Well known in the corporate world, site-selection company HelmsBriscoe is about to become a player in the association world as well. Founder and CEO ROGER HELMS believes associations are ready for what HB delivers: a wealth of site knowledge, buying power, and a way to make up for time and staff being in short supply. In January, Helms welcomed 1,800 associates, guests, and suppliers to Las Vegas for the company's 18th Annual Business Conference. HB associates worldwide, despite the horrendous economy, booked 18,000 programs in 2009.
Contributor Alison Hall sat down with Helms during a break in the program to talk about the company's plans.
AM: How has HelmsBriscoe's place in the meetings industry evolved?
Helms: We started HelmsBriscoe in 1992. At that time, no one paid attention to us. Then, when we had our first customer who decided to buy through HelmsBriscoe, the hotel said, “Whoa, you delivered me a piece of business, but I don't have the direct customer relationship and I don't know how I feel about that.” It took a few years for us to get comfortable with each other. Hotels realized we have distribution that they can't match. For example, we have 23 people in St. Louis. A hotel company can't have 23 people in St. Louis. We are a great strategy to impact clients they can't reach. They began to support us, to get in deeper with us, to work with our people in St. Louis to service our clients and generate incremental business. Now, we have incredible partnerships with hotel companies. We have strategy meetings with all the brands on a regular basis.
AM: You signaled HB's intention to increase its association business with the hiring last summer of a veteran of the association world, David Peckinpaugh, CMP, as vice president of business development.
Helms: He has lived and breathed that market and has a deep understanding of the challenges associations face. Strategic sourcing is becoming increasingly important to association executives as they look to adjust to the realities of today's economic conditions.
AM: Do you expect this segment of the market to be tough to penetrate?
Helms: We are already working with a great many association clients. HB associates booked $200 million worth of association business in 2008. But we feel that associations are looking for new ways to buy. We are working hard to build a flexible set of tools that will meet their specific needs. Association executives have to find ways to do more with less and at the same time increase value for attendees. We believe we can help in these efforts.
AM: You mentioned that you would partner with other association-meetings suppliers such as Passkey. How would such a partnership work?
Helms: We looked at building new capabilities but we didn't see the logic in it. We are developing partnerships that would allow us to evaluate the needs of a client and then bring together best-in-class suppliers.
AM: Would HB associates negotiate citywides or just smaller association meetings?
Helms: We currently negotiate a number of citywide events each year, and we expect to do more of these types of events in the future.
AM: Part of what you can offer clients is information. Your associates are like a window onto the current meetings market.
Helms: This is where we truly shine. Anyone can get facts about a hotel: number of rooms, size of ballrooms, and so on. We have all this at our fingertips. But what we also have is proprietary data — rate histories, for example, from every program we have bid. We also have a proprietary database where associate and client experiences are tracked anecdotally. And finally, we have the power of our network. Associates can reach out to each other and ask questions about specific properties or destinations. With nearly 1,200 associates, we have a great deal of hands-on, first-person perspective we can offer clients.
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