Meetings & Conventions TRYING TIMES September
On hold: Martha Filson, manager, conference planning, for the
Direct Marketing Association in Washington, D.C.TRYING TIMES
With little experience and an order-taking approach to
service, a new generation of hotel salespeople has planners
frustrated and worried about their meetings
By Maria Lenhart Photograph by Katherine LambertT
hey are brand-new on the job. They can
scarcely tell a ballroom from a boardroom. Knowing only a seller's
market, they wait for business to come to them. They are inflexible
negotiators. They rarely return phone calls, faxes or e-mail. They
are the new generation of hotel sales managers.
Although such descriptions might be exaggerated and hardly are
applicable to everyone, they frequently surface when meeting
planners describe their experiences working with hotel sales staff.
Planners, especially those who have been in the business 10 years
or more, complain of frequent dealings with green salespeople who
know little about their hotels or how to provide good service.
Concerned that a lack of expertise on the hotel side could sabotage
their meetings, these planners say they take steps to ensure this
will not happen.
"Hotel salespeople seem to be getting more inexperienced all the
time," observes independent planner Sharon DelaBarre, president of
DelaBarre & Associates in Sequim, Wash., and a 19-year veteran.
"There are many more instances where I'm training them and offering
In some cases, says DelaBarre, sales staff know little about the
hotels they represent and cannot even give an accurate picture of
what type of meetings can be handled. "They don't know what kind of
room setups are possible for meetings or what can be accomplished
at their facilities," she says. "In the worst possible scenario,
they may sell you on something the hotel cannot provide at
For Susan D'Ercole, who spent 20 years in hotel sales and
management before becoming a meeting planner a decade ago, the
situation is equally frustrating. "High turnover always has been a
problem in the hotel industry, but I've never seen things as bad as
they are now," says D'Ercole, who owns Liaison Professional Meeting
Services in Eustis, Fla.
D'Ercole decries the lack of knowledge she sometimes encounters
among hotel sales staff, but she feels a bigger problem is that new
sales employees have been spoiled by a good economy and a seller's
market. "For the past five or six years, the hotels have been
calling the shots, so there's a different attitude out there," she
says. "I had to knock on doors to get business, but these new
people are more like order-takers. If you're not the perfect piece
of business, they don't want to bother with you."
In addition to their taking a less proactive sales approach, Martha
Filson, manager of conference planning for the Direct Marketing
Association in Washington, D.C., says new sales managers are less
flexible than their more seasoned counterparts. "Newer people will
hold you to the letter of the contract. They don't understand where
they can bend, so they won't bend," she says. "They don't see the
Filson, who plans more than 200 meetings a year that range from
small seminars to a large annual convention, also believes many
hotels have aggravated the situation by assigning salespeople
particular market segments or types of meetings. Although she would
like to build a relationship with one or two sales managers at a
hotel, she finds this is getting harder to do.
"Even when we use one hotel repeatedly, we often can't work with
the same salesperson because it has different people handling
different size meetings," she says. "This makes it very hard to
establish rapport and get to that stage where you can really work
things out. You're not working with someone who really knows your
history and your needs."
For Filson, the problems of working with inexperienced people
occur most often when she plans small meetings. "The less
experienced people are usually assigned the smaller meetings
because they are less desirable," she notes. "This is very
frustrating because our small seminars can be very sensitive in
nature, and they need as much expertise behind them as our annual
Recognizing that inexperience on the hotel side can spell disaster
for the outcome of a meeting, many planners are doing whatever is
necessary to ensure the crisis-free execution of an event. For
some, the solution is to cultivate relationships with hotel sales
representatives at national or regional offices, places where job
experience tends to be greater than at individual hotels.
"I strongly suggest that meeting planners who do business in
various locations make use of a national sales office," says David
Evans, senior vice president of industry relations for Starwood
Hotels & Resorts in Seattle. "Not only is it one-stop shopping,
but it's where the best sales associates are usually found."
"The stability and service levels are greater the higher up you
go," adds independent planner David Hakins, president of Hakins
Meetings & Incentives in Wyckoff, N.J., who says regional hotel
representatives often can serve as a helpful liaison between the
planner and an individual hotel. "Sometimes salespeople at the
hotel level will be inflexible because they lack the sophistication
to know they can bend the rules," he says. "If we can't negotiate
with the hotel directly, we'll turn to the regional office. Often
they can intercede and make things happen."
Hakins also likes to work with regional or national reps because
they will have a better idea of the overall volume of business he
brings to the hotel company and will enable him to cut better
deals. "Our regional contacts view us an important client because
we contact them all the time," he says. "They won't just hand us
over to an individual hotel. They'll get things going in the right
Working with inexperienced hotel sales staff
can be unavoidable, but it need not spell disaster for a meeting.
Here are some suggested strategies.
Start at the top. Whenever possible, make a
hotel company's national or regional sales office the first point
of contact. This is where it really pays to establish
Get convention services involved early. Some
meetings pros say it pays to consult early in the planning process
with CSMs because they tend to be more experienced than sales
Get it in writing. Be specific about what you
want, and do not rely on verbal agreements.
