“If you're going to be on the high-tech side, you just have to be committed to turning on a dime.”
Founded in 1970, Cleveland-based Conferon Inc. was the country's first independent meeting planning firm. The company now has close to 500 clients, booking as many as 1.5 million room nights annually. It is the single largest customer for numerous hotel chains, including Marriott, Hyatt, Starwood, and Hilton. We talked with Conferon founder, president, and CEO Bruce Harris, CMP, to get his take on the state of the industry and his company's growth strategy.
Technology Meetings: What is Conferon's client focus?
Bruce Harris: Before our last acquisition [of Boston-based Cramer Events Management], our business mix was around 80 percent associations, 20 percent corporate. Our focus now is to move that mix to 60/40 association/corporate. Cramer fit a couple of things. We were looking for an organization with a strong value system, that was on the East Coast, and that had strengths in certain areas, one of which was high tech. Ninety-plus percent of Cramer's clients were tech. Now our portfolio is 29 [percent] to 30 percent tech business.
TM: Besides corporate business, what are other areas of expansion for the company?
BH: We have every intention of making an alliance or acquisition on the international side, first in Europe and the Far East, where a lot of high-tech meetings are being hosted. Technology knows no boundaries. We want to make sure we have a presence and that we continue the same level of service as we have in North America. On theside, frankly, we didn't have the level of expertise that corresponded with what we were doing on the meeting planning side. So we made an alliance with Corcoran Expositions out of Chicago. We co-own events with them through Corcoran Conferon Expositions. We've grown that business tremendously.
TM: Did high tech have a particular allure for you?
BH: We think that some of the things we do can help technology companies become more effective. They need speed. If I decide I'm going to roll something out and my lead time is three months, that means I've got to get the marketing information out right away. When you book short-run meetings, the battle right away is getting to people before they have a conflict. One of the things that helps us is that we have our own planning department, so when we need, for example, Web sites designed and changed, we can do it internally. If you're going to be on the high-tech side, you just have to be committed to turning on a dime. You have to find and negotiate a hotel overnight. It's key to have enough people and resources.
TM: What affect do you see the economy having on corporate and tech company meetings?
BH: Internal incentive awards may go away in a down economy, but you can't get rid of the ones for your distributors. You can't promise them that they're going to get a reward and then not give it. Here's the reality: Corporate sales and training meetings are an expense. The majority of cancellations in any downturn will come from the corporate side. Corporate meetings may change their nature. They still need to get people together, so they'll spend less on the frills, especially with their own people. They'll make the meetings shorter.
TM: What about user group meetings?
BH: I think that the world where I can charge a large amount of money to have you come learn about my product may, over time, evolve into a model that's more like the pharmaceutical model, where you pay for the food and beverage, whatever it is, to get people to come. It hasn't changed yet, but I think that's possible, it's out on the horizon, because users are getting bombarded with opportunities.
TM: How important is the Internet in your overall strategy, and how does the alliance with Plansoft — which you co-founded in 1991 — fit into that plan?
BH: We need to be able to transmit every function we do via the Web. We're about two-thirds of the way there right now. It's been about a two-year project, but we believe that's where we have to be to be able to provide solutions for our clients.
Plansoft's [facility] database on Mpoint is second to none. They even have more information on some hotels than the hotels have on their own sites. We'll be able to do all our searches in our company through Plansoft and then integrate that information into our own IS systems. What we're also doing is working on Mpoint's MMS system — meeting management solution. This is something new in the industry, and it's very, very hot. The whole concept is this: If you can aggregate all the information on what you're spending on meetings, you'll have a better idea of what your total buying volume is, and then have more power when you negotiate with hotels.
Bruce Harris: Personal Stats
Education: Government major, economics, Lake Forest (Ill.) College
Outside Interests: Tennis, softball, learning to play golf, big Cleveland Indians fan: “I'm a sports nut”
Family: Married to wife, Barb, for 26 years; three children, Matt, Megan, and Brent
How He Got into the Biz: “ I kind of fell into it like everybody else. I thought I was going to be a hotel rep and have a company that sold hotel space. What I found out was that there was a real lack of understanding between the meeting planner and what the hotel's needs were and vice versa.”