Growing up in Alabama, football was a religion and we showed our devotion at the altar of the SEC (the Southeastern Conference, not the Securities & Exchange Commission). You might worship in the church on Sunday, but Fridays and Saturdays were reserved for services conducted on the gridiron. Football, however, took on new meaning for me more than a decade ago when my niece suited up at age 4 and played her first game of “bunch ball.” In this new “football,” there are cleats but no pads; shorts instead of pants and the ball is round. Through the years, my respect for the game grew as I noted that there are no time-outs in soccer (except for a very short halftime…no marching bands or baton-twirlers) and the players remain on the field for both offensive and defensive series. Soccer is more finesse than power; more touches (feet, no hands) than tosses. As a result, soccer players have to be agile, swift and above all, well-conditioned.
A couple of weeks ago, after a particularly competitive game, it occurred to me that soccer has a whole lot in common with business. So I interviewed Spencer Ward, coach of the Colorado Real U16 girl’s Athletico team, to get his take. A native of the UK, Spencer started playing soccer there when he was 6, progressed to Academy Level soccer (we know it as semi-pro) and then to coaching both boy and girls teams while pursuing a successful commercial real estate career. And to my surprise, Spencer shared with me that he consciously developed his coaching style to reflect business strategies that he has learned and integrated over the years. “Most of the kids I coach will not make it to pro ranks as the competitive expectations are extremely high,” he said. “It’s important to me to teach concepts that they can use as they grow and mature, not only on the soccer field, but more importantly, in real life.”
The United States Youth Soccer Association celebrated its 37th Anniversary this year. According to its website, youth soccer grew from 100,000 players in 1974 to 1-million players in the early 90’s. Today, US Youth Soccer registers over 3.2-million players annually, ranging from ages 5-19. No doubt, many members of today’s hotel sales teams played soccer when they were younger. And if they had a coach like Spencer Ward, then they have been subliminally exposed to basic business principles as early as kindergarten. How can we leverage those early coaching strategies to our benefit when assembling an invincible hotel sales team? I asked Spencer to collaborate on a list that will help give you a competitive advantage.
- 1. Building a team. Spencer and I spent much more time discussing the importance of building a good team than we did discussing winning and losing. A team may be a group, but a group is not necessarily a team. According to Barbee Davis, “Teams normally have members with complementary skills and generate synergy through a coordinated effort which allows each member to maximize his/her strengths and minimize his/her weaknesses. Team members need to learn how to help one another, help other team members realize their true potential, and create an environment that allows everyone to go beyond their limitations.” Spencer emphasized the fact each team member brings a different dynamic to the group. “It’s the coach’s responsibility to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each individual, both physically and mentally, and then to place them in the right positions to succeed.” According to the position played, some players get the ball less often than others, yet each team member is vitally important to the execution of the play. A well-rounded team has bench strength acquired through targeted development of alternate players with an objective of seamless substitution.
- 2. Practice. Vince Lombardi, the revered Green Bay Packer coach, believed that “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” Spencer agrees. He says that “practice, along with training and fitness” are vital components in determining whether a team can compete at its highest level. And part of that responsibility lies with the team player himself. Spencer wants players that are “full time, full on, learning all the time.” Scheduled practices are just one element of preparation. The players themselves must also commit to maintain their fitness level, to take advantage of additional training opportunities and to devote time to practice outside the regular schedule. Planned practices enable a team to work on drills as well as mental and physical conditioning. Individual practices allow a player to focus more on improving his own individual performance, thereby becoming a more valuable asset to the team. How does this work with a hotel sales team? Provide practice and training sessions for them by incorporating continuing education and role-playing as part of your weekly sales meetings. And encourage them to pursue independent study through webinars and other online educational venues.
- R-E-S-P-E-C-T. A healthy dose of respect is essential. Spencer discussed how having respect for each other as well as for the competition, officials, coaches and parents creates a well-rounded, mentally strong player. “You don’t have to like someone you work with or for, but you have to respect them,” Spencer said with emphasis, noting that “professional etiquette” is high on his list of must-haves. And for Spencer, if the respect isn’t there, “then you need to move on.” Respecting others often leads to enhanced self-esteem, as the player learns how to be confident, worthy, successful, and admirable…without excessive arrogance.
- Communication. In soccer, Spencer wants his players to concentrate on building mental muscle as well as physical prowess. Soccer is more about finesse than power and communication among the players is essential for the perfect execution of a play. Hustling, energetic play is very important on both offense and defense. Each player has a role: the defenders, the mids, and the strikers. Talking is easy; communication requires a higher skill level. Why? It includes listening. And most people are just better talkers than listeners (especially 16-year-old girls and salespeople). Remembering to communicate in the heat of battle can be darn near impossible. If the team understands that active listening is a vital part of communication, then you’re well on your way to success.
