busy floral carpets and Grandma’s chandelier on steroids. Increasingly, today’s hotel meeting spaces are clean-lined, contemporary, high-tech and wired for continued evolution.

Orlando just recently broke its own travel record, hosting 72 million visitors in 2017. As such, it’s little surprise that a two-year prolonged wave of investment has been made in expansions and upgrades to meeting space by full-service hotel owners in the area looking to stay competitive. 

“They want to differentiate themselves,” Michael Chatham, president and director of design for architecture firm HHCP, told GrowthSpotter. The firm’s major ballroom expansion project at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress Hotel will get underway this summer. “They’re looking for new trends in design, new finishes.”

Traditional décor, he says, such as wainscoting and ornate fixtures, are giving way to more contemporary looks. HHCP’s recent project at the Orange County Convention Center, a transformation of the multipurpose Tangerine Ballroom into one of the massive venue’s most unique spaces, introduced a translucent, curved and illuminated ceiling structure that changes colors. 

“It changes the mood of the room and became a huge selling point for the convention center, one of their premium spaces,” Chatham said. “We are always being pushed to come up with unique ideas and create places that … will be fantastic for events and for their guests.” 

Similarly, lighting is being incorporated into other design aspects.

“We’re integrating it into door surrounds and traditional moldings,” he continued. “You can also do projections onto walls and create entire environments without a permanent installation.”

The same infrastructure that powers tech for meetings can project tall grass or rippling water onto walls. Paired with ambient sounds that match, it transforms the room into a jungle- or ocean-themed party space.

Specifics notwithstanding, flexibility is king when it comes to hotel clients, says Sean Topper, technical manager for Cuhaci & Peterson

“The best meeting space is going to give them the most flexibility," he said. "They want to cater to the clientele but they also want to tailor it, specifically, to their property.”

For one of C&P’s current clients, this will mean meeting space on the top floor. As a smaller hotel property; it won’t cater to massive groups or tradeshows.

The target users are guests. And so they’ve decided to move the meeting space – generally relegated to lower floors, says Topper – to the penthouse.

“It will have views of the city skyline, the Orlando Eye, and is targeted for smaller groups – weddings of 100 or less, a group of doctors staying on-site for training seminars," he said. "They’re making it interesting by putting it up top and will be able to use it for other purposes, for activities with hotel guests, when it isn’t being used for meetings or events.” 

Another of Topper’s current projects involves an existing hotel – one built with zero event space to start.

“They’re building a separate, 10,000-square-foot events center,” he said. “A large, free-standing space that will allow them to do small conferences, breakout rooms, there’s flexibility in the way they can subdivide it.”

Both properties will have separate, full-service kitchens for the new meeting space. Topper says clients are paying a premium for this feature.

“Close kitchens are a driving factor. They want that kitchen right up next to the [event] space … they want to transport the food the shortest distance possible.” 

Flexibility has always been important, says Michael Parks, vice president for Hoar Construction’s Florida office, which is general contractor on the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress ballroom expansion. But demands have grown more intricate.

“They’ve wanted to be able to subdivide rooms from the start,” he notes, “but now what happens within each is under control…. New, energy-efficient LED lights allow the lighting and mood to change from one meeting to the next.”

In the past, notes Chatham, planners would be at the mercy of the hotel’s AV staff when it came to dimming lights or cooling down the room.

“Now, we’re putting touch panels in every room that, even when the room is subdivided, each can maintain its own environment. The meeting organizers are in control. It’s a great amenity to the space.” 

In its earlier incarnations, says Topper, LED lighting was notoriously difficult to dim.

“Now, it’s all dimmable and you can even do a color shift,” he explains. “At a trade show, I might want nice, clean daylight-like light, but for a wedding reception, not only can I dim, I can change the color temperature, which affects the mood.”

It’s not always perceived, he notes.

"It’s not something you see on the wall," Topper said. "There’s a line, a famous one, about how good design is invisible. It just feels natural. It just flows.”

“Sound” says Parks, is a component in that flow, as well. 

Products with better STC (Sound Transmission Class) ratings mean sound transmission from space to space has been greatly reduced,” he said. “You can have a rock concert going on in one area and a quiet meeting space right next door … material advances not only in divider partitions but also doors and hardware and all of the openings to the room.”

So, too, is network coverage becoming more robust.

“Attendees are bringing iPads, iPhones, laptops,” Parks said. “In some instances all three at once, and even in the pre-function areas outside, charging stations and the ability for people to use their devices is extremely important….” Older spaces are then brought up to speed once additions are finished.

The light speed at which older facilities have become technologically defunct, notes Chatham, is staggering. Balconies once used for AV controls, spotlights and projection systems are now little more than storage areas. 

“Now, we’re focusing on creating a backbone, an infrastructure for technology with the understanding that what we’re using today will likely be totally different five years from now – perhaps even by the time a new facility opens.”

Green practices and materials are still highly prized, in particular by companies for which sustainability is part of the culture, but Parks says it’s becoming common practice.

“We’re sourcing materials locally instead of trucking them in from other parts of the country, and construction recycling has really become a way of life for debris when it used to be premium," he said. "Today, trash haulers and even subs have gotten onboard with split dumpsters and sorting. It’s become a part of everyday business.”

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