If women are Venus and men are Mars, are meeting planners and hotel sales directors Mercury and Saturn?
Maybe, but the relationship between these two groups isn’t social-science curiosity. It’s business, and the good news is that when planners and hoteliers take a hard look at their mutual relationships, they share much common ground — a positive that impacts their respective bottom lines.
We spoke with five meeting planners and five hotel sales staffers to learn what lies at the core of this relationship and what it takes to make it work. To start, several must-haves were mentioned over and over by planners and hoteliers alike: trust, respect, honesty and good communication.
LaDonna Pettit, director of operations and conferences for Stone Fort Group, which produces events for associations and other organizations, says that in addition to being respectful, planners have to understand that hoteliers are busy, too.
“Hotel convention services managers juggle groups like we juggle events,” she says. “I don’t always expect an immediate response, especially if I know they have a group in-house. The most important thing I do is to make a site visit to kick off the preplanning, where I meet with the CSM and department heads I’ll be working with. I provide a background of my group and explain their goals and what’s important to them. We get started at the same place and are typically in sync throughout the planning process.”
There’s one more very important thing, Pettit notes: “I say please and thank you!”
Leslie Wiernik, CSRP, executive director of the National Association of Subrogation Professionals, says early and frequent communication is key. “I always arrange an in-person pre-pre-con with the CSM and department heads nine to 12 months prior to the event. During this meeting, I learn about their procedures, answer questions and set forth my expectations. They can’t meet my expectations if they don’t know what they are.”
Nell Nicholas, senior director global sales with HelmsBriscoe, recalls what a favorite client once said. “ ‘A spoon of honey goes down easier than a spoon of vinegar.’ That advice could not be wiser. Hotels and planners each want something for their stakeholders, and it’s not always the same thing. Hotels require profitability while planners require cost control. However,” she adds, “we all can agree that a win/win is a successful program exceeding attendees’ expectations so that the organization wants to return to the property. The single most important thing to creating a positive planner/hotel relationship is recognizing each other’s opposing goals and objectives yet finding common ground in which to work.”
Kay V. Granath, CMP, CAE, director of meetings and conventions with Association Management Center, and Martin Bay, CMP, senior director meetings operations and procurement for Kellen, an association management company, point to creating a partnership as essential.
“Neither party can create a successful meeting without the expertise and cooperation of the other,” Granath says, “so work together as a team to plan the perfect event.”
Bay concurs. “The single most important thing a planner can do is avoid an ‘us versus them’ mentality with the property. When we approach this as a partnership to create the best possible event we can toward achieving conference goals, it’s the best possible experience for both parties.”
Brian Lang, director of sales and marketing, Hyatt Hotels in downtown Denver also agrees. “We cultivate a true partnership by getting to know the planner on a personal level,” he says. “Learning the clients’ likes and dislikes, needs and goals allows for a greater degree of empathy and trust. Our staff takes ownership of the meetings they book. They’re the liaison between the planner and hotel, ensuring that everything, down to the smallest detail, is implemented to the satisfaction of the planner.”
Dan Boyer, director of sales and marketing, Sheraton Grand Phoenix, is succinct: “I believe there are several things that can create a positive relationship, but it starts with openness, honesty, integrity and responsiveness.”
Three hoteliers referenced listening and communication. Jessica Bowman, area director of sales for four Charlestowne Hotels in Charleston, South Carolina, says, “Listen and have good communication. Build a relationship by phone from the start. If you can meet in person, that’s even better.”
Autumn M. Mullen, HMCC, senior manager, sales, at Hilton Orlando, advises sales staff to “listen and seek to understand first, so your solution is meaningful and meets the planner’s needs. By seeking to understand needs first, you show respect for the person and build trust. This foundation will last over time no matter what the needs or challenges as you do business together.”
Nancy Cimney, director of sales and marketing at Opal Sands and Sandpearl resorts, both in Clearwater Beach, Florida, says good communication skills are essential to the relationship. “That means listening to what the meeting planner is saying and making sure you clearly understand the needs of the planner and group.”
What, then, is the biggest impediment to achieving that true partnership and mutual trust and respect? Answers varied.
“Sometimes working in a different time zone doesn’t allow for voice-to-voice communication, which is critical in building a relationship,” Pettit says. “Email can actually be an impediment to good communication.”