- Measurement. Some things stand out in a person’s mind and Paul Sistare’s focus on measurement is one of those for me. Paul’s message as president of the management company he led (and my former boss) was consistent, “If it can be measured, it can be achieved.” Not everyone is comfortable with this type of scrutiny. Why measure? Numbers help us move from subjective analysis to objective analysis, defining performance and making reality more visible. It’s up to the coach to collect and interpret both team and individual stats relevant to the team’s performance. With proper communication and mutual feedback, this knowledge helps individuals, teams, and the entire organization grow in the right direction. Additionally, it allows the coach to avert crisis management through the deployment of proactive instead of reactive strategies.
- Strategy. The formula for success includes both long-term and short-term strategies. All too frequently, however, short-term tactics hip-check long term strategies, resulting in…you guessed it…a perpetual state of crisis management (see #5). The objective of short-term strategies and tactics should always be compatible with the long-term vision. Listen to the coach, “In soccer, the kick on goal for a score is just the culmination of a play that started with the first move on the ball. It’s all about the development of the play.” A sound strategic foundation, and a commitment to it, is essential to meeting your objectives and achieving success. Making it up as you go along just won’t cut it in today’s competitive market.
- Risk-Taking. If you don’t take risks, then prepare to be average. And that’s okay for some people. Just not for members of an invincible team. In soccer, many of the most aggressive, risk-taking players frequently get yellow-carded. Some coaches actually incorporate it into their game plan. My niece, Amanda Dawson, is one of those players. I asked her how she felt about taking a risk. “I play at an equal or greater level of aggression than my opponent. And if that results in getting a yellow card, so be it. I’m willing to take that risk to get ahead in the game.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. The key here is in managing the risk in order to reduce the fear. People are innately either risk tolerant or risk-averse, but we face risk in some form or another every single day. Billy Shankly, the legendary Liverpool FC manager said, “If a player isn’t interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, then he should be!” Taking a risk requires mental toughness. A risk-taker must be able to shrug off mistakes, bad breaks, taunts and lousy calls during the course of a game. Dwelling on them is a mental faux pas. Teach your players how to be brave, tough and aggressive and prepare yourself for the end result. If you’re not allowed to fail, then how do you know when you’re succeeding?
- Return on Investment. In competitive soccer, parents make a substantial financial investment and Spencer feels compelled to ensure that they are receiving a return. ROI is the extent to which the benefits exceed the costs and some elements of measurement are subjective. I went to the experts (team parents) for clarification. “First and foremost, I want to know that Amanda is having fun while playing and that her passion for the game is fueled by her experiences on the field, “ says Mary Dawson. “Next, I measure how effectively she applies what she has learned from competing at this level to her everyday experiences. Ultimately, how she deals with inconsistent referee calls, team dynamics and the inevitable politics of the managing club reflects how Amanda will handle her school work, her personal life and, eventually, her professional life.” In Mary’s opinion, it’s paying off. Sue Plummer commented on the risk vs. return as it relates to injury. “Though some parents whose kids are playing at the highest competitive level may see the investment going toward a potential college scholarship, they have to face the fact of injury and possibly the end of their child’s playing career.” Personally, Sue was most focused on the investment return directly impacting her daughter, Jenny. “Soccer keeps her fitter and she has developed a ferocious work ethic and discipline, mainly due to understanding that the most rewarding things are those that are the most challenging.” Sue affirms the “life lessons” ROI, adding that Jenny has learned that “life is not always fair and I can only control what I do, not what others do.” Companies make financial investments in employees from the day they start the search to fill a position. Recruitment costs, base salary, taxes and benefits, office space and equipment, orientation and training all add up to significant dollars. If turnover is high, these dollars go right into the “red” column. Choosing the right person for the job has real fiscal implications. We measure the financial investment in our sales team in concrete ways like room night production and revenue growth. Still, the intangibles must be considered: Are they having fun? Is the team in demand (market value)? Are both personal and team objectives being achieved? Do they have the opportunity for professional and personal growth?
- 9. Coaching. Each player is different and coaching styles must vary. There is no better tool for improving performance than understanding and ministering to an individual player’s needs. What makes a good coach? First and foremost, knowledge of the game, from basic skills to more advanced theory, plus the ability to clearly and effectively communicate that knowledge to the players. Next, staying up-to-date on the latest innovations. A great coach listens with an open mind to new ideas from peers to players and he motivates behind a positive attitude and enthusiasm for the game. The best coaches focus on performance goals, not outcome goals. According to Spencer, most coaching manifestos don’t even mention winning. And win or lose, a great coach acknowledges the successes as well as the failures. As a leader, a coach must be prepared to be a disciplinarian, setting up rules and taking action when the rules are compromised. Above all, the coach must set a good example. Inevitably, the players mirror the coach.
