Ms. Farley

Group Meetings

Sales Managers and Meeting Planners: Different Hats - Same Team

By Jill Farley, Director of Sales & Marketing, Kinzie Hotel

Throughout the years, I have heard meeting planners say, "back in the day we did it this way" or "it was easier when we did it that way." As cities are welcoming more hotels and new sales managers are coming into the hotel sector; we need to learn to adapt. Although meeting planners might say hotels and sales managers have changed; I am here to tell you why and how we can work together effectively in today's thriving marketplace.

There are two main reasons as to why things have changed recently:

1. Cities are Growing Faster and Bigger Than Ever

Our Chicago market has grown over 1.5 Million annual room nights (4,200 hotel rooms) in the last three years and it has become extremely competitive between hotels. Groups are looking for the brightest and shiniest new hotel. They do not want the same big box that grandma and grandpa took them to for family vacations. Groups are no longer looking to put everything under one roof. Meeting planners are working harder than ever to plan guest rooms at one hotel, unique meeting space at another, and dinner at the most popular celebrity chef restaurant.

Groups want to experience everything that Chicago (or any city) has to offer. We all want to feel the local flare! At Kinzie Hotel, for instance, our mantra is Chicago Starts Here, meaning that we are a launch pad for an authentic experience outside of our walls. Everything from our hotel décor to our customized packages have been spun to reflect the vibrant city that we call home.

With the extreme competition between hotels, they cannot afford to lose one guest room. With that, hotels are becoming less flexible in their rates, attrition, and cancellation clauses to ensure groups uphold their room allotment. Some hotels have to stick to their brand standard contract and cannot make changes without corporate approval. This becomes more time consuming, but smaller or independent hotels can provide those changes without corporate approval. All hotels have some flexibility in the contractual clauses, but independent hotels can change contracts on the spot.

Hotels have flexibility based on the information planners provide. The transparency I offer my clients is that I expect the same in return. A lot of times RFPs are sent with no group information. When I receive an answer of "the group is looking at the entire Chicagoland area," but then they choose a hotel right next to their office, I want to scream! We need to know why the group is coming, where in the city does the group need to be, what other hotels is the group looking at, and what is most important to them (outside of rate). Sales managers need to collect all of the information to get the best quote. It's not just a matter of how many rooms they need and what dates.

This decision is usually made between a few people at the hotel and the sales manager is always on the planner's side. We need this information to go to bat for planners and their clients. The competing hotel(s) the group is looking at is most important. This tells sales managers a lot about what planners are looking for, in terms of style of hotel, price range, and potential location needs. In our downtown Chicago location, there are 20 hotels within a rock's throw away from our front door. Specific information is key when comparing apples to apples.

Along with the hotel market, sales teams are getting larger. With more sales managers bidding over the same dates and guest rooms, they have to require a quicker proposal and contract turnaround to ensure the group can be offered rates and room availability.

We are here to work together with meeting planners to ensure the guest has everything they need. If a planner or company is a loyal hotel goer, we will always do our best to offer the lowest rates. Or even over-sell our hotel to fit the group or VIP at the hotel. If a company continuously chooses another hotel throughout the year and then on the busiest night of a citywide tries to use their yearly production as pull to get their CEO a guest room, it doesn't sit very well with the hotel team. This is a partnership and we are here to bail each other out in desperate times. Not just one night, but all year round.

Most planners have previously worked in hotels and know our clients will change their mind seemingly 100 times before making a commitment. It is our job to keep the client informed that rates, attrition, cancellation, and concession will change if their program details change. There should be no surprise that the rate will adjust if the group wants to add twenty rooms on a Wednesday. The further development in hotel technology is the second reason why this is true.

2. There are Countless Tools That Have Come Available Over the Last Few Years

These tools help hotels accurately predict market demands, future occupancy, and maximum pricing. While sales managers have wiggle room in the rates they quote, that window is getting smaller and smaller.

Previously, hotels wouldn't know if they made a strong business decision for a particular day until that week or after the STAR report came out on Tuesday. With the tools to predict market demand further out, we can see what the future may behold. That is why hotels are requiring contracts to be signed quicker and with further advance time.

Now, as traditionally smaller cities have become large enough to host more citywide events, the CVBs are booking shows in shorter time frames. This is shifting the city's demands very frequently, making it difficult for hotels to hold guest room rates too long. We work in the same frame as airlines; if you saw a lower rate to Florida online last week, you should have booked your ticket last week. Airlines raise rates as the demand increases and almost never go backward. While hotels work in the same forward moving fashion, I want to ensure hotels do not get to the point of permanently booking online. It is not good for either of us.

As booking online becomes more popular, the 3rd party websites are taking away from our group rate flexibility. 3rd party websites will take 10%-20% commission, but the rates offered are only 0%-5% discount off our rack rates. While group rates typically require 20%-40% discount off rack rates. People who book through 3rd party websites tend to reserve closer to their arrival date. This is why hotel sales managers are calling to get groups to book earlier. They will not be able to offer similar rates or availability at all as time goes on.

If planners have a group with an annual meeting, they should try booking both years then asking to extend the same rate for the second year. This will ensure their group receives the same rate all while getting in before demand strikes. The same rate may not always work two years in a row, so try coupling it with a lower attrition on the second year. This will also give the client a piece of mind if things were to change.

Technology creates the link between people, but we are losing the personal connection. While technology helps connect planners with hotels and vice versa, it is one of our biggest hurdles. There is no face-to-face time and no connection to an actual person. We are reduced to just signature lines. Response outlets are online only and no one wants to pick up the phone to talk. The hotel sales team calls to find out what is most important for planners and their clients? We are calling to get ready to go up to bat.

We have all been caught on the phone with someone "in sales" who cannot read the vocal ques and just needs to hang up to practice until they are ready. When I call a new meeting planner and say I am in the sales office of a hotel, they automatically get turned off. Hotel sales managers get a bad rap; one bad sales call ruins it for the rest of us. For most hotel sales managers, we are not here for the cheesy pitch.

We are genuinely looking out for the group or the guest that will enjoy our hotel. A good sales manager has done their homework about the group/client to ensure it is not a waste of their time. Yes, we do have to make a sale, but it is in our best interest to find the right group that will enjoy their hotel experience. Our whole purpose is the guest experience and their desire to return.

If finding unique guest rooms, meeting space, or dining experiences is key, then planners should welcome new sales calls from people they do not know. The Google search of a hotel cannot give the aura and energy they will encounter in person. Planners will need to walk and talk with a manager who lives and breathes it daily. The sales team sets the tone for the entire hotel: their professionalism, character, and style. This does come in handy when you do need to call in a favor to get that CEO a room for the night!

If there is something the client likes or dislikes, my advice is to be 100% transparent and let your hotel partner know. We will do what we can to accommodate, but we cannot change what we do not know. We are all here for the same reason, to create an unforgettable experience for our guests.

At the end of the day, we hang our hats on the same rack.

Jill Farley is the Director of Sales & Marketing at Kinzie Hotel located in the heart of Chicago’s River North neighborhood. Ms. Farley brings 10 plus years of experience to the Kinzie Hotel. Having begun as a server with the Four Seasons Chicago, Ms. Farley had an opportunity to continue with Four Seasons San Francisco in their catering department. The Four Seasons taught her the importance of guest experience and expectations. Ms. Farley joined the Westin San Francisco team as catering manager, then group sales manager. With a concentration in the technology, pharmaceutical, and finance segments, she worked with top meeting professionals. Ms. Farley can be contacted at 312-395-9000 or info@kinziehotel.com Please visit http://www.kinziehotel.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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