MEETING PLANNERS AND HOTEL SALES staffs have a symbiotic relationship: Planners depend on their salespeople to make them look good, and hotels rely on groups to fill their space. It seems so simple.
But talk to planners about what can go wrong, and the tension is immediately apparent. Sweat glistens on their brows. They squint their eyes as if they're in pain. Their breathing grows heavy. Their voices quake.
What's making them so crazy?
- Lack of knowledge
“I'll ask, ‘How many sleeping rooms do you have in your property?’ and they'll have to refer to a brochure to tell me,” says Joan Eisenstodt, a Washington, D.C., independent planner. “I'll ask about emergency procedures and contingency plans, and they won't be able to tell me. Someone who is a good salesperson needs to know the product inside and out.”
Eisenstodt and others blame salespeople's lack of knowledge on inadequate training. (She's actually had hotel directors of sales ask for her help in showing new recruits the ropes.) If she's not getting the answers she needs, she doesn't hesitate to ask for a higher authority. “I've gone to that person and said, ‘I need to deal with someone who is more senior in terms of knowledge of your property, or more informed,’” she says. “I know what I'm doing; I need to work with someone who knows what they're doing.”
During boom times, sales reps could probably get away without a lot of product expertise. “When times were really good, a lot of the sales managers were order takers,” says Sandy Biback, president of Imagination + in Toronto. “Now they have to go out and sell.”
- Ignoring details
Michele C. Wierzgac, CMM, a Chicago-based planner, likes to share as many details about upcoming events as possible with hotels. Recently, she made a special trip to meet with a salesperson and provided a list of specific requirements for an upcoming 1,000-person conference. When she received theseveral days later, “very few of the priority items were in the contract or addressed,” she says. She called to discuss the omissions, and her contact at the hotel claimed not to remember the original discussion.
Wierzgac says she never used to provide requests in writing, but now she routinely does so. “A lot of people don't even follow those.”
- Failure to take initiative
“I really get frustrated when I have to tell a supplier how to do business,” says Daphne Meyers, CMM, program manager for partner events with Microsoft in Fargo, N.D. “I once missed [including] a dessert item on my menu. I was not only frustrated that I missed it, but most savvy hotels would have called me up and tried to sell me dessert, or at least check on whether I meant not to have any.”
She mentioned the mistake at a follow-up meeting and was greeted with a “that's-not-our-job” attitude. “I tried to explain to them that helping me do a better job makes me pleased with them, and that the more product they sell me, the better.”
- Lack of power to take action
Managers who can't make decisions bug Biback. “Whatever happened to empowerment? I think it has disappeared,” she observes.
“If salespeople have to run everything by their boss, then I really should be discussing the booking with their boss,” says Vicky A. Betzig, CMP, a planner with JRDaggett & Associates in Brookfield, Wis. “In today's environment of shorter-term bookings, we don't always have the time to wait for answers back when salespeople are, in reality, middlemen.”
“There has been so much turnover of personnel at hotels that it's hard to keep up with who is where,” says Jackie Brave, a partner with Accenting Chicago Events and Tours in Chicago. “It's very difficult to create relationships with people who disappear at a moment's notice.”
- Cold calls
Calls out of the blue are bad enough, but some sales reps add insult to injury. Meyers feels disdain for “people who just show up at my office,” deeming that practice worse than a cold call. Wierzgac doesn't like the rise in rudeness on the part of cold callers, not just hotel salespeople. A worse sinner, though, may be the hotel rep who forgets that she booked business with them recently.
“Shouldn't they remember you if they made money on you or you referred them to two other planners? If I say, ‘I had a meeting there a year ago. Do you remember?’ they're stunned.”
Like guest charges for in-room coffee or newspapers, hidden fees are an unpleasant surprise for a meeting planner. Charges for additional labor, AV service, bell service, restroom attendants at fancy affairs, unusual room setups, and other items should be disclosed up front. “I think people take things for granted,” Eisenstodt says. She says the burden lies partly with the meeting planner, who needs to ask a lot of questions up front and make sure clients understand that things such as changing room setups throughout the day will cost them.
O'Connor insists on explicit figures. “Many times I get a total price and it will say ‘plus tax and service charge,’ and I'll go back and ask how much that is.”
- The one-size-fits-all approach
Some hotel sales reps fail to treat each group separately. They respond to RFPs with form letters or ignore specific requests from planners. “They think they're selling the thing they've always sold, which is rates, dates, and space. That's the way industry used to do business, but not now,” says one independent planner.
Another veteran recalls getting a sales pitch from a sales rep at the hotel where she herself was once on staff. “She started telling me all about the property, even after I told her I had worked there — just giving me the spiel she had been taught. I don't think she was thinking.”
