Why sleep-friendly meetings matter

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					       Why sleep-friendly meetings matter
                               Conference News article
Chris and Charlotte Martins discover the costs of sleep deprivation during
residential conferences, and find that the industry is awakening to the problem
A Daily Telegraph report on January 3 notes that better sleep can ‘wake up your
mind and increase your brain power’, and that sleep deprivation will ‘affect
decision-making and the ability to absorb and adapt to new information.’
Professor Jim Horne of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University
comments that tired people ‘become more rigid in their thoughts, tend to
express themselves in clichés, and become more prone to making errors’.

So sleep, or rather the lack of it, is now on everyone’s agenda. Media
commentaries reveal that an extra hour’s sleep boosts alertness by 25% the
following day … that 1 in 5 of us suffers from insufficient sleep …. and that
almost half of British personnel now fret at night about either work or domestic

It seems that the meetings industry is already aware of the issue. An email poll
of conference agencies, undertaken specifically for this column by Great
Potential, asked respondents to rank the importance of good sleep as one of
half-a-dozen possible variables contributing to delegate productivity. In a
significant majority of cases (71%), it was placed as first or second choice and
well above the hierarchy of other considerations that included air-conditioned
meetings suites, the availability of leisure facilities, and excellent dining.
pet hates
Contributing to the survey, Peter Rand, chairman of RAND, focused on those pet
hates that he experiences in ‘so many noisy hotels’. His list includes banging fire
doors, creaking pipes, waste water from above flowing through pipes located
just behind the bedhead, bathroom fans that keep humming long after the lights
are turned off, noisy mini-bars, outside generators, early morning delivery trucks,
and assorted other mechanical nasties. Oh, he says, and ‘don’t forget the
rumble of underground trains, lorries graunching away from traffic lights just
outside your bedroom window, and the alarm clock set by a previous guest at an
ungodly hour, and which housekeeping staff had forgotten to re-set’. So
concerned about noise is Robin Aubrey-Edwards (of Amadeus event
management) that he will even accept a downgraded type of bedroom if this
decision will guarantee quietness. Anticipating the problem for her clients, the
reaction of Dena Jones (Goldmark Events) is to raise the issue of noise levels in
advance with the hotel general manager, rather than to hope that delegates will
merely ‘put up and shut up’ the following morning. Many others confirm such
sensitivities: Fiona Sidway (Exclusive Events) describes hotel noise levels as ‘a
nightmare issue’, whilst Joy Montmorency of ACE, who frequently overhears loud
conversations and TVs from neighbouring bedrooms, considers such intrusions as
‘hell’. This, she says, applies even more so for the organiser who has to be alert
throughout, whereas delegates can get away with feeling and looking jaded next

Balancing such critical comments are the views of, for example, Chris Wilson
(Tailor-made Conferences) who blames delegates for the self-inflicted over-
indulgence that frequently spoils their sleep, and on the same lines Susan Spibey
(SJS Business Services) believes that the sensible answer is to maintain home
routines whilst travelling. Sarah Byrne (Mosaic Events) points out that some
(herself included) can sleep through anything, but admits that noisy hotels must
be terrible for light sleepers.
Specialists confirm that poor sleep will impair executive performance. Dr.
Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director at the London Sleep Centre, recognises
symptoms that include inattentiveness and perceived memory problems, with the
result that delegates ‘function well below peak performance’. He cites stress
associated with travelling, and the ‘first night effect’ of being placed in unfamiliar
surroundings, as further causes of the problem. There is also the ‘on-call effect’,
a syndrome in which busy people sleep badly because they are always half
expecting the ‘phone to ring from head office. Sister Carol Hoy at the Edinburgh
Sleep Centre underlines the influence of these psychological factors – being away
from home, coupled with a change of habits – and suggests that conference
organisers should ‘deliberately choose those hotels that work most seriously to
improve the sleep experience of their guests’.

It quickly becomes apparent that the global accommodation brands are indeed
trying harder. Holiday Inn offer a five-category ‘pillow menu’ that seeks to
match what guests are most used to, from synthetic types (firm, medium, soft)
to those that are stuffed naturally with down and feathers. Speaking from their
York hotel, housekeeping manager George Mathai reports that several guests a
night now opt for one of these pillow variants. A visionary Holiday Inn ‘concept
room’ for the future predicts seemingly sci-fi ideas to encourage relaxation that
include the diffusion of soporific aromas, the calming sounds of nature, twinkling
ceiling lights that evoke the universe, and wall-sized plasma screens that conjure
lifelike scenes of waves splashing onto an empty beach.