Go over their heads. When an inexperienced
sales manager is inflexible during contract negotiation, ask him to
consult with the director of sales or another senior-level
Ask questions. Be very specific in the
questions you ask, and try to get a sense whether the sales manager
really knows the answers or is just putting up a front.
Preview and review contracts. Because new sales
managers tend to be less flexible on contract points, ask to see a
copy of the hotel's boilerplate meetings contract. Then give the
sales manager a preagreement letter spelling out how the contract
should be modified to fit your needs.
Be a mentor. Encourage new sales managers to
get involved with meetings industry organizations and to prepare
for the Certified Meeting Professional exam.
Over their heads
When working at the individual-hotel level, some planners find
relief from inexperience and inflexibility by speaking to the
director of sales or another senior-level person. "If you reach an
impasse with an inexperienced salesperson, you should pick up the
phone and call [his] superior," says Filson. "In most cases, [the
superior] will be able to help you out. Or if [she] can't, at least
you'll get an explanation of why the hotel can't accommodate your
David Scypinski, vice president industry relations for Hilton
Hotels Corp. in Washington, D.C., agrees planners should not
hesitate to go over the head of an inexperienced salesperson. "We'd
much rather they take this step than lose their business entirely,"
Hotel convention service managers also can be a source of help
for planners who have concerns about the experience or competency
of a sales manager. "For the most part, convention service managers
stay in their jobs much longer than salespeople do," observes
DelaBarre. "Convention services is where the rubber hits the road,
and hotels can't afford to make mistakes there."
When working with an inexperienced salesperson, DelaBarre asks
to meet with a convention service manager early in the planning
process, sometimes before the contract is signed. "If it's obvious
the sales manager doesn't know a whole lot, then you have to find
someone who really knows the situation," she says. "For instance,
if you're going to need a lot of phone lines in a meeting room, you
don't want to find out at the point of ordering them that the room
can handle only one line."
DelaBarre, who takes a detailed, three-page questionnaire with
her to every site inspection, also finds it pays to do research
herself. "A lot of the information you need won't be forthcoming
from the hotel staff, and it won't be in the brochure," she says.
"You have to initiate the questions and dig for the answers."
If there are doubts about the competency or service level
provided by a hotel, planners also can turn to their colleagues for
advice. "We now check references about hotels and confer much more
with other planners than we used to," says independent planner
Jackie Bowen, president of Resort Marketing Associates in Atlanta.
"We ask them how they rate the hotel and the overall
When working with hotel salespeople, Bowen says she walks a fine
line in trying to secure the service her clients need while not
creating an antagonistic atmosphere. "You have to be proactive in
getting what you want, and yet you must also be congenial and
compatible," she says. "A team approach is the only thing that
For many planners, hammering out a workable contract is usually the
most difficult part of dealing with an inexperienced sales staff.
Susan D'Ercole says the most crucial factor is to get each and
every detail about the meeting spelled out in no uncertain terms.
"If you want anything, even if it's a fruit basket in the rooms,
get it in writing," she says. "I used to rely on verbal agreements,
but now I get exactly what I need written into the contract."
Among the most crucial details to include in the contract is the
square footage of meeting space required. "Don't just tell the
salesperson that you need meeting space for 25 because, in some
cases, an inexperienced person will not know what size room
accommodates what size group," she says. "One of the biggest
problems you'll find is the hotel will try to cram your group into
too small a space."
After a contract is drawn up, scrutinize it carefully before
signing. "We were always thorough in reviewing contracts, but now
it's more important than ever," says Hakins. "Now it's typical that
a contract will go back and forth for revisions. Recently, we
discovered that our requested date of Aug. 31 was written in as
July 25. Things like this happen all the time."
After the contract is signed, some planners say they continue to
check and double-check until the day of the meeting to make sure
their requests will be honored. "A lot of times, you have to make
sure the meeting room you want doesn't get sold out from under
you," says D'Ercole. "You can't take anything for granted
biggest crisis facing the hotel industry is not filling
rooms but filling jobs. "All of the hotel companies are chasing the
same few stars," says David Evans, senior vice presidentindustry
relations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts in Seattle. "What makes
it tough is that the hotel industry is not offering the same level
of compensation and bonuses that people can find elsewhere in the
private sector, especially in the high-tech fields."
David Scypinski, vice presidentindustry
relations for Hilton Hotels Corp. in Washington, D.C., says the
problem is compounded by the fact that hotel companies moved away
from recruiting college students during the recessionary early
1990s. "Now we're finding that we have to reinvent the wheel during
a time of record low employment," he says. "It's a tremendous
At the same time, people already working in
hotel sales have an increasing number of opportunities open to them
in related fields. "In particular, new high-tech companies that
offer services to the hospitality industry need salespeople, and
they're luring hotel sales executives away," says Scypinski.