Not being forthcoming with information is a problem, too. Pettit shares as much about an event as she can early on, from history to demographics to why something is important. “Likewise, I like to inquire about the hotel and what goals they are striving for during the time frame of a meeting. It’s amazing what you can learn when asking that question.”
For Wiernik, the problem is turnover, and that plays out in multiple ways. “It’s very frustrating to develop a relationship with the property only to find out that your sales — or worse, your CSM — left just before your event. Also, it’s disappointing when hotel personnel working directly with the client are not empowered to make decisions. All hotel staff, right down to housekeeping, should have authority to fix minor issues without having to get authority from a manager. Empowering staff gives them a sense of belonging; they feel needed and appreciated.”
Nicholas points to lack of flexibility on both sides as a roadblock to a solid relationship. “I had a situation in which one party demonstrated flexibility and the other party did not in the contract-negotiation stage. What ensued later was lack of flexibility in the pre-planning phase. From an attendee standpoint, the program was a success, but the program did not repeat.”
Granath says many things can derail the relationship. “There’s time, for example, needing things immediately and not being able to get or produce them. Budget issues can cause friction, as can outside pressures such as sales quotas and hotel staff trying to juggle several meetings at once.”
And work styles can differ, such as one person wanting to do everything by email while the other wants to talk with a human. Then there’s personality. “I use the example of being from the Midwest,” Granath continues. “Some of the sales practices of the East Coast do not work well with me.”
Bay says it’s a challenge when planners and sales team members are at different experience levels. “Senior level planners and hotel sales executives foster the strongest relationships and know how to resolve challenges quickly to both parties’ mutual satisfaction.”
From the hotel side, communication and honesty are essential. “If there’s one thing that is most important, it’s responsiveness,” Lang says. “There’s nothing worse than having a long list of tasks to accomplish and waiting for a response. We understand planners have a tremendous amount of work on their plates. Without open, honest and timely communication it is impossible to cultivate relationships.”
Bowman agrees. “It’s helpful when the meeting planner is easily available by email or phone through the planning process. If the planner is unavailable or doesn’t get back to the hotelier in a timely fashion, this puts the hotel at a standstill.”
Boyer believes the relationship can fail if “one party or the other is not being honest and forthright.”
Adds Cimney, “The biggest impediment from the hotel side is overselling or overpromising what the hotel can deliver. And if the meeting planner is not clearly communicating the hot triggers of the group, it impedes the relationship. The hotel works toward exceeding expectations; however, if they’re missing key information, that can be difficult.”
The planning stage is just part of this relationship process. Once a meeting is onsite at a hotel, stakes and expectations remain high. Availability and engagement are expected on both sides, among other things.
“I expect that sales will remain involved, checking in with me periodically through the event,” Wiernik says. “I get that usually only if I ask for it. To me, that should be a given.”
Bay also expects the hotel sales team “to be engaged in the successful execution of the event and to understand our goals for the event. We usually get that,” he says, “and if we don’t, we immediately point it out and get it resolved.”
Granath wants sales to be available “to welcome me and then be there as I need them. There have been some instances where they are not on property but have taken the time to connect me with someone on property who is their backup if I need assistance.”
Nicholas says her clients have been blessed with amazing conference service managers. “A big shout-out to all you folks who work crazy hours with a smile on your face and a ‘can-do’ attitude!”
But she cautions planners to take a big-picture view. “There have been times when CSMs in the pre-planning phase have not been the most responsive, but wouldn’t you know that when onsite, when it really counts, they are there 100 percent for us exceeding our expectations. This is a lesson for us planners. We have to remember our CSMs may not be as responsive in the preplanning phase because they may be making magic for another client onsite. And we’ll get that same treatment when we are onsite.”
On the hotel side, Cimney and Lang want open, honest and timely communication and feedback from planners. “We like knowing any challenges or issues as soon as they arise, no matter how small, so they can be corrected as quickly as possible,” Lang says. “We welcome the opportunity to make revisions as the meeting progresses and greatly prefer this to learning about a service opportunity after the conference concludes. We find about a 90 percent of the planners we work with agree.”
