Are you one of the many association planners who have turned to a private housing company to help solve persistent housing problems? If so, you probably won't be surprised to learn that a recent study conducted by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) and the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) has found that more and more associations are using third-party vendors to handle housing for their large conventions. (See sidebar, page 32.)

The reasons? Housing vendors give associations better control of their room blocks, more accurate pick-up information, and better customer satisfaction, said respondents. While in the past associations have turned to housing vendors to ensure consistency and better standards, the importance of being able to "prove their numbers" to avoid stiff attrition clauses in today's seller's market has become an equally compelling reason.

But there is a cost associated with housing services--a cost no one seems to want to pay--and all the players in the housing equation keep passing it around. Witness the recent exodus of Atlanta-based WorldTravel Partners as a provider of housing services to bureaus, which want to provide a "low-cost service model . . . that doesn't work," according to WorldTravel CEO Jack Alexander. (See "Housing Hopscotch Continues," Association Meetings, August 1997, page 14.)

Hotels don't want to pay third-party housing costs either. "The hotel industry is having extraordinary heartburn over the price of the housing process," says John A. Marks, president and CEO, San Francisco CVB. And they have a point, Marks says, especially when associations use housing vendors to provide far more services than just processing reservations, such as contract negotiation and registration. Many hotels are pressuring their CVBs to stay in or return to the housing business and provide an economical alternative. "The general sense is that bureaus should not be getting out of the [housing] business altogether," says Leslie Hogan, vice president, marketing, Greater Boston CVB, "but provide a service that is different [from third-party vendors]."

That something, says Hogan, is an alternative housing service--one not as comprehensive as that provided by third parties, but one that meets clients' basic needs. CVBs can facilitate reservations, help planners manage their room blocks, and monitor pick-up. "We won't go to the airport or sit in the lobbies in multiple hotels to greet guests," Hogan says, "but there is some happy medium that we should be providing."

But How? The question facing CVBs is how to provide an economical housing service that meets associations' needs in today's market. San Diego is one CVB standing at the crossroads. After being dropped by its housing provider, WorldTravel Partners, the bureau has contracted with Las Vegasbased Housing On-Line to provide an "interim housing solution" while all the options are evaluated, according to Christine Shimasaki, CMP, vice president of sales and marketing, convention center, San Diego CVB.

The San Diego CVB and others are grappling with some difficult choices: whether to invest in the technology and staffing necessary to provide a competitive housing service, or to outsource to a private vendor. Should the vendor be local, or does it matter? As with every aspect of housing, the issues are fueling vociferous debate.

When dropped by WorldTravel Partners recently, the Greater Vancouver (BC) CVB surveyed its customer advisory board about their housing preferences. "They stressed local, local, local," says Debbie Reynolds, CMP, manager, market development, convention services, for the bureau. "They want somebody who knows the city. The hotels like it because [the provider] has seen the renovations."

The CVB has a strong rapport with hoteliers, whereas an out-of-state vendor may not, asserts Tina Stark, director of housing services, Salt Lake (UT) CVB. After a year of outsourcing to WorldTravel Partners, the CVB was asked by the hotels to bring housing back in-house, Stark says. The CVB upgraded its housing services and added staff.

"Prior to outsourcing, our services were good, but not up to a competitive level," says Stark. "Now, they are." And the price is right; at $9.50 per reservation it's a lot less expensive than the ten percent per room night commission some private vendors charge.

CVBs need to consider (or reconsider) operating their own housing services, reiterates Richard Gilliland, past president and CEO, Albuquerque CVB. "We are the ones that make the promise to the planner. That meeting planner looks to us to keep those promises regardless of who is paying whom to do what. You still come down to the convention bureaus: Your city did or did not do a good job handling housing." Albuquerque has always handled housing in-house, Gilliland says, for a price he wouldn't quote, except to say, "It's so reasonable that it hurts. It's the cost of doing business, as far as I'm concerned."

Marks, however, forecasts that more and more bureaus will outsource their housing. "I think we will reach the point where the customer will demand consistency of delivery from one city to another," he says. "And I just don't know that our industry has the ability to provide a template that everyone is willing to follow."

Maybe so, but one CVB has pioneered a means to provide consistency across the country. The housing bureau of the Washington, DC Convention and Visitors Association is providing service for meetings in various cities--which has made the bureaus' investment in the necessary infrastructure worthwhile. Shimasaki says that other bureaus will look at DC as a model.

"It comes down to relationships," she says. "If a customer feels comfortable with a housing provider, and feels that it will make their convention successful to take that party on the road, then that is what's going to happen."

Will Technology Set Standards? While the debate continues over who should provide the "front end" of the housing service, more CVBs and housing vendors are signing on to THISCO UltraRes, a product designed to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and solve long-standing technical problems on the "back end." An electronic data transmission system launched in January and endorsed by the International Association of Convention and Visitor Bureaus, UltraRes allows rooming lists to be directly downloaded into participating hotels' reservations systems--potentially solving the connectivity problems between hotels and housing providers (whether those providers are associations or housing companies).

Vancouver's and San Diego's new housing vendors will use UltraRes, and two more housing vendors, Convention Management Resources in San Francisco, and Visitors Services International in St. Petersburg, FL, have signed on recently. Two hotel chains, Hyatt Hotels and Holiday Hospitality (formerly Holiday Inn Worldwide), are current users of UltraRes, and housing vendors expect other hotel chains to sign on soon.

While, as Marks points out, the industry has so far failed to standardize housing delivery, others optimistically predict that technology may finally prod the various parties to come together. New products such as UltraRes are already starting to drive consistency, says Shimasaki, stressing that technology will rapidly alter the housing process. "The housing we know today," she says, "is certainly not the housing we will know two years from now."

People Who Need People Whatever change technology brings, it will not eliminate the need for excellent customer service. The people factor was underscored during a housing seminar at July's annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives. "It's a little bit naive to think that UltraRes can put CVBs back into housing," said Brian D. Stevens, vice president, sales and marketing, Hilton Hotels Corporation in Los Angeles. UltraRes is a back-end system, he said. "The front end--how someone answers the phone when a delegate calls--must be consistent and must be improved."

CVBs are working hard to improve both their back-end and front-end service. Will enough of them succeed at providing an economical option to meet association planners' demands? The question remains unanswered.