When candidate George Bush held a fund-raiser here last year, he stayed briefly at Graylyn, the second-largest home ever built in the state, an imposing stone mansion that now is used as a conference center.
Security-conscious Secret Service agents combed the facility's 49 bedrooms, 10 meeting rooms and the 55 acres of manicured grounds, making a series of modifications that included installation of a set of utilitarian beige curtains in the area where the future President was to spend a few hours.
Perhaps the least elegant of Graylyn's furnishings, the Bush curtains still stand, a reminder of his visit. They also remind visitors of the increasing concern with security--a concern that transcends government, including business executives as well.
In these days of corporate takeovers, theft by computer and high-tech spying, business leaders have grown increasingly cautious, according to officials at Graylyn, which is owned by Wake Forest University. Therefore, they say, their business is booming, drawing meetings that formerly would have been held at a big hotel or convention center.
Doris Sklar, manager of conference planning for General Electric in New York, said that while she still uses hotels at times, conference centers are superior in many instances because "I get dedicated meeting space and don't have to substantiate why I need the meeting space at night. It is an automatic at a conference center--when they assign you the room it is yours 24 hours a day, which is not the case with hotels."
"You don't see strangers walking through our halls," said Jane Rachlin, assistant director of the Graylyn Conference Center. "Guests don't have to worry about people putting up a glass to hear what they're saying."
Indeed, the walls of the Norman Revival mansion are two feet thick. So are the floors. Room doors are equipped with combination locks, and the center will station guards outside rooms on request. A helicopter pad is on the front grounds.
Daniel Lynch, director of the High Point Economic Development Commission, has hosted meetings at Graylyn and said because of its secluded location away from the center city, "you could secure the place a lot easier than a typical hotel."
While security may be a pressing concern for many of the hundreds of associations, corporations and government groups that meet there annually, the sheer lavishness of the place is also a drawing-card.
Graylyn was completed in 1932 by Bowman Gray, a former president of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The mansion's size is second only to George Vanderbilt's Biltmore House in Asheville. It was donated to Wake Forest in 1947, suffered a fire in 1980 and was restored and converted to a conference center, opening in 1984.
The center offers high-powered executives the usual amenities such as golf, tennis and jogging facilities, but, aiming to pamper and intrigue, it also features a Turkish mosque, a 15th Century French carved stone doorway, a tent room the Grays brought back from Egypt, art pieces that are rotated every two months and an Art Deco swimming pool that resembles an ocean liner pool, complete with portholes. Some bathrooms boast gold-plated fixtures, Italian marble and showers with 17 showerheads. There are no televisions in the rooms.
Thomas Gilsenan, general manager and director of the center, seems particularly proud of one of the center's culinary features: an "ice cream room" containing a tall freezer filled with a fancy brand of ice cream.
Thomas Hearn Jr., president of Wake Forest, said Graylyn gives the university "a bond with the city, as the university has preserved one of Winston-Salem's historic sites and uses it in a manner which does not detract from its beauty or historical significance."
Amid a climate of depersonalization, conference centers like Graylyn appeal because of their attention not only to luxury but to individual needs, say many business leaders.
"At Graylyn you're a name instead of a number," said John Roberts, president of Solite Corp. in Richmond, Va.
To be sure, conference center officials have a greater stake in pleasing customers than do hotel officials, for whom conferences may be only a small part of their daily concerns.
No small part of Graylyn's motivation is the income derived from its operation. Officials declined to divulge the cost of its conference packages, asserting that the figures might be misinterpreted, confused with the price of a mere hotel room.
Among the Fortune 500 corporations that hold board meetings and strategy sessions in this western North Carolina city are IBM, Sears Roebuck, Westinghouse and AT&T;, according to Graylyn.
For many guests, money is not a huge consideration. Indeed, Graylyn literature describes them as "organizations which emphasize the quality rather than the price of accommodations."
But for some, such as the members of the Gastonia, N.C., city council, price matters. Last December council members considered holding a workshop at several places, including Graylyn, and found that for 25 people they would have to pay about $10,000, compared to $3,550 at Appalachian State University. The council members chose a third site, a resort that cost $5,750.
The Gastonia mayor was quoted in the Charlotte Observer as saying: "I'd heard several people say Graylyn was a nice place," adding, "I never dreamed it would cost so much. I thought since it was operated by Wake Forest it would be around the same price as Appalachian."
Nevertheless, Graylyn officials say they have no trouble keeping the place occupied and are now taking reservations for 1994. And the center is doubling its space, converting a group of buildings formerly used for caretaker's quarters, garages, stables and poultry houses into an additional 45 guest rooms--with country French decor.
"We're busy all year round," said Gilsenan. "There's more demand than facilities." He said Russians, Chinese and Japanese all have booked conferences here. "We're getting more international."
Researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.