by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | November 01, 2010

In 2009, a year when meetings business visibly contracted and the hotel industry seemed to turn on its head, a select group of third-party companies -- ConferenceDirect, Experient and HelmsBriscoe -- defied the prevailing economic slump and collectively drove more than 10 million group room nights onto hotel spreadsheets.

"The upside of the economic downturn was that outsourcing was accelerated to a new level," says Rick Binford, CMP, president, event management services, for Twinsburg, Ohio-based Experient. "Many organizations -- corporate and association -- were forced to re-examine how they manage their business and their resources, and we had a lot of new clients coming in and asking for help."

There is no question that these three companies dominate the third-party segment in terms of their ability to drive sheer hotel volume. But that's not the only strength they bring to the table. In the past year, while much of corporate America hunkered down to ride the downturn by trimming manpower and tightening budget belts, the trio was focused on ramping up their forces, expanding their global reach, and investing heavily in employee training and proprietary technologies.

In addition, they formed strategic partnerships with online content providers that allowed them to launch new products and services, from social media consulting and housing management to meeting-spend analysis. In short, these companies have aggressively positioned themselves to continue to dominate the third-party playing field, with services extending far beyond traditional site-selection expertise.

Global growthAt Scottsdale, Ariz.-based HelmsBriscoe, founder Roger Helms says business for the first half of 2010 is running at full throttle, driven by pent-up demand, but also by emerging players. "What we have found is that there is much more international association spend than what people think is out there," says Helms.

Not surprisingly the company's model, which had been primarily focused on targeting short-term corporate group business by as much as 80 percent, has now shifted to more aggressively position itself in the association market. "We are focusing on the associations that are about 3,000 strong. They are an untapped market," says Helms. "We call them our sweet-spot groups."

In addition, having spent more than 10 years systematically growing its international reach, the company feels it is uniquely positioned among third parties to capture this growing outbound association business. In late 2009, HelmsBriscoe sealed its commitment to becoming a truly seamless global provider by bringing its previously independently licensed international contractors under its corporate umbrella. While the company has extensive reach in Europe, Middle East and Africa, Helms says it clearly needs to extend its footprint into Asia, particularly China, and the company will soon "unveil some unique strategies that will give us additional distribution in Asia."

Experient also is on the global fast track. In the past two years, the company saw its offshore business triple, and that growth is expected to continue. Unlike, HelmsBriscoe, though, Experient is not interested in growing staff on the ground. Instead, says Binford, its globalization strategy revolves around establishing partner relationships with local experts in geographic areas where clients need service, and in turn leveraging that local expertise to the company's advantage to attract more new clients. For example, in March 2009, Experient set up shop in Canada when it entered into a preferred partnership deal with Toronto area-based Host Business Event Management, making the new company Experient's Canadian arm.

Experient currently has partner relationships in 40 countries. In the past year alone, the company established a number of multinational supplier relationships and implemented strategic alliances with preferred vendors in Asia, South America and Europe that can be tapped to become part of team Experient. "It's pretty straightforward to source a hotel in a foreign country," says Binford. "But executing a successful program in the far corners of the world requires extensive local experience and hands-on service support."