Bowman also wants to know about needs quickly. “I expect them to let me know if we are meeting their needs onsite and if there is anything we can do better to make their meeting a success. I would rather know of an issue during the stay as opposed to after so we can fix the problem right away.”
Planners and sales come at this mutually beneficial relationship from differing perspectives. So what do they wish their colleagues better understood about them?
“Very few (sales staffers) understand what a planner does and is responsible for unless they have once been a planner,” Pettit says. “Our roles go so far beyond contracting a hotel. But a good hotel contract can sometimes make or break a meeting or event. And because my company focuses on launching new events, I find I’m often educating them as to why it’s important to work with me today and how a conference can grow in just one or two years.”
Wiernik notes, “Many of us are wearing hats other than just planner, which allow us to see the big picture ‘needs’ of the event.”
For Granath, it’s about responsiveness. “Some of us are very busy and cannot always respond as quickly as we would like. My team is busy, and we just don’t have time to respond to every email we receive — we’re too busy implementing the meetings that we just booked with them. Here is where the relationship is very important,” she says.
Bay says hotel staff don’t always understand what an association management company is. “We want the hotel sales team to understand who Kellen is, why an association management company is different than stand-alone association staff, and why it’s how we manage our client associations that makes us and our clients stand out.”
Nicholas, however, believes hotels sales staff understand her well — now. “I feel the hotel sales staff have a wonderful knowledge of my job as a third party,” she says. “It has not always been that way in my 15 years with HelmsBriscoe. Kudos to the evolution of both industries and the recognition of that.”
Among the things hotel sales staff wish planners better understood: “The level of internal accountability sales managers have, which is based on the information meeting planners give them,” Mullen says.
Boyer wishes more planners would have a better understanding of the financial side of the hotel business, while Cimney notes that there are many people involved in the production of a successful meeting, “and the sales professional has an obligation to the hotel as well as to the meeting planner.”
Bowman wishes planners better understood how much goes on behind the scenes to ensure that a meeting is successful and the part they play in that. “The more detail we have beforehand the better so we can relay that to the various departments.”
Lang wishes planners had a better understanding of a hotel’s availability in offering specific dates, rates and space, particularly during high-demand periods. “While it is a great problem to have for the hotel,” he says, “it’s sometimes difficult to juggle requests and tentative bookings to ensure that everyone gets what they need when they need it.”
When all is said and done, planners and sales staff have the same essential goal: To make a meeting the best it can be and exceed attendees’ expectations. So what advice do our experts offer to others in their field?
To her fellow planners Pettit says, “Be honest, share as much as you can and show respect for the sales contact. Always answer emails, take hotel visits and attend hotel events when invited. It’s a two-way street, and I respond not just when I have a RFP in play but year-round. I respect hotel sales managers and entire hotel sales staff and the important job they have for the hotel. I used to be one of them, so I won’t ever lose sight of this.”
Wiernik recommends that planners, “Make a list of all deal-breakers and a wish-list of concessions. Stick to your needs. If a property cannot accommodate you, walk away; there’s another property that will. Prioritize your wish list; it helps during the negotiation process.”
Nicholas advises, “Don’t sweat the small stuff and keep your eye on the prize.”
Granath wants planners to remember, “Sales staff have different pressures than we do, which affect their interactions with us. Keep this in mind when you’re working with them and try to understand their side of the relationship.”
Bay points out, “It’s a relationship-based business, so get to know the hotel salesperson you’re working with. Ask questions — about their background, how long they’ve been with the hotel and what experiences they have had that might impact how they negotiate. In the process, planners are better able to educate sales staff and help them understand conference goals.”
Our savvy sales staff interviewees also have advice for young sales professionals. “The hotel business is and always will be a people business,” Boyer notes. “It’s imperative that sales people establish solid customer relationships based on honesty, integrity and open communications. A salesperson’s role also includes staying current with trends and being an educator, e.g., keeping customers current on what’s going on in the industry.”
Bowman advises asking open-ended questions and creating a relationship with planners from the start. “That will make the whole experience much smoother and could result in repeat business for the hotel.”
Put yourself in a planner’s shoes, Mullen says. “Provide planners with information, answer all questions, follow up on time and help them understand how you are different and why that matters for their client!”
Finally, Cimney says, “In many cases, you don’t know what you don’t know, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. That’s how we all learn.” AC&F