Time for a Group Sales Tune Up

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A good sales team is always looking for ways to improve business, but it’s important to first start with a solid plan.

by LARRY MOGELONSKY, MBA, P.ENG.

What portion of your total occupancy is derived from group sales? For most operators, groups form the cornerstone in the development of the annual business plan as well as the foundation upon which other segments are added. They require fewer resources per guest to complete the booking, they are often easier to manage from a service standpoint and they can contribute more per average guest to ancillary revenue streams.

Managed by your sales team, group efforts are typically forecast based upon previous years’ volume and cyclical trends. While that’s fine when trends are up, what happens in those cases when your occupancies have not met expectation? Moreover, how do you know if the number of room nights your team delivered in previous years is the most they could accomplish?

A good sales team always wants to learn more, accepts constructive criticism and is eager to find any way they can to generate more occupancy. Common to all successful sales teams are the following mantras or guidelines:

  • Business is conducted between people, not companies. With selling being a relationship business, your sales team’s contacts are invaluable assets.
  • Get close to your customer. Loyalty should never be taken for granted and a sales contact should never be left unattended for a long period of time. Use trade shows and direct follow-up to maintain these all-important relationships.
  • Everyone likes to be sold something. Many people believe that properties sell themselves but that’s hardly the case and salesmanship is a vital skill to have.
  • Creativity counts. Boring does not sell and an important part of the process is making an exciting pitch.
  • Selling is not a water tap. It cannot be quickly turned on or off, and as such sales requires planning and patience.
  • It’s always risky business. If your accounting department likes your sales offers, chances are they probably won’t deliver the level of business you hope they will. Successful sales programs are always on the cutting edge. Customers know real deals and if you fool them once, you’ll quickly find that they never return.
  • Love what you do. Good sales associates are adequate in what they do while great sales associates sustain the effort year-in-year-out and are driven by their passion for the business.
  •  Stay focused. Keep to your core audience at first as your property is not for everyone nor should it be.
  •  Selling is a team effort. Solo acts rarely sustain themselves, so keep this in mind when developing your staffing and general approach.
  • Sell the sizzle not the steak. Appeal to property’s emotional benefits rather than just the logic-based features.

Getting Started with 10 Questions

In developing any sales plan, it’s a good idea to start with the basics. There are many questions that need to be answered, and it can be tiring to run through them all. In doing so, however, you’ll be able to work within a framework that will allow you to maximize marketplace success.

While many of these questions may seem perfunctory, it is often surprising to discover gaps or disagreements within the responses that clearly need to be resolved before a plan is formalized.

  1. What are your property’s key features? This may seem straightforward, but remember that you’re looking for a business-oriented and not a leisure-oriented feature set.
  2. Who are your competitors and how do they compare? Once again, look at the comp set for groups, which may be almost completely distinct from the leisure one.
  3. Are your resources up-to-date? While this sounds simple enough, it’s amazing to me to see websites with defunct occupancy charts, out-of-date photography and discontinued catering menus.
  4. What are your limitations and restrictions? Review calendars and check for local events, citywide activities and statutory holidays. Understand the impact of planned renovations on guest and meeting room availability.
  5. What repeat customers can you secure? Customers who work with you annually or on a regular basis should be included from the onset. Don’t take them for granted, though, but ensure that they can be well-accommodated.
  6. What is your pricing program? To give you a reality check, pricing is governed by many factors outside of your control. Remember that you may want to increase your rates, but if the market is going the other way you rarely have a choice and must follow suit.
  7. What concessions are available? Here, experience and product availability will be an important guide. I’m a fan of value-adds that reflects the strengths and unique qualities of the product offering.
  8. What has worked in the past and what were the specific circumstances? Sometimes an old promotion that failed may be worth reconsidering with the new understandings that you’ve gleaned over the years. Similarly, if you’ve run an annual offer that has worked for the past few business cycles, don’t be so quick to abandon it simply because you want to stir things up.
  9. What are your annual room night goals and are they realistic? These are typically based upon a combination of history, spending and marketplace conditions, and any single elements can alter the outcome. Make sure that your goals are pragmatic so that you can sell them to ownership.
  10. What’s in the pipeline? Don’t forget to factor in the going-in data that reflects tentative and definite room blocks that are already been established.

