Robert Gilbert President & CEO, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association Int. (HSMAI)
We know that the pandemic has changed hospitality sales and marketing, but how? In ways that you've probably imagined and others that you might not have. Senior-level hospitality sales and marketing executives - from both brands and hotel management companies (HMCs) - who participated in HSMAI's recent series of Executive Roundtable programs discussed the trends, challenges, and priorities on their radar a full year into this industry-disrupting crisis.
While every hotel company has experienced and responded to the pandemic differently, several common themes emerged at each Executive Roundtable, including the frustrations of trying to sell when so many factors are still up in the air, the advantages of focusing on high-performing verticals, the need to approach virtual sales and marketing differently, and the importance of training and supporting teams as they've adapted to remote work.
Many observations crossed disciplines - for example, several perspectives that brand marketing executives shared were more sales-oriented than anything else - which is in keeping with a general trend toward convergence that we've been tracking since before the pandemic.
Here are key insights from our Executive Roundtables for brand sales, brand marketing, and HMC sales and marketing leaders:
BRAND SALES: 'Trying to Be Creative With What We Can Offer'
There is lingering uncertainty around existing business: "We've got groups that were booked two years ago that are supposed to be coming in at X. We know they won't come in where they're supposed to be. We're trying to put in new business, but we're probably turning some away and we shouldn't be. I worry that 800-room group will wind up being 300 rooms, but they still want all of our meeting space because they want to socially distance. And now I can't sell the other 500 rooms, so we're stuck."
Goal-setting has shifted to reflect the changing climate: "We're setting goals quarterly. We're not rolling out annual goals. So, we're going to set goals four times this year, which is a big change."
It's a challenge to factor attrition into new business development: "I think that even with the vaccines, our planners are going to be loath to go back to putting a whole bunch of people into a space. We're recommending to the hotels that they talk to their customers often to try and gauge what their attendance is going to be, to be flexible with them when they're starting the conversation with regard to attrition.
We've already been having a lot of these conversations: 'Let us know now what it's going to look like, so that we have an opportunity to possibly not lose other groups.' But at the same time, you run into the problem where even with attrition, they want to keep their same space because of that social distancing. So, it's trying to be creative with what we can offer them from a space standpoint, so that they have that confidence and comfort level to stay with us."
Corporate Group Business
Corporate group business is already starting to come back: "The last three weeks have been the highest corporate lead volume in nine months, and the good news is, while it's smaller, it's next month and the month after. We're not just seeing the fall, we're seeing business shorter term, so I'm encouraged. The blue-chip corporate is Q4 2021 and into 2022, which you would expect - they just want to stay out of trouble - but we're already seeing some corporate, which is great. It's been very encouraging."
BRAND MARKETING: 'Our Teams Were So Excited and Engaged'
One successful approach has been to target B2B verticals: "I was having a conversation with someone who was talking about demand surges as a result of the pandemic, and I think that that's an overstatement. I don't think there's very much surging per se. I think that there are certain industry verticals on the B2B side that are performing better than others. I don't want to overstate it, but we do spend a lot of time thinking about and targeting different industry vertical segments that may be emerging or may be at least maintaining their contribution as a result of the pandemic.
The obvious one being temporary medical workers, but we've also seen success with warehousing and logistics because of all the ecommerce activity, and we've seen success with university housing as universities have been looking for ancillary space. Some of it is just a straight B2B sales play, but we've been supplementing that with B2C as well. So, we may be striking partnerships with universities as an example, but we're also targeting students directly with our marketing messages."
Changing Customer Behavior
It's important to adapt to changing customer behavior: "We've seen our lengths of stays grow considerably, so we're offering a lot of incentive for staying longer. We're offering a lot of late check-ins and late checkouts - as late as six o'clock, eight o'clock - and we're getting a lot of traction on that."
Promoting Virtual Events
Marketing in a virtual environment requires a specific skillset: "We did a series of sessions on how to present virtually in two languages, in Chinese as well as English. We did six sessions for different time zones and different groups to really kick off the year with stronger virtual tools. This was in advance for a virtual trade show we did. Our teams were so excited and engaged and felt more equipped to take on the virtual scenarios that we have in front of us. Those are things that we'll do more of because it really does motivate the team and gets them excited, and then they're learning and they're engaging. And I think that in itself is really fulfilling."
Adjusting to Virtual Work
Some team members are having problems adjusting to virtual work: "What I'm finding is that people are actually scheduling their meetings far earlier than if they were going into the office. Meetings are being scheduled at 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., and in a global environment, sometimes that means people are getting on the phone at 5 a.m., so forget about presenting. You haven't even taken a shower yet.
We do find that there are some employees who perhaps live in a small apartment by themselves and are really struggling emotionally with the lack of physical contact and interaction. We've had to ramp up our employee assistance program profile to let the folks know that there's help for them if they need to talk to somebody. We're also working with some of the local hotels to offer rooms for these people to work in, so they can get out of the out of their home and into a different environment."
HMC SALES AND MARKETING: 'In This COVID Timeframe, Clustering Is a Beautiful Thing'
Clustering Brands & Verticals
Some HMCs are clustering sales across brands and verticals: "In a couple of our markets, we have hired business development managers or repurposed people into business development managers who are just sourcing leads on behalf of the market. It is across brands that we have done that. The other thing that we're doing is clustering verticals, so if we know we have a lot of sports venues in a market, we put one person in charge of those venues on behalf of all of our hotels. We're looking at other verticals where we can do that, whether it's sports or pharma."
Weddings have been a big part of group business: "We have had a cluster model in place for the last 10 years. It's three hotels - one brand and two independents- and what we are doing is looking at where the leads are coming from. They're mostly social, mostly weddings. Those leads can be responded to by anyone for anywhere. For example, we have an independent resort that's just getting slammed with something like 125 leads a week for weddings, and those leads and being responded to by different people who are covering multiple hotels. As we come out of this, my prediction is we're going to have an even bigger cluster operation for sales."
Clustering is harder to do for corporate business: "I personally have found that clustering works really well by market segment. In SMERF, in government, in social, it works really well. And so, in this COVID timeframe, clustering is a beautiful thing. I think once we return to a base of corporate group work, we'll find clustering to be a challenge because it's so location-driven. You don't get the same economies of scale that you do in the other market segments because it's a backyard market sell, and so you have this clustered salesperson working four or five different backyards."
Taken together, these insights suggest that, while the pandemic is changing hospitality sales and marketing, our core principles remain unchanged, including the importance of listening to your customer. As long as the industry doesn't forget that, it will continue to find its way through this crisis and come out stronger than ever.