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January 2005
Conferencing Assets to Benefit Charlotte
By Heather Head

     Beginning this month, Charlotte has a new day-only venue for business conferences and events. The Harris Conference Center off Billy Graham Parkway offers state-of-the-art meeting spaces designed to fill today’s corporate conference needs. Director Steve Brennan says he expects the Center, Charlotte’s first and only purpose-built facility, to become a draw for companies seeking an affordable and professional environment in which to stage executive meetings and conferences.


Intelligent Design

     The Harris Conference Center, affiliated with Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), houses 14 thoughtfully-designed conference rooms and a dedicated professional staff, combining high-tech features with high-touch service at competitive package prices. The facility includes video conferencing capabilities, high-end furnishings and retreat-like settings designed for the comfort of as many as 500 meeting attendees.

     As a space designed to generate revenue and serve corporate customers, the Center represents an entirely new endeavor for CPCC. To ensure the Center’s success, a great deal of thought and research has

gone into its design.

     For instance, according to Brennan, the building’s planners visited numerous successful conference centers across the country to see what was working and to create benchmarks. In addition, they paid particular attention to the guidelines proposed by the International Association of Conference Centers.

     Cheryl Walker, the building’s designer and an architect with Grant Huberman, says that they learned from their visits to other conference centers that corporate guests desire a resort-like feel, with natural spaces and attractive vistas. So they made the decision to change the planned location and orientation of the building. Instead of filling in a dry creek bed to place the Center directly on Morris Field Drive, they have preserved the wooded creek bed and opened the building through the liberal use of windows to a view of nature.

     As a result, one entire windowed wall faces woods. The front of the building faces another CPCC building after which the external appearance of the conference center was modeled, providing a continuity of design. Between the two buildings a peaceful water feature is echoed in the wave pattern of retaining walls hand-crafted out of local stones.

     Inside, nearly every one of the cleanly designed rooms is bathed in natural light from generous windows. Maple-toned wood-paneled walls and brushed steel trim contribute a contemporary corporate feel to the space. In addition, the ample receiving area at the center of the building provides an open, airy feel upon entering, with windows at both ends and a ceiling open to the second floor, which houses administrative offices and classrooms for corporate education.

     In keeping with guidelines from the International Association of Conference Centers, the building’s planners have combined the clean, comfortable look of the place with high-grade furnishings and thoughtfully appointed rooms. The tables in meeting rooms sport non-glare tops, and the padded chairs, equipped with armrests, are comfortable enough for a full day of sitting. One large room (the “Ash” room) contains a vestibule designed for break-time refreshments and a small office for the meeting coordinator’s use.

     Likewise, the Center’s technology is designed with today’s corporate needs in mind. A video-conference room, one of only a very few purpose-specific rooms of its sort available for lease in the Charlotte area, is carefully designed for optimum video conferencing. A non-glare table forms an angled “U” designed to best show all participants through the video camera. A large screen provides a view of the parties on the other end making it easy to forget sometimes that they are across the nation or around the globe.

     Other meeting rooms (with names like “Maple,” “Cypress” and “Birch”) contain large plasma screens that can be connected to laptops through ports on the tables. Lighting can be adjusted to meet many different needs and preferences. The large central room, simply called the “full conference room,” can accommodate up to 500 attendees, or be subdivided for smaller groups. Enormous screens roll down from the ceiling at the touch of a button, for use with projection technology connected to the ceiling beams. The sound system is designed to optimize the acoustics of each space. Most of the rooms contain retractable acoustic dividers to allow for a variety of configurations.

     Additionally, a smaller room near the front of the conference space contains desktop computers designed to accommodate computer training or to serve as a cyber cafe for conference participants, depending on the needs of the customer.

     And, to stave off the danger of “cabin fever” from prolonged meetings, participants are welcomed to break out into the Center’s ample outdoor space, including seating areas around the contemplative water feature, benches amidst the attractive landscaping, and an informal amphitheater designed to accommodate relaxation or casual meetings.


Committed Service

     The quality and versatility of the space itself is augmented by the committed service provided by the Center’s staff of seven. The staff is dedicated to making the experience as painless and fun as possible for meeting planners.

     According to Brennan, potential clients come to the Center through a variety of means. Some are referred by students in the corporate education programs, others find the Center on the Internet or through advertising, and still others are attracted through the Center’s marketing efforts. But one thing they all have in common: from the time they contact the Center, they receive exceptional service.

     First, the client meets with staff to determine the scope of their needs and discuss their preferences for everything from catering to room configurations. The proficient staff helps planners choose appropriate technologies, and ensures that rooms are set up according to specifications for each customer. And because pricing is all-inclusive, the planner is spared hassle and the danger of sticker-shock.

