by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | May 01, 2013

On a recent spring afternoon, John Hawley, director of sales and marketing for the 757-room Hilton Baltimore, opens his second-floor corner-office door and pulls up an extra chair. He has graciously agreed to let an M&C editor trail him for the day, providing an open window into a far more complicated role than we had ever imagined.

The property has major draws for groups. Set in downtown Baltimore's Inner Harbor, it is connected via skybridge to the Baltimore Convention Center and overlooks Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home to Major League Baseball's beloved Baltimore Orioles. The hotel has 60,000 square feet of meeting space, including two ballrooms.

Selling and promoting all of the above is an art that Hawley has down to a science. Today he turns on his computer and calls up Delphi, an online booking system. In an instant, the flat screen mounted on the wall behind his desk comes to life. While Delphi is standard technology in the hotel operations world, to the untrained eye it's an oddly captivating mélange of color-coded data. One glance gives a complete snapshot of group business on the books for any day, week or month of any particular year -- committed and tentative -- including room block and meeting space requirements, the account name and where the booking came from (in-house, corporate, another hotel, a third-party lead, etc.).

Six members of Hawley's sales team, along with Dennis Benford, director of revenue management, file into the room, eager to pitch potential business. Each rep covers a specific group market segment and territory. Unlike the typical city hotel, where groups represent 30 to 40 percent of bookings, the Hilton Baltimore's group mix is 70 percent. Fully 55 percent of that total hails from the medical and educational sectors, thanks largely to nearby Johns Hopkins University, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Over the next 45 minutes or so, a widely diverse trove of recent requests for proposal is thrown on the table for discussion, involving differing configurations of resources touching on every aspect of the property. Surprisingly, the atmosphere is more collaborative than competitive. While everyone gets a chance to push his or her piece of the pie, the team's ultimate goal is always to sell out the hotel at a group mix that best maximizes revenue potential.

It's a complicated, high-stakes juggling contest, with less than a slim margin for error. As the meeting proceeds, it quickly becomes obvious that Hawley, an award-winning hospitality sales and marketing veteran who joined the property in 2009, a year after it opened, has mastered the balancing act of motivating his team to pursue the best deal possible for the hotel.

To wit: Hawley is presented with a large and potentially significant new piece of business that lacks historical data. He suggests getting back to the group to do some fact-finding. "Look and see where they have gone in the past and what rates they got." Another RFP, from a student dance group that requires hardwood floors for practicing, but no catering, wants a few days between October and May. "Show them the value they'll get by booking in December or January," advises Hawley.

Then there's the group willing to pay the quoted rate for a small block of rooms in high season, but the catch is they have a large meeting space demand. Moreover, they want the main ballroom, the 25,000-square-foot Francis Scott Key, for an awards banquet. "I need at least 400 room nights for them to get Key," counters Hawley. "But let's see what we can do to find them a home."

Also on the table are two large, high-revenue repeat groups with significant F&B demands, whose proposed dates overlap. As attractive as they are individually, bundled together they would wreak havoc on the hotel's operating efficiency. "The question is pattern, so layer it up for a better fit for us," says Hawley. "See if you can get the first one's peak nights to be Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, so we are coming out of one group and going into the other. You're only asking them to move over one day. Does everyone agree?" The team nods in assent.

As a group's dates, room needs and space requirements are considered, the Delphi screen is updated in real time, allowing the team to instantly see what business is an easy fit and what might require some tweaking.

While there is much discussion about rates and which RFP has a heavier F&B requirement or greater room pickup, nothing is rejected outright. In fact, when someone muses aloud that one of the RFPs feels "like a classic tire-kicker" due to its having been submitted to a number of other properties, Dennis Benford insists they shouldn't turn it down. "I would argue that if we move them to another week, we can make it work," he says. For a revenue manager typically known for hard-nose rate tactics, it seems an unusual comment. But when everyone in the room looks at the readjusted screen and sees it's a fit, they slot it in and move on to the next RFP. (For more insight on the decision process, read our Q&A with Dennis Benford at

Hawley and his team's concerted efforts are paying off. Not only is the hotel on target this year to reach its projected goal of 130,000 group room nights, it has group business on the books through 2034, a dozen more years than the Delphi system is designed to handle. In December 2012, the team contracted 34,000 room nights, the hotel's biggest booking month since opening. More importantly for revenue-growth measurement, revenue per available room, or RevPAR, has achieved a steady year-over-year increase. "We are getting there, slowly but surely," says Hawley. "We are this close to hitting our numbers, and it feels really good."