September 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions TRYING TIMES September 1999 Current Issue
September 1999
Martha Filson On hold: Martha Filson, manager, conference planning, for the Direct Marketing Association in Washington, D.C.


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 Lambert

They 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 them ideas."

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 all."

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."

Inflexibility rules
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 big picture."

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 convention does."

Go national
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 direction."


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 relationships.

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 managers.

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 person.

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 needs."

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," he says.

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 experience."

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 works."

Contract review
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 anymore."


Learning curve: A Hilton sales training workshopThe 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 challenge."

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.


Just cause
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 investment."

Training wheels
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 suited."

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."

Who's inexperienced?
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 better training."

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 sides."

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