My long career in hotel sales first began in 1998 at a large convention property in New York City. As a member of Generation X, I’m part of the cohort who spent the first quarter of our lives in the analog age, witnessing the rapid rise of internet technology as a young professional. Email was still relatively new, and digital messages arrived so slowly that knocking them out was like shooting down space monsters on Atari, one at a time.
Prior to the tech boom of the early 2000s, our sales process was slower and more deliberate.
When we worked with meeting planners, we communicated mostly by phone and a lot of faxing back and forth. And I tend to think our relationships back then were also more meaningful. We spent much more time talking to event planners, getting to know them and investigating the extent of their needs and priorities.
Technological advancements have no doubt revolutionized the hospitality industry, but some things have been lost along the way. While technology connects us and speeds up our communication and processes, it also at times distances buyers and suppliers from more interpersonal interactions.
Far from the slow and deliberate relationship building of decades past, modern RFP systems have at times reduced the hotel sales manager to automated bidding or order taking. For a return to more meaningful sales, today’s hotel salespeople need to find the middle ground between those two extremes.
The days before data
At my first hotel sales job, we kept all pertinent information in hard-copy files. At this point, there was very little use of data or analytics because the internet hadn’t yet been developed into the information engine it is now.
The information in the client file was only as reliable as the sales manager who previously managed the account. Aside from that data and perhaps a few articles in business magazines, I had limited information on hand about a company or its meeting initiatives prior to making a sales call. Fortunately, my employer offered sales training that focused heavily on relationship-based selling and how to manage the relationship to properly attain the most useful and actionable information.
In-person sales appointments hinged on the “brochure” — marketing collateral decked out with professional photography showcasing the property’s most eye-catching angles. Whoever had the best collateral typically got the lion’s share of the customer’s attention. Salespeople who won a single piece of business could then translate the deal into repeat business because meeting planners were more willing to return to where they were best known and recognized by the staff and leadership.
In those days, meeting planners had much more decision-making authority over final venue selection because there were limited sources of additional information available to internal clients and stakeholders beyond what the planner had gathered. There was less “window shopping” because of the amount of work it took to source and gather proposals at the time.
A shift to increased financial oversight
The relational nature of hotel sales started to evolve when procurement offices got more involved in the buying process.
In 2002, due in large part to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), the decision process for meetings changed drastically within corporations. SOX provisions required corporations to establish internal financial controls and verify their effectiveness. This included tighter controls on how companies procured hotel rooms, meeting space, and other services.
As procurement officers and financial stakeholders became more deeply involved on both sides of the transaction, the deals were no longer as simple, as risk factors and line-item costs seemed to become more important than the perceived experience.
On the hotel side, SOX redefined the same reporting and auditing processes. Revenue managers and operations leaders gained a permanent seat at the sales table, while general managers also got more involved. Intermediaries also picked up steam to help companies and associations navigate the changing tides. This turned what was previously a more intimate relationship between a meeting planner and hotel salesperson into “decision by committee.”
At the same time, business intelligence and analytics began offering hotel stakeholders a more accurate picture of the profitability of a given piece of business. Hotel sales managers — particularly in larger convention hotels — had to adjust. Gone were the days of three-hour martini lunches with clients and throwing in the kitchen sink to land a deal.
My ability as a salesperson to quote rates and availability seemed to change overnight. I went from discussing pricing and availability with customers using general guidelines and making some booking decisions on the fly to completing a form with business criteria to present to hotel execs.
Hotel salespeople have had to change and grow over time. Today’s hotel sales manager needs to understand finance and apply analytics to evaluate how a group fits the needs of the hotel. They have to be able to justify their recommendations on the group business they want to contract. Salespeople have to understand how group business ultimately affects the hotel’s bottom line.
The role of technology
One thing I miss as a sales professional is having more control over the conversation about my product — what my hotel has to offer an event planner. As use of the internet for business increased, customer prospects stopped picking up the phone — they became more selective about whom they interacted with. Hotel transactions are often impersonal bids on an RFP rather than interpersonal conversations about the intricacies of an event.
In today’s digital age, salespeople are often called order takers. They’re following a matrix that dictates the optimal price or the optimal yield for a particular piece of business.
But that’s not to say technology is bad — far from it. Online sourcing tools and digital RFP distribution has definitely sped up the process, but legacy iterations of such tools have also increased the hotel workload with enormous amounts of RFP spam — unqualified leads or prospects whose events aren’t a match for the property.
On the buying side, meeting planners have access to more information and more options at their fingertips than ever before, but RFP spam affects them too — they waste an inordinate amount of time chasing down responses from hotels.
A new way to source
The promise of innovative technology is why I joined Groups360. The GroupSync online sourcing platform is revolutionizing the digital RFP process. We’re not looking to replace hotel salespeople but rather enhance their sales process. GroupSync empowers hotel sales executives to be true consultants to their customers.
Same goes for meeting planners — we seek to drastically streamline their workflow. Twenty years ago, planners had to pull out brochures from a file or go to a convention and pick up information cards about hotel properties. Even with the advent of online listings, scouring hotel websites for information still takes up a lot of valuable time that could be better spent on crafting impeccable event experiences.
GroupSync fills this gap better than any existing platform on the market. Meeting planners can now access the best fits for their events according to their dates and preferences in a matter of minutes. They can send out a handful RFPs to well-chosen properties who then know they’re receiving a qualified lead. And both the sales rep and their planner customer can collaborate on an RFP within the platform.
Successful hotel sales today
Even when using the best RFP platform on the market, it’s still incumbent upon the salesperson to deliver the final selling points that will take the buyer across the goal line.
First of all, you won’t get much direct interaction with a meeting planner unless your hotel is among their final short-listed options. At that point, you need to respond to their RFP as thoroughly and precisely as possible. Given an event planner’s busy schedule, the more you pay attention to detail, the more you will endear yourself. Answer their questions. Read the additional notes section. Bullet-point the things about your property that differentiate it from your comp set.
One way to differentiate yourself is to research the meeting planner on LinkedIn. If you’ve received a qualified lead through GroupSync, you know the time spent is worth it because you have a higher chance of winning the business. See if you can find something about the customer outside the scope of the marketplace, a commonality like favorite sports team or a shared alma mater that you can refer to.
Take the time to pick up the phone — that device most people use to surf the internet and look at cat videos — and introduce yourself. You can ask about any information missing from the RFP and find a way to make a personal connection at the same time.
If working through an intermediary, be open about your desire to get to know your mutual customer, but also make it clear that you’re not looking to go rogue. Suggest an introductory conference call where you can drill down to a few key attributes about your property. If not, respect the fact that you don’t have immediate access to the customer.
And if you don’t win the business on the first try, keep nurturing the newly found connection. Group sales isn’t eBay — we don’t just bid for a group and then disappear if we lose the auction. You put a bookmark on where you landed in the process. You’ve already learned half the information you need to know to kickstart the next opportunity with that planner.
Part of being a successful salesperson in today’s market is looking at the long game and continuing to develop those relationships over time.