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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | January 21, 2011

HelmsBriscoe founder Roger Helms, hotels, third parties, groups, meetingsAt HelmsBriscoe's annual conference, held earlier this month at the 2,000-room Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., the atmosphere was a blend of old-time church revival and formal dance, as more than 1,400 HB associates and hoteliers from around the globe gathered for two and a half days of networking and inking group business. And make no mistake, in this grand ballroom filled to capacity with a standing-room-only crowd, it was the hoteliers who were lined up like so many eager ducks in a row to get their dance cards punched.

Just how good was business in 2010 for the 18-year-old Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company? The sheer numbers are staggering: $675 million in revenue booked with an estimated meeting spend of more than $1 billion. Put another way, HB associates booked 3.86 million group room nights last year for 25,000 different meeting programs (of those, 1,000 were new clients), at an average daily rate of $165. "If this growth continues," says Roger Helms, HB founder and CEO, "it will give us whiplash." But the really key statistic here, and one which shows just how important third-party players like HB have become in brokering group business -- a whopping 84 percent of that business went to HB's preferred partner hotels.

Four years ago, I attended my first HB conference and spent an afternoon interviewing executives from every major hotel chain on the developing nature of third-party business. Back then, not one hotelier mentioned preferred partnerships. This time, though, the phrase was on everyone's lips. Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. not only has a preferred partnership deal with HB, it has deployed an entire team of 25 to working with third parties; three dedicated solely to HB. In December 2010, the Spanish chain Sol Meliá announced it had extended its preferred partnership with HB from 30 hotels to its entire global portfolio of 330. "We can't reach everyone. We'd need a bigger sales force to do that, and HB provides that," says John Iannini, senior director of sales for meetings and events.

Betty Wilson, vice president, North America divisional sales, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, declined to put a number on 2010 third-party contributions to Starwood's bottom line but told me, "Let's just say it is extremely significant. In the millions and millions of dollars." She did say that as the White Plains, N.Y.-based hotel company continued its aggressive international expansion: "We are partnering with those third parties who have people on the ground where we are expanding." Considering that HB has made international expansion, particularly in Asia, a cornerstone of it's growth strategy, that dovetails very nicely with Starwood's partnership policy.

"When we last talked, preferred partnerships with hotels were just in the beginning stages," Helms notes, "Today, it is how business is done. It's all about the sharing of intelligence through a controlled channel." That means a heads-up on new hotels and destinations, calendar holes and last-minute group cancellations that need to be filled -- in short, insider information. And as for what this year might bring? "We are very bullish on 2011," says Helms...neck brace at the ready.