The Benefits of Meeting Close to Home

Traveling shorter distances for events offers numerous benefits to attendee well-being and beyond.

The lobby bar at The Hoxton in Chicago's Fulton Market District

There's a certain excitement that comes with getting away to a new city or an exotic destination to attend a conference. Off-site meetings offer opportunities to explore new places, network with peers, and enhance creativity and productivity.

Yet, traveling long distances for business also comes with drawbacks. It can stress working families, especially parents who feel guilty about spending time away from their children. Airfare for employees and speakers is costly, more so when there's no flexibility to choose dates and times. All of this travel also takes a toll on the environment. Sometimes it just makes sense for everyone to stick a little closer to headquarters.

Reduce the Stress

In 2018, domestic business travel increased 1.6 percent over 2017, with U.S. residents logging 463.6 million trips for business, 38 percent of which were for meetings and events, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Of the millions who travel frequently each year, about 75 percent reported feeling stressed, and that stress spilled over to affect their spouses and children. Research also shows that frequent business travel can take a toll on body and mind, leading to conditions such as obesity, hypertension and insomnia, as well as increased anxiety and depression.

Holding a meeting close to home can help alleviate some of the negative symptoms associated with frequent business trips. The process for planners starts with honing the agenda and the guest list.

"To decrease the stress level for people who travel often, make sure their time away is well spent," says Mary Jo Wiseman, CMP, author of The Meeting Planning Process -- A Guide to Planning Successful Meetings. "Provide adequate notification of meetings so that work and family calendars can be adapted, ensure the meetings have well-defined and timely agendas, and make sure that the people who need to be there are, and those who don't aren't."

Mary Jo Wiseman, CMP

Allowing events to be available virtually for those who can't get away helps potential attendees make healthy decisions for themselves. While meeting stakeholders sometimes require employees' physical presence, it's worth shoring up your arguments why the virtual link should be available. And everything from teleconferencing to screen sharing and Zoom links has made it easier to tune in, while most hotels and conference centers have upgraded their bandwidth to help live-streaming go smoothly.

"Technology advancement has opened up a new world, if we are willing to embrace it," says Eric Wallinger, director of sustainability for MeetGreen, a Portland, Ore.-based planning firm that helps organizations integrate green practices into their events.

Enabling online viewing also helps reduce your carbon footprint. "When companies implement a virtual-attendance option, it checks a lot of boxes," says Wallinger.

Eric Wallinger of MeetGreen

This strategy is how the Unitarian Universalist Association, working with MeetGreen, was able to save 134 metric tons of CO2 emissions -- equal to 310 barrels of oil -- by enabling the virtual option for its 2017 General Assembly in New Orleans.

While nothing can replace a face-to-face meeting, streaming technology can help reduce the number of meetings, saving business travelers time and stress, and helping companies save money. Event planners can turn to screens to help cut down on their time away. Consider using technology for a virtual site tour, or have a speaker present virtually at an event via a live video link-up, suggests Wallinger.

Get Greener

In addition to saving money, omitting air travel from the meeting equation also helps companies with their sustainability missions. Unlike plastic or food waste, which is tangible, carbon-dioxide waste is harder to understand. Reducing your event's footprint refers to the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels to fly people from point A to B, getting them from the airport to the hotel, even moving them from the hotel to an off-site event.

Air travel accounts for 2 percent of global CO2 emissions, say experts; within the next decade, that figure is expected to double. Compared with other modes of transportation, such as driving or taking a train, air travel has a greater climate impact per passenger, per mile, even over longer distances.

"When you look at data, 70 to 80 percent of the carbon footprint of an event comes from air travel," says Wallinger. To put the sustainability-speak into perspective, a roundtrip business-class flight from New York to Zurich uses 5.53 tons of CO2, equivalent to washing about 7,900 loads of laundry, according to FlyGRN. Armed with this bit of data, you can float it in front of your stakeholders and attendees to rally enthusiasm, says Wallinger.

The Hoxton in Chicago is a new Midwest option.

Arranging a meeting closer to where most attendees live -- think the next town over or a city within an hour's drive -- reduces air emissions by 20 to 30 percent, according to MeetGreen. And if that destination is a major city, attendees will be able to take public transportation, further cutting carbon emissions. You can even bus attendees from the home base to a hotel within driving distance, which, aside from dropping carbon emissions, eliminates the stress of driving or renting cars. "Provide food and beverage, and stop someplace interesting along the way," suggests Wiseman.