‘Heavenly Beds’
Similarly, Marriott Hotels are beginning to introduce a ‘SleepWell’ package (for
example, at their India Quay property in London) that features rest-enhancing
suggestions like allergy-free pillows and sheets made of Egyptian cotton. From
Starwood Hotels and Resorts comes such branded products as Westin’s
‘Heavenly Beds’ and Sheraton’s ‘Sweet Sleepers’. Featured in the latter are a
custom-designed top mattress intended to promote good sleeping posture, a
cosier fleece blanket, a plumper duvet, and a choice of cushier pillows.
(Surprise, surprise, but this new Starwood focus on sleeping arose because the
company’s then CEO discovered how difficult it was to sleep in hotels!) Also on
the way is Hilton’s ‘Sweet Dreams’ product (to include 250-thread-count sheets),
and the ‘Grand Bed’ thicker mattress concept at Hyatt Regency and Grand Hyatt
Hotels. Another version is ‘My Bed’ from Sofitel. In all such examples, and to
their credit, the hotel groups have invested fortunes in testing beds, covers and
other accoutrements, and each is convinced that a good night’s sleep for a
guest, possibly better than they get at home, is a guaranteed builder of
customer loyalty.

practical responses
Not every conference organiser, however, is going to select an internationally-
acclaimed hotel, and besides, the comfort of the bed is only part of the issue.
Instead, what practical responses are open to them to consider?

A list of sleep tips might be presented to each delegate, and for example, among
those recommended by the London Sleep Centre are taking a late bath, avoiding
stimulants (so forget the Scotch!), sticking to your normal time of turning-in and
applying relaxing therapies such as yoga or deep-breathing. Face-masks and
earplugs have a role, as can a late-night snack featuring cheese and milk that is
recommended by Hilton because it releases the amino acid tryptophan that
promotes sleepiness.

Encouraging delegates to exercise (though not too close to bed-time) is also a
proven aid to better sleep. Event planners can also advise chefs to prepare a
more sleep-friendly evening meal – more carbohydrates, less fats – and, with
difficulty, encourage bartenders to limit each person’s intake of alcohol.

wimpish disorder
It would also make sense to ‘out’ the poor sleepers (otherwise perhaps too
embarrassed to admit to such a wimpish and ‘neurotic’ disorder), in order to
tackle delegate sleep deprivation more strategically. Is it so daft, in the context
of a conference costing £10-£20,000 say, to allow for short after-lunch snoozes?
Is it really out of the question to identify the characteristic circadian body clock
of each and every delegate, or in other words, those (probably) inherited bio-
rhythms that render us either early morning types, or ‘larks’, as opposed to those
through-the-nighters, otherwise known as ‘owls? Indeed, dare an organiser risk
starting a conference with a keynote speech at 9am when half the audience
could in theory still be half-asleep? Similarly, given the likelihood of the troubled
‘first night effect’ that is experienced in a strange bedroom, should anything too
important be discussed or decided upon on the first morning following arrival at
the hotel? Such arguments certainly appeal to conference agents, for example,
Ron Sweeney (ITC World) who specifically plans for the fact that people ‘spark at
different times’, with the result that he suggests that influential speakers need
‘slotting in very carefully’.

It may be concluded that many in the meetings industry are likely to be taking
sleep for granted. Organisers may not have considered that the temporary
insomnia of business people can be a draining influence on event ROI. In turn,
many hoteliers may be paying only lip service to the idea of guaranteeing
quietness, and instead might be better advised to test each of their rooms
personally for noise, and then spend whatever it takes (insulation, double-
glazing, renewed machinery etc.) to tackle the identified problem(s). Sleep
deprivation is not going to be solved simply with a new kind of mattress!
We left Nottingham and the Business Tourism Conference with just a glint of
hope that the questions being raised here are indeed being addressed. At one of
the city’s middle-range but older hotels, a sign on the exterior of the lift
(obviously prone to whinings and clankings) stated that in the interests of all
guests it would not be operating between the hours of 11pm and 7am. Now that
decision really does represent an investment in positive guest relations, and in
delegate productivity, and yet it cost literally nothing to implement ….

Conference News Article – Chris Martins

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