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by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua

Perplexed Excitement

The Meetings Industry has been undergoing its own industrial revolution for some years now with new thinking and technology  challenging the old assumptions and leaving us all in a permanent state of perplexed excitement. We’re bothered and bewildered by the pace and unpredictability of the ride but equally bewitched by its addictive thrill. Amidst all the change, however, there are a few constants – meetings, ultimately, will always be about real people, in real time, in real places. You might wonder whether technology disrupts this triple axis with its new digital frontiers but it doesn’t. It might extend the life, reach and impact of the meeting but it can never actually replace the face-to-face element. As soon as it tries to do that, the quality and value of the meeting diminishes.

Châteauform’

I was deeply impressed by the meetings concept of Châteauform’, the organisation that hosted the recent International Association of Conference Centres (IACC) European Conference – or Knowledge Festival – at two of its venues in Italy last week. While technology and digital media played a key role in the 4 day event, this was all about real people, in real time, in real places. The way the Châteauform’ concept plays with the three elements, however, is truly disruptive, resulting in the delivery of an excellent conference during which education, networking and social elements blended seamlessly in an overall dynamic of surprise and delight.

Two Properties in Lombardy

As a delegate the Châteauform’ concept catches you off guard the moment you arrive. The IACC Conference was hosted at two contrasting venues, La Cascina Erbatici, an agriturismo-style facility in the Lombardy countryside with rambling, converted farm buildings  and La Villa Gallarati Scotti, an elegant residenza nobile with elegant interconnecting public rooms. On arrival you meet your hosts, usually a couple or family who welcome you as their house guest. There’s no formal check-in, no signing of documents. Refreshments are appetizingly laid out throughout the public spaces, available for you to help yourself. Connecting with other delegates is easy as you graze together at the savory or sweet tables, make coffee or pour each other drinks.

Formal and Informal Meetings Facilities

Meetings facilities at Châteauform’ run the gamut from best-in-breed technology spaces to informal outdoor spaces where you cluster around fire pits. Meeting rooms are all provided with extensive meetings props including over-sized egg-timers, all manner of coloured papers, stickers, post-it notes, scissors, glue – everything you might need for a hi-creative | low-tech session. But the tech is omni-present too with latest models LED screens, HDMI connectivity and super-fast WiFi throughout the facility. Thus you bridge the gap between the natural authenticity of the setting and the modern necessity of the technology.

Food at Châteauform’ is exceptional. There’s a massive focus on health and well being, on fresh, locally sourced ingredients and on top quality wines. Everything is served family-style and this, of course, facilitates networking as delegates cut slices of salami for each other and, generally, help and serve themselves. Conversations flow naturally without the irritating intrusion of over-fussy service staff.

The Châteauform’ Story

The Chateauform’ story is itself intriguing and drew a large audience during the Campfire sessions on day 3 of the IACC event. Briefly, it was started around 20 years ago by Jacques Horovitz, a business consultant and university professor who, previously, had worked with Club Med and Disney. When conducting seminars and meetings as a consultant in conventional hotels, he found the meeting concept there bland and uninspiring. Finding no alternative at the time in his native France, he decided to start his own and Château form’ was born.

Taking the “all-inclusive” component from Club Med and the “surprise and delight” piece from Disney, Horovitz added some of his own insights and dreamed up a brand based at heritage properties (“châteaux”) with a resident local host couple who create a true home-from-home atmosphere for your corporate meeting or event. The properties operate as dedicated residential conference and meeting locations but generally only open Monday to Friday. Capacity-wise they target small meetings (generally a maximum of 100 attendees) but there’s one Alpine location with just 18 guest rooms and one German facility with 160. The facilities at each venue include extensive grounds and gardens in which to play and high-tech semi-circular auditoria laid out tiered style.

IACC Knowledge Festival

Châteauform’ provided the perfect backdrop for a truly inspiring IACC European Conference with great social media engagement over the 4 days of the event. Speaker Geoff Ramm delivered a sublime lesson on “celebrity service” at La Cascina, bringing us back to basics on how to deliver exceptional customer service with wonderful, real life examples from his travels around the world.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 19.54.37The panel discussion and debate that followed featured incoming president Alex Cabañas, Tessa Horovitz, Tim Chudley, Alastair Stewart and Peter Schelde and produced some great moments including Alastair’s proclamation of the death of the residential conference centre and Alex’s statement that IACC is not IACC anymore. Cloud based app, Sli.do, provided the perfect platform for all delegates to join in the conversation and join in enthusiastically they did, right down to admitting publicly (but anonymously) that the vast majority of them regularly had a crush on a work colleague!

The Camp Fire sessions at La Villa were equally inspiring with great content coming from the session conducted by Olga Larsen and Ariane Broquet, student-interns currently studying at Glion School of Hospitality. We learned about the latest technologies and their application to meetings of the future. My big take-away from this was realising how we can improve venue site inspections by taking on board research that proves sight and smell are the most powerful ways to impact on decisions. So we need to make our rooms look visually appealing while ensuring there’s coffee brewing and bread baking there!

Pádraic Gilligan is Managing Partner at SoolNua and, with his partner Patrick Delaney and the SoolNua team, work with destinations, venues and hotels on strategy, marketing and training for the MICE sector.

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