Conference Hound interviews Fran Brasseux, EVP of HSMAI at Affordable Meetings® West (part 1)

At the Affordable Meetings® West conference held last week at the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center in Long Beach, California, we had the opportunity to sit down and have an engaging conversation with Fran Brasseux, the Executive Vice President of HSMAI (the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International, organizer of the show).

In the wide ranging conversation, we covered a great deal of ground including how the economy has affected the meetings industry, new trends and new technologies in the marketplace, and the evolution and re-branding of HSMAI and the Affordable Meetings Conference Series. Published below is Part one of a two part series.  If you would like to skip ahead to Part Two of the conversation, you can find it here.

Fran Brasseux of HSMAI: The Conference Hound Interview (Part 1)

Fran Brassaux

Fran Brasseux Interviewed at the Long Beach HSMAI Affordable Meetings Conference

CH: Tell us a little bit about HSMAI, the roots of the organization, and what the organization’s mission is?

FB: The original roots of HSMAI started in 1927, and we were founded actually at the request of the industry, looking for someone to help the meetings department of hotels understand contracting at a different level.

We organized an educational association that kept evolving until today, and actually our mission has recently changed and we’ve reorganized what we do and how we do it in the last 12 months. We’ve launched a new logo and a new mission:

Our mission is to help hotels and their partners grow business through sales, inspiring marketing and optimizing revenue.

CH: So that is the rebranding and new mission for HSMAI, which is distinct and separate from the rebranding of Affordable Meetings into what is now called MEET, correct?

FB: HSMAI is the organization behind Affordable Meetings, and MEET is the transition in the trade show space as part of our whole revisioning. MEET’s the new way we’re going to organize Affordable Meetings in the future. It’s the evolution of Affordable Meetings, which we’ve been running for 22 years.

CH: What prompted the rebranding – was the industry changing, or was there something you felt was under serviced in the marketplace?

FB: Well, what we know is that the hospitality market and the meetings market has had such pressure with what’s happening with the economy, and not just the economy but the travel space, with what people are doing with meetings, and with groups, and with business travel and leisure travel.

We thought we needed to redefine a way we could offer even more value from the association – and this depends on whether you want to talk about the meeting side of it or the association side of it. Which would you prefer?

CH: Why don’t we talk a little about both?

FB: On the association side of it, the associations – all of us, are under pressure because it used to be that we were formed to be a part of community pulling people together, and social media has allowed that community connection to happen in a million different ways, so in some cases the association had to evolve in order to be more valuable.

It can’t just be a place for people to network – it has to prove ROI on time, because of course you have time poverty and you have a way to connect without belonging to an association. So you have to have the right value in order to get the membership to grow, and be able to get attendance at your programs and your conferences.

Everyone’s time is so carefully monitored these days, and we all are evolving, so the pressure is on all the associations to redefine their value to their members.

CH: And on the meeting side?

FB: On the meeting side, something similar. You have the hospitality pressure for the travel being down, but you also have all of that negative impact that happened in the meetings market in the last 2 years, with statements coming from the White House or coming from different places about reasons to meet, defining it differently for the government.

Of course, the meetings market fell off dramatically in the last couple of years, and that impacted the attendance at programs, as well as what was hosted at the hotels. Budgets were reduced, and meetings were reduced, and the impact on Affordable Meetings was great too.

One of the things we wanted to do was redefine trade shows – most trade shows has seen a decline in the last 6 years on attendance, and one of the things we want to do is to form a new way to bring people together without being just a traditional trade show.

That’s what we’ve evolved to – MEET is our new way to join a community or to be part of a community.

Meet. The new logo for HSMAI Meetings

HSMAI's new logo unveiled at the Long Beach Conference

CH: And what does MEET stand for?

FB: MEET is an acronym for Meetings, Events

Education, and Technology, and that’s what we’ll be called at our September show in Washington DC.

CH: Now, you mentioned the economy earlier. Have you seen that it’s recovering slowly, or is the recovery picking up pace?

FB: What we’re hearing from the analysts who are closer to it than we would be is that the demand in the market is picking up, and the supply has helped, because the supply is low, and demand is high which is a great great mix, but we’re still not able to drive the pricing.

So while we’re driving the occupancy back to the hotels, we haven’t had a recovery on rates yet except in specific markets. Different markets lag and recover differently, and we’re hearing that key markets, especially on the East Coast, are recovering faster than the secondary markets, such as middle America.

CH: What are some highlights in current trends, and what are some trends that you’re seeing that may be picking up pace?

FB: We had a Board of Directors meeting this past Monday, and a number of our hotel members talked about some of the trends they’re seeing at their hotels. And one of the things that was a constant theme throughout with the group market was that last year when people booked meeting space, they were very very conservative about the blocks they took, because they didn’t feel like there would be a recovery in place by the first or second quarter of this year.

And the good news is that now they’re coming to their meetings, and they need more room. So they’ve gotten better pickup than they forecasted, and the good news bad news is that they’re coming and saying they need 50 more rooms for their block, but there aren’t 50 more rooms available for their block.

They’re being more realistic on their forecasting, but in fact now the good news is they’re finding that the rooms are higher in demand than they thought. So attrition is not even in existence, it’s growth outside their blocks.

CH: Right, but that’s a good thing…

FB: That’s a very good thing! It’s a very good thing, and that is going to help drive the rates up a little bit, when there’s a demand there.

CH: Did they feel that it was a combination of the attendance levels getting higher, as well as that there are just more events being held?

FB: They also felt that the pipeline for new meetings was short term. People were coming in with some big meetings that were just going to happen in 3 months, where it used to forecast out 12-18 months, sometimes more than that for their meetings. So the good news is that the pipeline is looking good for the meeting returns, even in Las Vegas, which of course had a tremendous downturn.

But the rates’ still not back yet, so the good news is for the meeting planner is that there is still room to negotiate, because when we talk about negotiating for 2012 or 2013, we’re going to see some rate increases that you may otherwise not see. For instance, you can negotiate now and hold your rate, or hope you can negotiate closer in for a better rate.

Part 2 of the Conference Hound interview with Fran Brasseux of HSMAI, includes  discussion of trends and new technologies in the hospitality marketing industry and HSMAI’s new “reverse tradeshow” format debuting at their national show, and inaugural MEET branded show, in Washington DC in September.   Read Part 2 Now »

Filed Under: Conference & Event Planning

About the Author: Jay is the CTO of Conference Hound. You can find more information about him here and here.