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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 01, 2012
The Planner's Perspective

Increasingly strapped for manpower due to corporate downsizing, and grappling with ever-tightening meeting budgets, many planners are digging deep for cost-free solutions. Third parties, which are compensated directly by hotels for their work -- typically with 10 percent of the total group room rate revenue -- require no additional line-item payout on the planner's part and offer an extremely attractive answer.

Deborah Young

One recent convert to the cause is Deborah Young, CEM (above), director, convention and meetings, for the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Elementary School Principals. In 2010, she was the sole surviving member of her meetings department, the result of downsizing and the organization's freeze on new hires. Already a client of Experient, to whom she had previously outsourced housing and registration, Young decided to turn to them for help managing the association's national three-day conference and expo, which is expected to draw 3,000 people next month to Seattle's Washington State Convention Center.

"Logistically, it made complete sense. They were already familiar with our program, the numbers, our attendee's booking process," says Young. "There was still a learning curve, but I think next year will be smoother."

Ronli Merlis

One corporate planner who firmly believes in the value third parties bring to the meetings industry is Ronli Merlis, CMP, CMM (above). As senior project manager, events, meetings and conventions, for Cambridge, Mass.-based Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Co., she and her team handle more than 400 meetings a year and rely heavily on HelmsBriscoe for site-selection support. "Their buying power is phenomenal," she says. "We do a ton of international business, and the time out of the office they save me can't be measured. It's just an amazing resource to have."

Selling senior management on such benefits, Merlis points out, can sometimes be a challenge because top executives do not necessarily understand the nuances of the meetings industry. However, she adds, it is one worth pursuing. "I had to get permission to use HelmsBriscoe, whom I had worked with at my previous company, when they got us out of a $60,000 attrition problem," she says. "My manager could not believe they came at zero cost to us."  

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As recently as a decade ago, third parties -- independent meeting planning firms -- were seen as bit players in this industry. They were viewed as having little, if any, serious professional clout and only one real service angle: site-selection expertise. Today, however, the major third-party players have gained such depth and reach across every segment of the industry, that all stakeholders -- hotels, convention and visitor bureaus, tourism officials, destination management companies and technology providers -- are clamoring for their attention. Clearly, third parties are the new power brokers in the meetings realm.

Not only have the major players expanded internationally, opening dozens of offices across Africa, Asia, Europe and South America, they have swelled their associate ranks to number in the hundreds. They have strategically formed preferred partnerships with hotels and destination management companies around the globe, and forged key alliances with CVBs and destination marketing organizations. Add formidable client lists that read like a Who's Who of Fortune 500 firms and major national associations, and it is obvious why third parties wield such tremendous negotiating power.

Their bread-and-butter service of site selection has been in hot demand in a tough economy, as planners pressed for time and resources have turned to third parties to ease their workload -- at no additional cost (third-party fees are paid by the hotels that win the business).

But there's more: Going head-to-head with smaller independents, the third-party giants now offer a full slate of professional meeting services, from social media marketing and contract expertise to strategic meetings management. Such services typically involve a negotiated fixed fee based on the needs of the client and the scope of the project. Factors determining price might include the number of estimated work hours, including on-site execution and post-convention wrap up; level of staffing required; travel expenses; and any customized services the client might require, such as visa applications for attendees.

HelmsBriscoe is the personification of third-party evolution. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next month, booked 4.5 million group hotel room nights in 2011, worth an estimated $1.3 billion in total meetings spend -- $100 million more than the firm generated in 2010. Committed business on the books for first-quarter 2012 has the company on track to achieve another record-breaking year, according to president and chief executive officer Roger Helms.

"Not only have we had phenomenal international growth and greater traction with existing accounts, but what has been really surprising is the amount of first-time corporate accounts that have come to us," says Helms. "They want us to handle their total hotel meeting spend, which places our associates directly in their procurement process. That's a huge shift in the purchasing model."

Forging Alliances Rick BinfordLast year, Twinsburg, Ohio-based Experient ramped up its product offerings with the launch of two new partnerships; one extended its meetings management services, the other its international reach. Those alliances, says Rick Binford, CMP, president of the company's Event Management Services division, directly reflect where Experient's clients are placing business and the areas in which they are turning to the company for assistance.

In July 2011, Experient and technology provider StarCite teamed up to launch MeetingsComplete, a new product aimed at designing management solutions for small to mid-size companies with a total meeting spend of at least $1 million. It's a service, says Binford, that came out of a direct response to customers' needs. "We've seen a lot of hesitancy among some of our clients, because they feel they don't have an entire road map to their meetings operation. They don't know where to start or how far to go," says Binford. "MeetingsComplete is a quick start, an easy way for them to turn on the strategic management strategy within their organization."

The second partnership was initiated last October, when Experient signed an exclusive deal with Incon, a select group of 10 conference and event management companies that operates in 130 destinations around the globe and employs 3,000 people. That alliance gave Experient immediate boots on the ground and strengthened the company's ability to confidently meet customer demands in specific global markets. "Last year we did events in some 35 countries that a number of our clients had little prior knowledge of," notes Binford. "Incon strengthens our resources in places like India and Russia, and we will open another half-dozen new offices in new destinations by May of this year."

Also leveraging the power of alliances is Scottsdale-based third-party firm Hospitality Performance Network Global, which estimates it sources 500 meetings per month, generating a million room nights per year. Last year HPNG, which has grown to 210 associates, signed preferred partnerships with two well-established destination management organizations, Ovation South Africa and Brussels, Belgium-based Euromic, a 35-year old international consortium of destination companies with representation in 36 countries.

Those two deals gave the company immediate cachet in multiple international locales and significantly boosted the credentials of its international division, which HPNG has been focused on growing since 2010, when it merged forces with former site-selection firm Meetings International and added "Global" to its name.

Likewise, Los Angeles-based ConferenceDirect has seen a growing need for meeting and event management among its client base and set about filling it several years ago. Today, the third party's conference management division is one of its fastest growing, racking up double-digit increases year-over-year. To grow its team, the company set about actively recruiting seasoned planners, many of them former in-house planner clients downsized by their corporations and associations.

Brian StevensToday, the typical planner on ConferenceDirect's conference management team has more than 10 years of experience. One example: Debbie Draper, global project manager (and winner of the firm's 2011 Conference Manager of the Year award), joined the team after a decades-long career with the Dallas-based American Heart Association, where she was director of national hotel contracts and meetings, overseeing a group handling 300 meetings per year. "That kind of experience gives our clients tremendous confidence in our ability to handle their event and get it right," says Brian Stevens, president and chief executive officer. "It doesn't matter if we have five years or five weeks lead time."

In 2011, ConferenceDirect, which has grown to 350 associates, booked more than 2.5 million room nights for 1,500 clients, and Stevens says the company is acquiring new customers daily.