Sales and marketing executives in an HSMAI executive roundtable shared how their group business is thriving in an environment with fewer in-person interactions, rapidly changing guest demands and other variables.
SAVANNAH, Georgia—With the overall group business picture slowly improving in the United States over the past few months, hotel sales and marketing professionals are poised to capitalize on changes in group booking behaviors and demands in order to keep revenue flowing.
At a recent Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International executive roundtable, sales and marketing leaders with U.S. hotel management companies shared how they’re becoming more and more flexible to cater to group demands for experience, all while continuing to grow market share and revenue from guests who increasingly prefer to do as much business as possible online.
Group booking behaviors
One thing most roundtable participants agreed on right off the bat is the gradual shift in group booking behavior to a more online environment.
“I will speak to the group buyer when I say they really don’t want to speak to anybody,” said Linda Price-Topp, VP of sales for Marcus Hotels & Resorts. “It’s very difficult to get somebody on the phone to talk through (leads) a little more and it’s difficult to build a relationship in that environment.”
That shift has prompted many to change not only the content they show online, but also their staffing when it comes to sifting through the volume of what many called “lead spam.”
On the content side, more is better, speakers said.
“From an asset standpoint, we’re investing in 3D videos and investing more in content creation for different group segments on our website,” said Michael Cady, VP of marketing for Charlestowne Hotels. “We’re trying to cover our bases for (group buyers) when they’re searching, because to Linda’s point, they don’t want to talk. We need a higher level of quality in terms of imagery and video because since you can’t necessarily speak to people, you have to put all your cards on the table.”
Leticia Proctor, SVP of sales, revenue management and digital strategies for PM Hotel Group, said websites now really function as a site inspection, and marketers must make sure the site showcases the property in its best light with “updated imagery, content and narrative.”
With all this rich content in place, speakers said managing it on various channels can be tough.
“It’s about making sure you pay attention to all the third-party sites and looking at our content and photography,” said Jen Yakimicki Guimond, VP of revenue for North Central Group.
“And then always optimizing it and remembering to go back,” Cady said. “It’s just one more channel to manage.”
Staffing is affected by these online-centric behaviors, too, speakers said, and it’s critical to be smart about who is touching the lead.
“One function that didn’t exist prior to the digital era is a lead catcher—somebody who puts eyes on the lead and qualifies as much as they can based on what was provided, and then distributes that to manage the flow to the right person,” said Cory Chambers, VP and chief revenue officer at Hospitality Ventures Management Group. “The number of leads we convert may not go down, may not go up, but we’re understanding which channels or segments have a higher level of conversion so we can apply the proper amount of resources to maximize conversion.”
“It’s a game of efficiency in a lot of cases,” Price-Topp said. “If we look at the deployment of everyone on our sales teams to make sure our most valuable (people) aren’t wasting their time on inbound span, then they have a solid outbound proactive effort that’s more worthy of their skill set.”
Pace and size trends
When it comes to group pace and rates for 2019, many speakers said they’re pleased with how business looks so far.
Amanda Lynch, corporate director of marketing and revenue management for The Dow Hotel Company, said that while pace and rate is very market-specific, she has identified a few trends.
“In our experience, the corporate market is still on a shorter (booking window). Associations still book three years out. Conventions in our markets are later,” she said. “In regards to rate, I’ve seen a pace up for group rate. We’ll be seeing how that plays out.”
Proctor agreed that “it’s definitely a positive outlook for next year” when it comes to group business, and she and Price-Topp agreed that group pace is up for the hotels in their respective portfolios.
Sales and marketing executives also are mobilizing their teams to be more flexible when it comes to accommodating different-sized groups, whether that means breaking large banquet space into more intimate areas to accommodate smaller groups, or erecting a tent on the grounds to expand meeting space.
“We’re very flexible when it comes to trying to please the customer and keep the business,” Lynch said, a sentiment echoed by many.
F&B, experience key drivers
Flexibility plays into the trend many around the table said they see as a cultural shift in meetings and events—unique experiences.
While “authentic experience” has been the buzz phrase for leisure travelers for years, roundtable participants said they see more and more groups wanting to incorporate special experiences into their bookings—and that requires flexibility and a willingness to meet the challenge to sell different spaces and experiences.
Marcus Hotels & Resorts is in the process of relaunching the InterContinental Milwaukee into an independent hotel with an emphasis on performing and visual arts, called Saint Kate. As part of that, one of the hotel’s largest event spaces is being converted into a black box theater that will be used as a performance venue and as event space for groups.
“Initially I thought oh my god, we’re turning a general session space into a black box theater?” said Price-Topp of the hotel that typically does thousands of group rooms annually. “But now that we’ve unveiled it to the market, people love it.”
And that extends to the sales team, too, Price-Topp said, who recognize that selling experiences matters.
Overall, Cady said Charlestowne’s strategy for making meetings and events more experiential comes down to mindset.
“The more you treat (meetings guests) like leisure guests, the better,” he said. “We customize things to make people feel like they’re on vacation and not just in a traditional meeting.” He cited examples such as smoothie orders and customizing off-site local learning experiences as big hits for meetings guests.
Food and beverage is another place where hoteliers can create high-experience touchpoints for group guests, but it’s not without challenges, speakers said, in an era where people like to venture out of the hotel more and more.
“It requires really tapping into our culinary partners at the hotel to come up with something creative and out-of-the-box to encourage groups to stay in-house,” Price-Topp said. “That’s why I push our (team) to at least ask for an opportunity to bid on (F&B) before the group goes off-property. Let us present something creative.”
Lynch and others said that as more social groups such as weddings and corporate parties want non-hotel and offbeat locations for events, it creates an opportunity to find ways to attract new and different groups to the hotel for events.
“Our goal is to really find additional market segments to solicit for catering only,” Lynch said. “We really want to dive in and find different avenues for catering.”