Ben Sparrow knows meetings. The CEO of Sparrow Hotels runs three Winnipeg-based hotels: The Mere Hotel, The Norwood Hotel and Inn at the Forks, which comprise 11,750 sq. ft. of meeting and conference space.

So when the company opted to redesign the Inn at the Forks’ meeting spaces, Sparrow and his team had a clear idea of what was needed. “We wanted the properties to look not so much like meeting rooms [but] as spaces you would find in someone’s home,” says Sparrow, of the design that was completed last year. “We wanted to make it as comfortable and flexible a space as we could, but we wanted the design to truly be beautiful and not look like typical banquet halls.”

The idea was to offer a one-of-a-kind experience. Modern aesthetics were important, but flexibility, sustainability, durability, comfort and technology were other considerations. The team hired Winnipeg-based Number Ten Architectural Group, which worked with a renovation budget of approximately $200 per sq. ft.

“The issue with creating really interestingly designed meeting spaces is that, in almost all of our meeting spaces, the furniture is completely movable. So it’s hard to create a genuine residential-looking space,” says Sparrow. In the Waterfront Parlour room, though, the team opted for a permanent furniture layout, adding a custom reclaimed wood table by Wood Anchor, based in Winnipeg, as well as a sofa and chairs.

One of the biggest challenges was choosing carpets that upheld that residential aesthetic and could hold up to wear and tear. “Residential carpet is normally one colour, [but] a one-colour carpet in banquet rooms is a disaster, because the stains show. So trying to find carpets that are easily cleaned, that don’t show dirt or stains, but still have a residential feel to them is very difficult,” says Sparrow, who opted for patterned carpets by Tandus, based in Dalton, Ga., in the banquet spaces, and commercial carpets by Shaw Contract Group, also based in Dalton, in the Waterfront Parlour.

When designing meeting spaces that merge the old and the new, as was the case at the new Drake Devonshire in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, functionality and flexibility were key concerns. John Tong, creative director of the Toronto design firm +Tongtong, sourced tables and chairs that can be used in various configurations. They had to be easy to set up, stack and store, yet comfortable enough to sit on all day.

“[We looked at] how it fits in terms of being an extension of the rest of the spaces,” says Tong, who sourced folding tables from Magnolia, Ark.-based Southern Aluminum and chairs from Toronto-based Design Within Reach. “We’ve chosen proportions of colour: a large proportion of one colour with a mixture of another colour, so there’s a sense of randomness. There are chairs that are white, with a random selection of black, so every time they’re deployed the pattern is different.”

Lounge-style furniture helps operators create a gathering place for guests in the Drake’s window-lined, water-facing Glass Box room. When the flat-screen TV is not being used for meetings, management broadcasts curated content from the inn’s Drake TV channel. “We’re able to take the space and dress it up or dress it down,” says Tong. The 560-sq.-ft. Glass Box room fits up to 40 people theatre-style, but Tong imagined as many configurations as possible before settling on the design. Everything had to service that flexibility, from the tables and chairs to the electrical and lighting. “There’s an electrical connector connecting panels at the front, back and middle of the room, and there are outlets on the floor,” he says. “And, in terms of the lighting, we have two different systems: track lighting, which allows you to highlight various areas — for example if there’s a presentation or panel — and general lighting for mood lighting.”

Flexibility is just as important at the Hilton Toronto/Markham Suites Conference Centre & Spa, which is home to 26 meeting rooms and 45,000 sq. ft. of meeting-and-conference space.

Many of these areas at the Hilton have dual purposes. For example, its ballrooms can be split to create smaller breakout rooms for corporate gatherings or association meetings. “When a space is not flexible to different events, one is cutting off market segments,” says Christine Misevski, the hotel’s director of Catering and Conference Services.

Some of the Hilton’s meeting spaces were recently revamped as part of a $15-million renovation, headed by Union31 in Toronto. “The design itself is very clean-cut,” says Misevski of a classic aesthetic that includes wood panelling in some of the rooms. Practical considerations included installing individual climate control, fast and secure wireless Internet access, as well as hanging points throughout to allow for the suspension of special effects. “We’ve got projection units built in our smaller meeting spaces, and we also have built-in screens,” she adds.

One of the most popular requests is for oval tables; the Hilton is one of the few hotels in the city that offers them to meeting guests. It helps accommodate more people. “If I have a 60-inch round table, I can fit 10, but 10 would be sardine style,” Misevski explains. “On an oval table, while I can seat up to 12 people, 10 would be very comfortable.”The idea is to offer guests better options and make the best impression. “Word of mouth is key,” she says. “You wow the client, and they come back.”

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