With the hotel industry acing labor challenges,
the Washington, D.C.-based American Hotel & Motel Association
launched a task force of hospitality professionals headed by Curtis
Nelson, president and CEO of Carlson Hospitality Worldwide in
Minneapolis, to study the problem. In addition, the association
will hold its first-ever AHMA Education Summit meeting in New York
City on Nov. 5.
Are planners justified in their often harsh assessment of the new
crop of hotel salespeople? Both Hilton's Scypinski and Starwood's
Evans acknowledge that the criticism is not without just cause.
Like planners, they point to the seller's market. "Anyone who has
joined the hotel industry since 1993 has not had to sell in a down
economy," says Scypinski. "They haven't had to go through the hard
knocks and the training that those of us more experienced people
have. Essentially, they have only had to fill orders."
Evans agrees. "Everyone is a product of their time and
experience, and those who have been in the business for fewer than
five years have seen only good times," he says. "Service levels
have declined in all industries because that is what happens in
good economic times. My greatest concern is that the rubber band
will snap back."
Lalia Rach, director of the Center for Hospitality, Tourism and
Travel Administration at New York University in New York City, also
cites the strong economy for declining service levels, but she says
there are other factors involved: "The hotel industry has become
much more short-term in its focus, and it is not placing enough
emphasis on training," Rach says. "With more hotel companies being
publicly owned, everyone is looking for a quick return on
Rach believes most hotel companies need to take a more long-term
view and invest more heavily in training. "Sales is a tough job,
even if you are innately good at it," she says. "It's a craft that
has to be learned."
Compounding the problem is the fact that newly hired hotel
salespeople have few experienced colleagues who can guide them.
"Hotel companies, like so many others, have downsized in recent
years, and there are fewer people in middle management," Rach says.
"This means that new salespeople have fewer mentors to show them
the ropes. Those who can teach them a more proactive approach to
sales are simply not there."
In defense of hotel training, Evans and Scypinski say their
companies offer extensive training programs for sales staff and
that these programs are enhanced on an ongoing basis. At Starwood,
there are two mandatory programs for sales employees, while Hilton
continually has added courses to its Customer Focus Selling
program, which was instituted in 1996. "We recognize that better
training is needed, and we've developed courses on selling to the
group market," says Scypinski. "Our Customer Focus Selling courses
are designed to get people away from order-taking and to look at
the overall needs of the client, to look at what each meeting is
trying to accomplish."
Marriott International added training classes called
Communicating the Brand Experience that address the fact that sales
managers, in an era of hotel consolidation, are responsible for a
growing number of hotel brands. "Our people have gone from selling
one hotel brand to a whole portfolio of brands," says Mark
Himelstein, vice president of field sales of Marriott International
in Bethesda, Md. "In our new training classes, they learn the
attributes of each brand and for what market segment each is best
Beyond training, Himelstein says Marriott has reorganized its
sales structure into regional "cluster" offices that represent the
various Marriott brands and focus on building strong relationships
with repeat corporate and association clients. "The purpose is to
look at the overall account of the client, what they do in terms of
business travel, extended-stay and meetings," he says. "It's not
just about individual pieces of business."
Planners might have legitimate gripes about the experience level of
some hotel salespeople, but there are those in the industry who say
hotels have some cause for complaint as well. "On the other side of
the coin, there also are a lot of inexperienced meeting planners
out there," says Scypinski. "Corporations and associations have
downsized, just as hotels have. There's a need on both sides for
Don Anderson, a veteran independent planner who is president of
Don Anderson Inc. in Burlingame, Calif., agrees. "I come across a
lot of inexperienced meeting and event planners on the corporate
side people who have no idea what they're doing," he says. "In
general, I think meeting planners expect too much of hotel
salespeople. They might have gotten used to experienced sales
managers doing their jobs for them."
Anderson says he is satisfied with the professionalism of the
hotel salespeople with whom he works and believes that many
planners who complain of inexperience are just unwilling to deal
with the realities of the seller's market. "Hotels are in business,
and you really can't blame them for wanting to cut the best deals
they can," he says. "Meetings have to be planned well in advance,
and requests for proposal must be gotten to the hotels as quickly
as possible. Planners must have well-defined objectives and hotel
alternatives in mind."
Although Resort Marketing Associates' Bowen has her share of
complaints about inexperienced salespeople, she acknowledges that
planners bear responsibility, too. "We have an obligation to give
the hotel the information they need in a timely fashion," she says.
"There are many times when clients supply details at the last
minute, so it can cut both ways."
Marriott's Himelstein urges planners to be as candid as possible
with sales managers. "We need to know more than just the meeting
logistics," he says. "We need to know what's going on in your
organization and what the meeting is designed to accomplish. We'd
rather have people overcommunicate than undercommunicate."
Lalia Rach thinks meeting planners should stop complaining and
do what they can to raise the professional level of new hotel
salespeople. "Planners should encourage young salespeople to join
industry organizations such as Meeting Professionals International,
to attend educational conferences and to earn the Certified Meeting
Professional designation," she says. "Reach out to them; don't just
throw your hands up. It creates a win-win situation for both
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