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Getting future fit

Lex Butler, chair of the Hotel Booking Agents Association (HBAA) and operations director of Wolf & White, talks about her plan for the association’s future.

How did you get into the events industry?  

After huge emotional failure during work experience in our local veterinary practice at 15 – which was my career of choice since a small girl – I was stuck on where to focus my energies and new career aspirations. It was right in front of me; growing up I was already immersed in the industry, with my mother running a successful agency and me seeing, hearing and experiencing second hand how fabulous said industry was. I talked it through with her and started work experience during the summer at MeetingsFare before heading to Leeds Met University to study the Event Management Degree. 

How have your clients’ needs changed in recent years, and how do you stay ahead of the game to ensure they get the best experiences?  

In our client base at Wolf & White, it’s not so much their needs that have changed, but their expectations. Their industries are getting more competitive, brands want to remain unique, at the forefront of innovation and always be ‘the first’ to do something, deliver a ‘never before seen’. We do a lot of consumer events, so the needs come from the consumer. 

Moving on to your role at the HBAA, how did you first get involved?  

I’ve been aware of the HBAA since my mother, Angie Mason, became association chair 16 years ago. I was lucky to grow up around influencers who raised my awareness of the industry, the association and those in it.  

I joined the events committee temporarily about five years ago to deliver production for the Annual Kick Off & Dinner, where I got to experience being part of the HBAA team. It was at a time where Wolf & White was still in its infancy, so I was unable to commit the time to be a dedicated member of a committee, but last January I was able to apply for the position of events chair. Over the first six months of holding the position I was approached by the board to ask if I would be interested in also applying for the vacancy of vice chair, and was thrilled when my application was successful.  

How would you summarise your first six months on the board?  

It has been a whirlwind. Time flies by in our industry and I can’t believe six months has already passed. Since joining the board we have achieved so much, committing to taking time out to be with each other for days at a time (which is a huge show of passion and commitment when we all have day jobs and are volunteering our time) to deep dive reviews of the association, to go back to grassroots and look at where we are now and where we want to be in the future. We are launching the results of our review and our future initiatives at our 2020 Annual Kick Off, so watch this space. 

Trade associations are having to evolve to stay relevant to their members, what is the HBAA doing to engage its members?  

I couldn’t agree more. An association should exist for its members and be their voice, but also deliver and support them in areas they highlight as being needed. We need to be a pillar of guiding light, experience, knowledge and industry access for our membership. We would become stale and irrelevant if we did not continuously review who we are, what we offer and who we are doing this for. We must keep our fingers on the pulse and be at the front, never playing catch up in the industry.  

An example of a key event programme on the HBAA calendar is our Agency Engagement Meetings, where agents come together to discuss business and industry- critical topics and share best practice, and where we engage expertise from external professionals to support their knowledge.

We then have our Business Leader Forums, where senior members from the venue, apartment and hotel sector and agency leaders come together. We debate and discuss issues and as industry partners, work together to build a better future.  




Is there a strategy; what does the next 2-3 years look like for the association?  

We are in the final stretch of our current five-year strategy as introduced by our Board in 2016, so 2020 will see us deliver year five, where we will review and reposition the association following four years of key strategic delivery. 2020 is a year of reflection, where our key strategy is regeneration. After two decades, it has become essential and timely to really strip the association back to its foundations and look at who we are and what we need to be to be future fit. A year ahead of change, movements and restructuring will lead us well into our next five-year strategy in 2021, making HBAA as relevant and as fit for purpose as we can be.  

Our members are going to be on a journey of reflection and change as they manage their businesses through Brexit and find their footing. We are committed to being ahead of the game, to ensuring we are a point of industry reference, knowledge and support for our members while these changes take place. We also commit to not allowing the loud noise that is Brexit to hinder our ability to look at the wider industry and its evolution, innovate, inspire and educate our members.  

Over the next 2-3 years we will see HBAA evolve into a new, regenerated association. 2020 will kick that off with restructure in our senior team: we will expand our board of directors recruited for specialist areas, to direct, focus and deliver to our membership relevant support, content, education and engagement, with a view to being the industry association of choice. 

We will also continue with our focus on advocating and supporting mental health, not because it is trendy right now as a social movement, but because we truly believe in it and the impact it is having on society and our industry. 

We will be looking at the agency model a lot more in 2020. Do you think agencies can continue relying on commission? A number of venues don’t seem to appreciate the value of agencies.  

It is a story as old as time. It isn’t new that there are venues who debate the worth of agencies and paying commission for the business they bring to their properties. It is one that has always fascinated me, because I see the clear advantages of having a network of national and global agencies working extremely hard with their own clients to sell and promote properties, securing business and revenue for them. I pay commission to my sales team for business they bring into our agency, so why should it not be the same for a venue to pay for an agent who brings them business revenue? What is the difference between a hotel representation company that is paid retainers by properties to promote it?

As agencies we can take our business to many venues in one location that fit a client brief and it’s often through considering our recommendations that our clients make the decision of where to place their business. We are ultimately going to promote properties which support the work we have done to bring in this business and which pay commission.  

HBAA has over 200 venue organisations as members who work with agencies on the commission-based business model as supported by our Code of Practice; they understand the value of the agency sales channel and they see the financial benefits of these working partnerships. 

And what about venue-finding; can agencies continue to offer this as a free service?  

HBAA is proud to have a varied landscape of agency businesses as members, from those who offer solely venue-finding to those who offer full creative event services.  

Each of our agency members has a viable business model according to the expertise and services they offer, and the way their clients work with them.  

All successful businesses must be agile to remain fit for the future in all disciplines, including their business models, and HBAA will continue to foster discussion at a senior level over how working practices remain mutually beneficial for our members.