by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | September 01, 2006

Helms Briscoe founder Roger Helms and others


HelmsBriscoe founder and CEO Roger Helms
discusses business with HelmsBriscoe International’s
Pat Durocher (center) and others during a break
in the action at an HB luncheon held in
July at the New York Marriott Marquis.

It is 9 a.m.on a Friday morning in late July, and the Broadway Ballroom at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square is filled to capacity. Close to 700 salespeople from major U.S. and international hotel chains, independent properties, convention and visitor bureaus, international tourism offices and hotel marketing consortia are gathered in anticipation of one thing -- to hear just how good business is going for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HelmsBriscoe, and how they can get a piece of the increasingly lucrative meetings pie.

The news does not disappoint. It is revealed that in 2005, HelmsBriscoe’s 767 associates booked 2.7 million group room nights, worth $435 million in hotel room revenue, or about $650 million in total hotel spend. And this year’s numbers, founder and CEO Roger Helms tells the applauding crowd, are on pace to be almost 25 percent better. The company is on target to book 3.25 million group room nights, at an estimated worth of $580 million in direct hotel room revenue. “If you had any doubts relative to the opportunity that exists with HelmsBriscoe and the clients we represent, it is there and within your grasp,” says Helms. “And consider: Sixty to 65 percent of the business we book is consumed within 12 months.”

Planners refer to HelmsBriscoe and its counterparts as site selection companies. Simply put, they are brokers. They research properties for a given program, obtain proposals from hotels, match the client with the property that best meets the group’s needs, and even expedite the contract and booking process. They are compensated in one of three ways: The hotel that gets the business pays them an agreed-upon commission, usually 10 percent of the room rate; the meeting client pays a management fee, or some combination of both is applied.

In fact, however, this segment of the meetings industry, which straddles the line between planner and supplier, is far more complex and diverse. And many senior executives in the hotel industry, who categorically refer to HelmsBriscoe and its peers as third parties, say the time has come to take a closer look at exactly who they are and how they operate.

Three companies -- Los Angeles-based ConferenceDirect, Twinsburg, Ohio-based Conferon Global Services (CGS) and HelmsBriscoe -- dominate the third-party segment.

“Everyone understands who the big three are and their business model, but we don’t discern between the big players and all the others,” says David Scypinski, Washington, D.C.-based senior vice president, industry relations, for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, who says Starwood’s group business booked as a result of third-parties has grown 15 to 20 percent year-over-year for the past three years.

However, in 2005 the White Plains, N.Y.-based hotel chain paid commissions to more than 2,000 third parties. “We as an industry should be looking at some kind of designation and accreditation for this segment of the industry who are all lumped together as third parties,” says Scypinski. “We, the hotels, have created our own mess. There is no policy, and there is so much abuse that the end user doesn’t know about.”