When it comes to meeting venues, the old adage of “bigger is better” doesn’t necessarily apply. Intimate meetings – groups of 30 or less – have become the norm today. And with that trend comes a meeting planner’s desire for meeting space that is not only size-appropriate, but also unique.Traditional cookie-cutter meeting spaces in big brand hotels are facing hearty competition from smaller players – the boutique segment. These little hospitality gems, known for guestrooms and boardrooms that are hipper and more eclectic than the standard, homogenized mix, offer similar experiences for meeting goers.“Boutique hotels offer a more personal, private, and high-attention meeting experience,” says John Sears, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Boutique Hotels and Resorts International, Miami Beach, FL. “They provide for a fresh, new meeting experience and generate enthusiasm to attend at a unique location and then generate more meeting attendees’ involvement.”Attention and SpaceIn the typical larger, brand-name hotel, it’s not unusual to have more than 20 meetings and events going on simultaneously. In a boutique hotel, chances are there is only one. And the attention of the staff is focused on that meeting and its participants, who also inhabit most, if not all, of a small property’s rooms while the meeting takes place.“You’re going to get attention. You’re going to get catered to,” Sears says, adding that the high level of staff attention is what helps give boutique properties an edge. Others in the industry agree.“For a meeting planner, the ability to dominate and utilize the resources in our hotels vs. in a shared situation is very attractive,” says Steve Pinetti, senior vice president of sales and marketing, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, San Francisco. “The people who use our types of hotels are looking for alternatives to the everyday brand experience. They want an experience that is more unique and adventurous, but still a ‘safe’ adventure.”Pinetti says 20 to 25 percent of business at Kimpton’s is properties centers on the meetings. “It’s a very real market segment,” Pinetti notes. “It’s not a casual, occasional thing that we do.” Sears says the average meeting being booked in any hotel is comprised of 22 participants and lasts about 2.5 days. “That’s probably the majority of what we host,” Sears says. “You have to keep in mind that it takes as much effort to host a 22-person meeting as it does to host a 200-person meeting in every area from food service to the front desk to housekeeping to reservations.”At W Hotels Worldwide, the boutique business segment of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., about 20 percent of the brand’s business is meetings, according to Brad Wilson, vice president of operations, W Hotels Worldwide, New York City. “Most groups are small- to mid-size upscale corporate meetings, training programs, and product launches,” Wilson says. “The unique environment also attracts a good deal of press conferences and entertainment industry-related press junkets.”And, believe it or not, when you’re dealing with smaller, more intimate meeting groups like this, size is an important factor in meeting space. Put 30 participants in a room that best accommodates 150, or the same 30 in a boardroom setting that aptly seats 12, and you’ve lost your audience – either because they can’t hear or they are suffocating. In most cases, boutique hotels are well-suited to host the average-size meeting, offering rooms that comfortably fit 20 to 30 people in size and scope. For example, the average amount of meeting space in a Kimpton hotel is around 5,000 square feet, with the most reaching 20,000 square feet at the company’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco.“You can even use the parlor of any suite in our hotels for a board meeting of 12,” Pinetti adds. “Rooms have to be the proper proportion in length, width, and height,” says Ron Lustig, principal design architect, Earl Swensson Associates, Nashville, a firm known for its work in the hospitality segment.Comforts and Amenities When it comes to designing meeting space in a boutique hotel, putting a conference table surrounded by banquet chairs in a boxy, windowless, beige room isn’t going to cut it. It’s imperative to create a space that captures clientele. “It goes back to the issue of being cookie-cutter,” Lustig says. “People are spending money to go to a meeting. They are going to a meeting to learn something, but they also want to go somewhere unique that has a unique character.”Many things that used to be considered meeting space luxuries are now requirements, according to Lustig. “You have to have a meeting room that is equipped,” he says. “You have to be able to put the high-tech touches to it, but also create a humanistic feeling.”Pinetti, Sears, and Lustig offer up this list of must-haves for the perfect meeting space:Multiple lighting options.Presentation panels and writing spaces.Good sound dissemination.Comfortable seating, preferably executive, 12-hour meeting chairs. “To have a great executive chair, particularly one that adjusts, to sit in for a long meeting certainly beats banquet chairs,” Lustig says. “Give me that and some good coffee, and I can sit for a long time.”Communications capabilities, including telephone, data, and even wireless.Comfortable heating and cooling options.Other design features to keep in mind, according to Lustig, are good pre-function space, lots of sub-meeting space for break-outs, and ways so that the conference space can be serviced effortlessly from the back of the house.And don’t forget about the view. Old-school meeting spaces sometimes are nothing more than windowless spaces filled with tables, chairs, and a lectern. But now, increasingly more meeting spaces have terrific views of the surrounding city, countryside, or beach. “Some of the more notable meeting spaces in the Boutique collection provide exceptional appointments, design, and unique views of the beach, golf course, mountains, or cityscape, right from the meeting room,” Sears says.But, ironically, sometimes even the best view can become too much for meeting attendees. Lustig recalls a notable space in Anguilla, British West Indies, where he once attended a client meeting. He was sitting in a conference room at the Malliouhana Hotel & Spa and found himself a little too enchanted with the view of the palm trees, sand, and waves that the meeting space had to offer.“The scenery is unbelievable. The window looks out on the Caribbean. I had to get up and go to the other side of the table so my back was to the view,” Lustig laughs. “But it was so unique and relaxing, and the service was incredible.”Service Seals the DealIn the end, it still comes down to service and personal attention. Smaller hotels need to continue building their reputations on these hallmarks, particularly if they want to further grow their meetings business.Take Kimpton’s properties for example. The hotels in the Kimpton family are becoming well-known for providing meeting guests with unique break formats. At the Alexis hotel in Seattle, where art is the pervading theme throughout the property, meeting participants might turn artist for a moment, painting their own postcards with oils or watercolors during a break. Hotel staff will then mail the finished cards on behalf of each participant.In other Kimpton hotels, planners might select a wellness theme for breaks, at which meeting attendees will enjoy a yoga stretch or tarot readings instead of a standard coffee break. The events staff at each hotel can offer a myriad of creative possibilities, according to Pinetti.“We emotionally connect with our guests,” Pinetti notes. “You can do so much within these small environments.” W hotels take a similar approach, offering meeting planners the option of turning a traditional board meeting into one of the brand’s “signature sensory meetings.”These meetings, Wilson says, are “designed to enhance a meeting’s dynamics and productivity by subtly engaging all of the participants’ senses.” Options include aromatherapy and sweet and spicy candies to a full yoga and health breaks menu.Simply put, personalized attention and service sells, and it’s what keeps meeting planners interested in the boutique segment, experts say. “The bottom line is that I can design the most wonderful meeting room and the most wonderful hotel room and do all the bells and whistles, but if you don’t have good service, it doesn’t mean anything,” Lustig says. “That’s where the boutique hotels, as well as the brands, can really make their difference. You’ve got to deliver top-quality service at every level within the organization.”Robin Suttell ([email protected]), based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.