One of the most important aspects of choosing where you'll meet involves finding a venue that is both easy to access and that pays attention to its own affect on the environment. "Look for LEED-certified venues," says Wallinger, "and don't forget to ask about recycling and composting." Also ask if the site has a food-donation program in place.

Wallinger adds that you don't need to have a hard-to-read sustainability policy in place or a long checklist prepared to further your meeting's green impact after you've chosen to stay nearby. "You just need to keep people on track," he says. For every event, small efforts, such as eliminating single-use plastic or making an event straw-free, counts. Ultimately, producing a sustainable meeting or event provides an opportunity to enhance attendee experiences and elevate the perception of your company -- while sending a powerful message to your employees.

Gain a Fresh Perspective

Even when held close to home, off-site meetings can help shake up attendees' routines, removing them from office distractions. In the U.S.,  more than 70 percent of employees have reported feeling distracted on the job, which adds up to wasting 28 billion work hours each year--a loss of almost $1 trillion to the U.S. economy, according to the Washington Post. Along with helping attendees focus, off-site meetings foster creativity and collaboration, leading to better communication. When teams learn to communicate, according to research conducted at MIT, they are more productive and creative.

The structure for today's meetings is also more enticing than it used to be. Every organization is trying to host gatherings that are more exciting and collaborative, and hoping to create memorable activities that make events feel more like leisure experiences. A study of 700 people by the Social Market Foundation showed that when an off-site meeting feels like a retreat and includes recreational and other downtime activities, it makes attendees happier about their work and more productive.  

"To make a meeting feel like a true retreat even though you are close at home, consider up-scaling the venue," says author Wiseman, a former corporate planner who continues to arrange the occasional event. She suggests finding a nearby hotel with plenty of outdoor space, a top-notch fitness centers, pools, golf and/or tennis. "Choose a resort property within a set distance from the office that has amenities and the type and quality of meeting space required."

A bar and Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant will be on the 59th and 60th floors of the Four Seasons in Philadelphia.

While attendees might not get a chance to use every one of the host hotel's myriad offerings, a resort's atmosphere itself can give them a sense of calm. "Take advantage of the surroundings during meals, breakout sessions, and before and after the meeting," says Wiseman. It's also important to give a close-to-home meeting the same level of attention you give to meetings that are more logistically challenging, she notes. "Try adding an unexpected keynote or a closing speaker to energize the group, or give a small welcome or parting gift like an autographed book by the speaker." 

New Hotels Close to Home 

Major cities are welcoming a new crop of stylish hotels that deliver the flavor of far-away destinations.

If your group meeting in Boston: Settle groups in at the 215-room Four Seasons, One Dalton Street, with nearly 10,000 square feet of meeting space, including two natural-light-filled ballrooms. The hotel offers a spa, a curved 64-foot pool and an urban fitness center.

If your group is meeting in Chicago: Grab a taste of the exotic at the new 182-room Hoxton in the Windy City's creative Fulton Market neighborhood. The Apartment features five meeting rooms that are connected to a well-stocked pantry.  

Now under construction in Palm Springs is the 163-room Andaz.

If your group is meeting in Los Angeles: This city is welcoming properties like the 148-room Proper in Downtown L.A., with its whimsical midcentury design, more than 14,000 square feet of meeting space and a screening room in a former basketball court. Those looking to get away from the city's hustle can head to the desert of Palm Springs, where the 163-room Andaz, opening in early 2020, will feature 5,000 square feet of studio-style meeting space and plenty of outdoor lounge and pool space.

If your group is meeting in Miami: Coming soon to South Beach from Kimpton is the 96-room Hotel Palomar with a rooftop pool deck for events.

If your group is meeting in New York City: The stylish 176-room Hotel Hendricks specializes in small special events in its two rooftop bars or in the rear garden.

If your group is meeting in Philadelphia:
Larger groups will enjoy the "wow" factor of checking in to the 60th floor of the Comcast Technology Center for a stay at the 219-room Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, opening in August with more than 15,000 square feet of event space.

If your group is meeting in San Francisco: The retreat-like rooms at the 64-room Hotel Zeppelin in Union Square celebrate San Francisco's bohemian past. More than 4,000 square feet of flexible meeting space consists of the Peace, Love and Soul rooms and the Mantel Bar.