Creating Your Unique Selling Proposition

The purpose of a unique selling proposition (USP) is to position and differentiate your property in the minds of your target customers. It should answer the question, “Why should I book my group with you and not someone else?” In response to this question, the USP should reflect the irrefutable advantages of your property as comprised by both product features and consumer benefits. Great USPs are highly memorable and emotionally charged.

In a simplistic manner, think of USPs as selling lines for your hotel. In the world of big brand advertising, there are numerous examples that you can draw upon – think Coca-Cola, FedEx, McDonald’s or a car manufacturer. However, in this case, your USP is targeted at the purchasers of group room blocks, so USPs like “The biggest meeting room west of the Mississippi” or “Meeting rooms with giant bay windows so you can see the lake” would make a whole lot more sense.

10-STEP SALES PLANNING PROCESS

Simplifying the sales planning process into 10 steps is always a beneficial exercise for retraining your team to think about sales properly. With the previous background work complete, your associates should be able to assemble a killer sales program.

  1. Basics checklist. Is there anything critical? What are the specific priorities and how is the timeframe looking?
  2. Build an annual sales calendar. Examine booking dates in comparison to the actual utilization timeframe. Maintain 12 months of activity and don’t forget to incorporate seasonality into your schedule.
  3. Define objectives. Use both seasonal and experience logic, and then assign individual team goals accordingly. Think in terms of SMAC – specific, measurable, achievable and compatible.
  4. Develop your initial offers. Brainstorm ideas with your team and encourage participation. At this stage, no idea is a bad idea.
  5. Offer refinement. Apply parameters to fine tune your ideas and make them stand apart from others that are being touted by your comp set. Think about offer uniqueness and building a competitive edge while never forgetting customer benefits. And of course, be open to bottom-up initiatives.
  6. Get creative. Start by theming each offer. Create in-house involvement and be sure to check operational sensitivities. Always relate the chosen theme back to your USP.
  7. Tactical elements and budget development. Here you want to look at all the ways you can communicate your offer to potential customers. This list includes traditional advertising, direct marketing, website, telemarketing, social media, e-newsletters, search engine marketing, in-house collateral materials, past customer mailers, tradeshows and public relations. Remember, though, that you can’t have it all. You need to budget which tactics you believe will work best.
  8. Build the creative elements. Now take your creative and apply it to the selected tactics. Ensure consistency with your USP and themed offers. Be eye-catching and provocative while also thinking positively.
  9. Execute the campaign. Follow-up on leads generated by your sales plan. Bend the rules a bit and have fun selling, but above all don’t forget to close the sale.
  10. Measure results. Listen to your team and record customer comments. Be prepared to adapt to necessary changes and don’t ever give up.

WHAT’S YOUR OFFER?

There are many ways that your offer can be expressed. Primarily, you will want to add something special to this list that reflects the specifics of your property; for example, a morning walk through the historic part of town, local wine tasting or yoga on the beach. And there is no limit! That’s the magic that will differentiate your offer. Using your best salesmanship, utilize base elements in the following list, but be sure to add some unique sizzle.

  •     Meeting room pricing
  •     Room discounts
  •     Attrition rate spreads
  •     Master billing discount
  •     One room free with X rooms
  •     Suite upgrade for convener
  •     Late checkout or early arrival
  •     Complimentary portage
  •     Free WiFi
  •     Loyalty points
  •     Waived parking fees
  •     Audio-visual discounts
  •     Coffee breaks
  •     Venue travel
  •     Breakfast or other snacks
  •     Use of key amenities
  •     Waived hotel or resort fees
  •     Pre- and post-stay extensions
  •     Bonus credits
  •     Spa discounts

Following these steps is the necessary effort required to make your sales campaign tangible. Develop your USP and build a creative plan that follows it. As your team executes the plan, work hard and have fun. After all, there is no such thing as an unhappy sales team member that has exceeded his or her goals. That kind of result makes GMs and owners smile too!      ■

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