by By Michael J. Shapiro | May 01, 2013

Last year, Marriott's eight sales offices in North America received a total of about 335,000 electronic leads, according to Richard Green, the chain's vice president of association sales and industry relations.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts has seen a similar deluge. The number of eRFPs the hotel company receives from just two primary channels -- Cvent and Active Network -- has grown by 35 percent each year for the past two years, according to Christie Hicks, senior vice president of sales. Since 2010, that number has grown by 99 percent.

While leads from Cvent and Active Network represent a large percentage of the growing eRFP volume, those channels are not the only sources. Electronic RFPs come from a growing range of free tools, including those offered by many hotel companies on their own websites. (M&C's hotel and facility search tool, at mcvenues.com, also has an eRFP function.)

Rodahl Leong-Lyons of HyattNot surprisingly, "the staffing at our hotels is not increasing," says Rodahl Leong-Lyons, Hyatt's Chicago-based vice president of sales for the Americas. "It's a one-sided, automated process that has a manual response on the other side -- and it's just not sustainable. It's not going to work in the long term."

The result on the hotel side is a form of triage, with sales representatives determining which leads require immediate attention -- and which can be back-burnered. Some large properties are hiring reps to serve as lower-level "lead catchers," whose job it is to process and route the requests. Meanwhile, hotel companies are evaluating the best approaches. 

Mike Mason, Zentila"Salespeople are hired to book business," says Mike Mason, a former hotel sales executive who founded the eRFP platform Zentila. "And they have to spend their time on the business that is most likely to book."

What makes an RFP stand out from the rest? Following are insights into how hoteliers filter out and select the chosen ones.

Limit the playing fieldA mile-high pile of sales leads isn't in itself a problem for hotels -- it's the quality of those leads. "When a lead comes in and it's going to at least 20 different properties, or 20 different cities, hotels will look at that and go, ‘What's the likelihood I'm going to get that business?' " says Sherry Romello, senior director of meetings and product management for McLean, Va.-based Hilton Worldwide. "Sometimes, when a lead looks like it's just trying to splatter out to every space possible, it's not viewed as a viable or a likely piece of business."

The number of properties that have received a particular RFP is not always evident. Sometimes the request states so up front; other times a chain can see how many of its own properties were approached for the same business and extrapolates from there. Those that noticeably cast too wide of a net simply will get less attention, several sources admit.

"There's a direct correlation between the number of hotels you want to consider and the response time of your answers, as well as the quality of your answers," Marriott's Richard Green told attendees at a recent educational session during Destination Marketing Association International's Destinations Showcase in Washington, D.C. "If you are sourcing four hotels or fewer, we commit to getting back to you within nine hours. As the number of hotels increases, so does the promised response time." 

"The whole RFP spam issue goes away when you limit the number of hotels," says Mike Mason, whose Zentila platform (which powers M&C's search tool at mcvenues.com) allows a maximum of six hotels to be contacted. When the RFP goes out to a half-dozen or fewer candidates, "that would probably put your RFP on the top of any sales manager's list," says Mason.

"Tell them how many hotels they're competing with," Mason advises. "Put that number in bold type at the top of your RFP. And, to add more credibility, let them know who they're competing against. That really energizes and motivates the salesperson."