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Reserving a seat at Woodlands Resort conference circus

Financial Times: Reserving a seat at Woodlands Resort conference circus

By Ian Bickerton

May 15, 2004

When Royal Dutch/Shell executives fly into Houston for their two-day conference, they will be destined for The Woodlands Resort.

The last leg of their journey to the sprawling conference complex of golf courses, pools and meeting rooms should make them more than ready for the oasis that awaits them.

For it will be on a crowded highway, lined with the fast-food restaurants and nondescript strip malls that crowd America’s interstate highways, interspersed with dozens of car dealerships, distinguished from each other only by the huge, floating plastic animals tied to the roofs: gorillas, dinosaurs and bald eagles.

After what could easily be an hour-long ride, the executives will enter a soothingly wooded area surrounded by water that is free from the distractions of commercialised Americana.

The metal statues of leaping deer at the entrance may jog memories. Many will have visited the resort before as it contains 30,000 sq ft of dedicated Shell meeting space, including 20 private conference rooms.

When the conference starts on May 25, executives need only walk the short distance to the Shell Learning Center from one of the resort’s 490 rooms, fully booked for the occasion.

At a time of sensitivity over Shell’s recent decision to cut its proved reserve estimates by more than 20 per cent, they need not worry about the awkwardness of bumping into a competitor during a coffee break, despite the resort being a popular meeting place for oil and gas companies, even boasting an ExxonMobil Learning Center.

“There need be no concern about who is meeting in the next room,” says Nicki Keenan, the resort’s director of sales and marketing.

Shell Learning Center is closed off from the other conference facilities by a door restricting it to staff and delegates.

This week, however, there was no security at the door, so a quick tour discovered some trophies from better times.

Pride of place goes to a genuine old-fashioned Shell pump, complete with a globe on top with the seashell logo, framed by the words “Shell Gasoline”.

An eight-foot model of the Eureka Platform off California stands nearby at the start of a wall of trophy cases containing such treasures as a Community Service Award from Houston and dedications from awards by Fortune in 1994 and 1995, when it declared the company “America’s most admired corporation in petroleum and refining” two years running.

The resort provides Shell with its own concierge and a food and beverage service that sets up coffee, tea, soft drinks and fresh baked goods from the resort bakery, fruit and other snacks outside the conference rooms, which have built on the Shell theme with names like “Conch” and “Scallop”.

“You break when you want to break, not when we finish clinking and clanking in the back of the room,” Ms Keenan says.

Shell’s brochure on the centre boasts that the dedicated conference rooms and large space “focus the mind and limit distractions”.

Beyond the flags of the US, Texas and Shell flapping above the centre’s private drop-off, a short walk – minding the tiny turtles crossing the path and the hill of stinging fire-ants alongside it – leads to a private strip mall.

This is complete with a grocery store, dry cleaner, ice cream shop and liquor store, which gives the executives a chance to avoid ringing up tabs at high resort prices.

The resort offers conferences the opportunity to sign up for “team building” on The Challenge Course.

Among other activities, “teams are challenged” – using balloons and tape “to build the most creative and tallest free-standing structure that best represents the company’s values”.

But Kendra Clough, the resort’s conference planning manager, says oil and gas companies, such as Shell, are not interested. “They are staying in the box these days.”

That means relying on the more traditional networking of golf on the resort’s two championship courses, and relaxation at one of the resort’s three pools, on the tennis courts, hiking and biking trails or in the full-service spa, where “The Woodlands Escape” will offer an executive a four-hour break from the stress of the conference with a massage, facial, manicure and spa for $259.

For those who forget their casual attire, a Ben Hogan polo shirt, marked with “The Woodlands” logo, sells for $84 in the golf shop and a wrinkle-free, flowered “Dress in a Bag” goes for $60.

“We try to think of everything that you’re going to need,” Ms Keenan says.

If only that included restoring reserves …

HOUSTON BRIEFING COULD GIVE INSIGHT TO THE COMPANY’S FUTURE Royal Dutch/Shell’s 400 senior managers will gather at the Woodlands Resort, outside Houston, on the afternoon of Monday May 24 for a briefing on company strategy, writes Ian Bickerton. Shell does not usually take important policy decisions at this regular gathering, according to a person familiar with the company’s thinking. “It is more a question of the leadership saying ‘Here’s where we are going’.” However, this year, “there has been incredibly high demand from people who would normally never be invited… because everyone is curious about what is going to be presented”, the person said. The source suggested that Jeroen van der Veer – the chairman of the committee of managing directors – could brief managers on his thinking.

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