Until a few years ago, executive briefing centers (EBCs) were essentially meeting rooms on steroids. Their purpose was to impress — high-end facilities designed for high-end customers. Typically, the physical environments provided architectural dazzle, while the audiovisuals and presenters bore the weight of communicating the message.
In 1994, when the Association of Briefing Program Managers (ABPM) was founded as a trade association for briefing program professionals, the process of creating an EBC facility orbited around the architecture. The space design came first; the space application followed. Twenty-first century business practices are changing that recipe.
Today, corporations are struggling ever harder to strike a single, clear note amidst a growing cacophony of messages. The corporate story must be told quickly, clearly, and with maximum impact. In such an environment, EBCs take on a broader and more integrated role in the process of transmitting the corporate vision and product message.
It is no longer enough for the presentation media to convey the message. That task is the responsibility of the entire briefing facility, including, but not limited to, the architecture, lighting, artwork, audio/video, bathroom tissue, and tableware. “Briefing programs are delivering a much more sophisticated message now. It is all about telling the company story,” explains Roxanne McCreery, ABPM president and CEO.
“We are seeing a lot of new briefing programs coming into the association. More often than not, they are being launched because of senior managers being aware of what role those programs can play. It appears executives today more widely understand the importance of telling the story.” Recent members to join the ABPM include Aetna, Roche Diagnostics, Hill-Rom, Cardinal Health, American Express, Visa, Tata Consultancy, Fujitsu, Kodak, Johnson Controls, Kohler, Raytheon, Steelcase and UPS.
Briefing center design is no longer a build-it-and-they-will-come business, explains Roseanne Bell, director of interior design for The Benham Companies, Inc., in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Architects are sitting down with executives, marketers, corporate communications specialists, branding consultants, and other EBC stakeholders at the beginning of the design process. It is not the linear process it once was. The story and the message come first and guide all the decisions, she says.
“Many architects don’t think this way. They aren’t used to working like this,” Bell says. “But that is what is happening everywhere in architecture and design. The story is key.”
The ABPM now finds itself playing an important role in fostering an understanding of a design and management process that orbits around the story and message rather than around the physical facility, confirms McCreery. Architect members more frequently take part in seminars, presentations, panel discussions, and workshops at ABPM meetings. EBC managers increasingly see the architectural function as an integrated storytelling component in the overall sphere of the briefing program.
At the 2004 World Class Briefing Awards ceremony at the ABPM annual conference in Denver, the all-peer jury awarded “Best New or Renovated Center” to the EBC that most effectively integrated corporate branding and storytelling into its design. The award went to the EBC that the jury felt best communicates the corporate identity and best provides the customer with a strong, positive impression and lasting memory of the company, says McCreery, whose organization has grown from a handful in 1994 to 270 members today.
“Briefing centers vary a great deal, but all of them were designed to assist the sales process,” explains McCreery, who saw EBC programs mature steadily in the 1990s from basic conference rooms with overhead projectors to elaborate multimedia communications complexes. Some consist of a single presentation room and reception lobby, while others have presentation theaters, technology demonstration facilities, intimate briefing rooms, and even world-class dining rooms. Many, if not most, EBCs feature the latest in A/V and network communications gear. Investment in the facilities ranges widely, from less than a million to tens of millions of dollars.
“Companies are using these centers very differently than they once did,” notes Frank Bioschi, former briefing programs manager at AT&T. Technology is playing a more important role in the experience. Some EBCs have evolved into experiential marketing facilities in which customers are treated to an almost theme-park-like experience of the company’s products and identity. “The goal [of the EBCs] is still to reach the customer with the sales message, but now they are reaching customers through the heart and the senses as well as the brain,” he says.
As part of its members’ services, the ABPM has made a conscious effort to enhance networking and relationships between program managers and architects. Among the services provided to its members: networking and idea exchanges, best practice studies, annual workshop series, and market, client, and ROI studies.
Ten years ago, EBCs were rare morsels. The facilities were impressive because they were unique. Today, it is common for customers to visit multiple centers during the decision-making process. Customers have tasted plenty of halogen lighting, brushed steel, and exotic hardwoods. “Today’s customers are more sophisticated. They are not as easily impressed,” says McCreery. To do their job, she says, briefing programs and briefing facilities must not only impress, they must communicate.
sources for this article include the association of briefing program managers (www.abpm.com). robert l. lindstrom is the author of the business week guide to multimedia presentations, executive director of the digital exploration society, and co-author of being spherical. he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org