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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | February 3, 2017

Cheryl-Anne SturkenWhat does over 30 years working on the group sales side of the hotel industry teach you? A whole lot of hard-earned wisdom on what it takes to close a sale, how to keep a client's loyalty in your pocket, and how to navigate and negotiate hurdles coming at you at the speed of light.

Ty HelmsWhen The Hotel Insider learned that Ty Helms, a former senior vice president of global sales and a long-time industry associate, had officially retired from Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. at the end of 2016 after 25 years on the sales front, I tracked him down for a retrospective on his career and his perspective on the shifting sands of group business.

It wasn't easy. Right after his retirement kicked in, Helms had jetted off to the seventh, and final, continent on his bucket list, Antarctica, after a group of scientist friends on their way to measure the ozone layer offered him the last seat on their research plane out of Chile.

Back in Chicago after getting up-close with penguins and sea elephants in 50-mile-per-hour gale winds, Helms took time from the new group he has formed, Window Rock Consulting, so we could catch up on the ever-evolving hotel industry.

In the last few years Hyatt has launched several new brands. Have they all found their brand voices yet?
Some have, and some have not. It takes time and marketing muscle to establish a sub brand. But Hyatt's master brand has always remained strong in the eyes of the consumer, and that's essential when you are adding brands. The difference between Hyatt and some other hotel companies is Hyatt is a branded house, versus a house of brands. It has done a tremendous amount of research and is very committed to its brand.

The industry seems to be getting crowded with so many new brands being added every year, in every category -- especially lifestyle hotels and those that target Millennials. What's your take on all this?
I do agree it is getting complicated. But if you have a strong master brand that resonates with the consumer, you have an edge. Before Hyatt launched Hyatt Place and Andaz, for instance, we did so much research around price points and consumer needs for hotel developers. We didn't jump into these Millennial and lifestyle brands to keep up with the Joneses. Those with a strong brand differentiation, and a targeted customer, have an edge.

Has the nature of booking group business changed?
Group business for the most part is still about space, dates and rates. What has changed, though, is the sophistication of historical data. Revenue management is nothing new, but it continues to get more and more sophisticated all the time and provides hotel salespeople with a lot of advance analytics to prioritize and rank group opportunities against transient business, catering and stand-alone business. In the end, though, it's still a supply-and-demand game.

If you could switch hats for a day, what would you advise meeting planners at the negotiation table?
Do your homework. Hotel salespeople have an advantage right now because of the amount of sophisticated revenue management tools at their disposal. Planners really need to understand that highlighting potential or hidden revenue opportunities for the hotel may impact a view of a meeting or event RFP and make it more desirable.

How has the electronic RFP changed the nature of evaluating group business?
I hate the trend in the last five to seven years, where group business has become more focused on electronic RFPs and email. Many RFPs paint a pretty picture in an email, which ends up not being entirely true. In my opinion, relationships still carry a great deal of weight. My advice to planners is get to know your hotel business partners. That trust you have developed and established will trump most of the business analytics your RFP will be scrutinized against. The salesperson who knows you will go to bat for you, because they know what you are telling them is accurate and true.

Do you think all the recent hotel mergers will make it harder for planners?
In a word, no. Supply and demand is still important in the negotiation process. If hotel salespeople need group business to fill their properties, they will make it happen. The mergers will affect corporate travel managers who negotiate rates in certain markets. So if, say, Starwood has a lock on a certain market with a number of their brands, it will be more difficult for travel managers to negotiate. And I think you will see even more mergers taking place.

What were some of the highlights of your career, looking back?
I have been involved in some really great hotel openings. Those are always incredible, because you work so hard to get the hotel established in advance, and when you get to see the doors actually open and guests experience what you promised to deliver, it's a great feeling. That, and the big, really tough group bookings that come your way -- the ones with intense negotiations that keep you up nights. You work really hard, sometimes months, to reel it in for your hotel. That has been the biggest satisfaction for me over time, because there are probably only six or seven of those that come your way out of hundreds.

Now that you've checked off the seven continents, what's next on your bucket list?
I've still got over a million miles on American Airlines and only three states left to visit before I can claim to have gone to all of them. And, of course, spending more time with my family.