- Failure to connect on-site
One Pennsylvania planner spent six days with her group at an Arizona resort without ever seeing the sales manager. “After all the phone calls, she did not once take the time to introduce herself and see how things were going; she left it all to the CSM. That made me a little incensed,” says the independent planner.
- The silent treatment
Failure to return calls or e-mails is a major no-no. “Even if they are still working on something or gathering information, I believe a quick e-mail response or phone call stating that is appropriate,” says Betzig.
To combat poor responses, Wierzgac has resigned herself to being a pest. “Rather than complain, I've taken a proactive approach. I'm a hound dog. I call every hour on the hour. I insist on good service — it's sad that you have to insist on that.”
- Poor listening skills
“It's not just hearing us; it's about listening,” Eisenstodt says. “It's about understanding what we need, and when we need it by.”
- Ball dropping
When planners are bumped from one salesperson to another, either because someone has left their job or has been promoted, the new person is rarely filled in on the nuances of the contract. Jackie Brave has been in more than one situation where a new salesperson has taken over her booking and no one has bothered to inform her. That's just not good business, planners agree.
- Incomplete or inaccurate RFP responses
“Years ago, salespeople were more precise,” says Lillian O'Connor, president of Custom Meetings International, a Staten Island, N.Y., independent planner. “Now, they only give you the information they want to give you, and they don't address each issue. It would save so much time going back and forth if they did.”
For example: O'Connor was planning a meeting for 1,500 people and said she would need light refreshments, including coffee, tea, Sanka, soft drinks, and doughnuts. She received the response: “Coffee service is $15 per person.” Not taking anything for granted, she e-mailed the hotel and asked if that would include doughnuts. “Yes, it includes a tray of doughnuts.” How many doughnuts? And so on.
O'Connor tries to head off these annoying exchanges by issuing precise, bullet-pointed RFPs. “I have to answer to my clients, and if I have to go back and ask about every single thing, it wastes my time and the salesperson's,” she says. The more she is forced to ask for precise answers, the less likely she is to book the hotel. Others dismiss any RFP that fails to address specific points.
Betzig finds inappropriate responses to her requests very annoying. “This lack of consideration for the time and effort we have put into providing comprehensive information in the RFP is distressing.”
- Slow turnaround
Biback says failure to return messages or respond to RFPs by deadline sends up a red flag for her. “If you can't get the proposal to me on time, then what are you going to be like to work with?”
The consensus for a reasonable response time is 48 hours. And a response from an assistant or colleague of someone on vacation seems to be acceptable.
- Lack of common courtesy
One corporate planner recalls a program she did at an Arizona resort. There was no note or small thank-you amenity in her room. She mentioned the gaffe in a follow-up letter to the GM. “Only then did I get a call from the sales manager to apologize,” she says.
Planners Are Not All Angels
There's always another side to every story, so we asked hotel sales managers about their planner-related pet peeves:
Embarrassing stabs at
A national sales manager for a resort in Colorado ski country is amused by planners who coyly say, “We are going to be spending a lot of money at your property, so you should …” fill in the blank, meaning bend over backwards or offer a better deal. In this case, the planner is usually tying up prime rooms during the high season, or not enough rooms to make a difference. “They think they're the only group bringing in business. I'm dumbfounded by it,” she says.
Lack of specifics
The counterpoint to the detail-obsessed planner is the person inquiring about meeting space and overnight accommodations “without even knowing the purpose of the meeting they're planning,” says John Potterton, CMP, director of business development for Summit Executive Centre in Chicago. Often, not surprisingly, they are not full-time planners.
“Usually these people say, ‘I don't know, I've just been asked to find meeting space for this number of people and here's the room setup.’” But that's not enough for Potterton. He probes to determine the purpose of the meeting, the caliber of the attendees, and other details so he can help put together the right package.
“It makes me crazy when planners with whom I've spent lots of time putting together a thorough proposal don't bother to get back to me when they have chosen another property,” says Sally Gomez, director of sales at Litchfield Plantation in Pawleys Island, S.C. “It's not that hard to do, especially with e-mail.”
Gomez feels awkward about calling clients to see if her property is still in the running, mainly because she spends a lot of time creating proposals and establishing rapport with planners, and hearing back from them would seem to be a given. Over the two decades she's been in the business, she thinks common courtesy has fallen by the wayside.
“I can deal with a lot of things — rooming lists that come in a day in advance, late deposits, all kinds of things — but I can't deal with people who don't let us know what's going on.”
Lack of communication
Planners are slammed and more stressed-out these days. The result? They're not getting back to their hotel contacts when they say they will. So says Kevin M. McNally, CMP, director of convention services for the Westin Chicago River North and president of the Society of Corporate Meeting Professionals. “I'll say to the customer, ‘We both agree that this is the timeline we need to get things done, and if there's a problem, let me know.’ But I can't call up Miss Cleo and her psychic friends.”
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