     As a client’s meeting time approaches, Center staff maintain communication to ensure that any changes are attended to promptly and that the client’s needs are all met. Then, they prepare all the spaces and technologies ahead of time. By the time participants arrive for their meetings, all rooms are configured according to specifications, technology is in place and tested to avoid glitches and time-consuming confusion, and staff is on hand to assist with whatever whenever.

     When conference attendees arrive, large signs on the buildings direct them to the appropriate location. A security guard-cum-concierge greets them in the main vestibule and directs them to the appropriate rooms. Alternately, they can find their group through the use of a large electronic board located in a prominent position. The board is connected to the Center’s booking and reservation system, which updates the sign automatically to accurately direct participants.

     And because CPCC maintains a large security staff at all times, participants can feel relaxed knowing that they are safe and secure while they conduct their business.

     When not in meetings, participants can enjoy the Center’s outdoor spaces, or (if their company has arranged for this) relax in the cyber cafe to check their e-mail and chat with other participants.

     The Center’s location plays a role in its convenience and accessibility as well. Near the airport, yet also not far from downtown, the Center is in the middle of a growing business community on the west side of town. Directly off of Morris Field Drive, the Harris Conference Center is convenient for participants who may fly in for the day, as well as those who arrive locally or stay overnight at one of the many nearby hotels.


The CPCC Connection

     CPCC has served the Charlotte community since 1963, and is the largest community college in North Carolina. Its core curriculum of English, math and science classes have long been augmented with a commitment to adult continuing and corporate education. This commitment has been recognized repeatedly through national awards.

     In 2002, the college’s commitment to work force development was recognized by the prestigious Newcomen Society. In 2001, CPCC was chosen as one of four outstanding colleges in work force development by the U.S. Government. The same year, the Ford Foundation featured the college as one of the best in work force development in America.

     The college serves over 70,000 residents and 2,700 businesses in Mecklenburg County each year, and offers programs in business leadership, industry and manufacturing, computers, real estate, insurance, and small business.

     So it is easy to see how a conference center for the corporate community fits within the CPCC mission. What is new, however, is a space designed specifically to generate revenue for the college.

     With shrinking state budgets and expanding community programs, leaders at CPCC have been seeking new ways to fund their programs. The Harris Conference Center was envisioned to serve this purpose. Many community colleges across the nation have funded similar initiatives with great success.

     With that in mind, the CPCC Services Corporation chose the Harris Conference Center project to receive funds from education bonds more than a year ago. Additional funds were received from the James J. and Angelia M. Harris Foundation, a private charitable trust based in Charlotte, for which the Center was named.

     Brennan says the Center is well on its way to generating revenue. The Center’s first conference is scheduled for this month, and Brennan says interest in the Center has been phenomenal, starting even before full-fledged marketing efforts got underway.

     While generating direct revenue for the college, the Center will also be generating recognition regionally and even nationally as a destination location for meetings and conferences. Says Brennan, their goal is to become “the preferred off-site meeting destination in this community and regionally.”

     Meanwhile, the upstairs of the Center contributes to the college’s mission by providing classroom space for corporate education and administrative offices for department heads. Brennan hopes that housing both the conference center and the additional classroom and office space in one building will create opportunities for cross-marketing: “There might be a group that sends their employees here for our course offerings, and they report back that there’s a fabulous meeting area on the first floor.” Likewise, conference participants may notice and report back on the superb facilities provided upstairs for corporate students and administration.

     Brennan came to CPCC with more than twenty years of experience in the hospitality industry. He began his career in New York hotels and restaurants. In 1994, Hyatt Hotel brought him to Charlotte to head up operations at their SouthPark facility.

     Brennan says he was immediately struck by the fact that a community of this size didn’t have a purpose-built conference center.

     Brennan had worked for Hyatt and several other hotels in the Charlotte area before joining the Charlotte Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, where he was responsible for booking hospitality assets in Charlotte – the convention center and hotels – with national association meetings from Washington, D.C. and other locations.”

     Brennan was attracted to CPCC looking for a part-time teaching position in the hospitality department. He visited the Web site where he saw a posting for a conference center director. Thanks to Brennan’s background and his enthusiasm for adding this hospitality asset to the Charlotte region, the opportunity was a good fit.

     Brennan sees a bright future for the Center, which he expects to be an integral part of Charlotte’s growth. He is manifest in its destiny: As long as companies keep meeting, the Harris Conference Center will keep meeting their needs.


Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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