- Game Plan. Coaches start each season with a playbook, much like a hotel’s business plan. A playbook contains scripted plays designed by the coaches to maximize their team’s competitive advantage. The hotel’s playbook is its business plan which also includes the budget, marketing plan staffing guidelines and capital expenditure plan. Once the playbook is complete, a game plan is developed for each week’s opponent. Coaches reach into the playbook to extract the plays (strategies) that give them the best chance to win the game. In a hotel, segment strategies are like game plans. Each should have a clear message, measurable objectives, a focused plan of attack and realistic, achievable expectations tied to the hotel’s budget.
Is your sales team invincible? In today’s leaner workforce, we are all expected to do more with less…a time when “invincibles” really shine and their impact is felt company-wide. Don’t expect them to just show up on your doorstep, however. They are in high demand and must be pursued; once hired, nurtured. “Invincibles” are strong, positive, vocal…visionaries who can see the big picture and motivate others. They are our future leaders. So to end, I turn once again to Billy Shankly, “I want to build a team that’s invincible, so that they have to send a team from bloody Mars to beat us!” Amen, Billy.
Business Trip = Guilt Trip…Not Anymore. Family-Friendly Meetings Are Becoming More Commonplace; 5 Tips to Help You Compete
Over the summer, I noticed a change in the business travel landscape. Not only were travelers rushing through airports with a briefcase in one hand and a Starbucks in the other. Some had traded in their Starbucks for a small child. And many times, there was a spouse and additional children following in their wake.
In today’s world of single parents, dual-incomes and women executives, it’s not just daddy that’s packing a suitcase, kissing the kids good-bye and hitting the road. Moms are traveling, too.
A report released in January by Travel Leaders, North America’s largest travel agency franchisor, found that 65.7% of business travelers combine at least one business trip with a leisure or family trip. Time-starved, multi-tasking parents are constantly searching for ways to keep the family together without sacrificing their job duties. Savvy organizations are realizing that attending a business meeting doesn’t have to mean more time on the job and less time with family members. I asked Mike Lyons, Executive Vice President of AMR Meetings & Incentives, if family-friendly meetings are a viable option. “Absolutely!” said Lyons. He considers it a natural part of the conversation with his clients. “We have an obligation as a company who puts on these events to point out these opportunities to the decision maker. It’s interesting to see their reaction,” Lyons added. “They quickly recognize that family-friendly meetings are a win-win for everyone: the company, the hotel, the attendees and the children.”
What are the benefits of having the family tag along? There’s the bonus of family time at the end of the work day…in some cases more of a treat than an expectation. It’s a terrific opportunity to spend some time reconnecting. Many road warriors say that bringing their families along erases the guilt that they experience when leaving their biggest supporters behind once again. They need some time to relax and recharge, and the upshot is a more alert, enthusiastic and productive meeting participant. Then there are the potential cost savings. Many young families can’t afford a family vacation these days. Having part (or all) of the trip reimbursed can benefit both the employer and employee. And in some cases, including the family can actually be more cost effective for an employer. Yes, there are naysayers who are concerned about family distractions or attendees cutting out early. But those things can happen with or without a family in tow. Marketing manager April Thompson has been planning meetings for one of IBM’s software portfolios for the last five years. She sees a lot of family vacations combined with meetings held in Orlando. “Lots of people bring their kids along,” said Thompson. “It’s been a consistent trend over the last five years and now families are extending their visits beyond the meeting dates. Having part of the trip paid for by the company is a great benefit.”
So, now that you know the value of family-friendly meetings, how do you compete for this lucrative market? Here are five tips to get you started.
- Target the right market segments. And the right companies and organizations within those segments. Although SMERF and association market segments are the first to come to mind, don’t automatically write off others. Look for businesses and organizations where family is an integral part of their culture. That commitment can bring the corporate and government segments back into play. When qualifying, don’t forget about the elusive “unrealized need.” Maybe a family-friendly meeting has crossed their minds but they haven’t fully explored the idea.
- Determine your best positioning. Once you have determined that your hotel is a viable candidate for the family-friendly market, the next step is to set yourself apart from the competition. Which of the family-friendly markets is the best fit for your hotel? Where can you be the best choice for your point-of difference: All inclusive packages? Beach resort? Budget-friendly? Ski resort? Kids programs? Multi-generational? Choose a niche and start marketing your “best of” features and benefits.
- Create a family-friendly meetings package (and market it). Start with the destination city and move on to your hotel. Incorporate interesting, creative, educational and fun activities that appeal to families with kids of all ages. The objective is to keep the family busy and happy. Menus are an important component and should include themes that appeal to both children and adults. When developing your pricing model stick with a per person/per day structure for both adults and children. This helps the meeting planners with their budgeting. And remember, you don’t have to go it alone. Leverage relationships with your local tourist board and area attractions when putting your package together. There’s something in it for them, too.
- Include versatile activities for all age groups. Hotels like Nickelodeon Suites Resort in Orlando have on-site staff that develop and manage programs for kids of all ages (even adults). If you don’t have the resources to handle activities on your own, outsource it. Some hotels show their family-friendly side by offering programs developed by companies such as KiddieCorp, founded in 1986 and now managing 175 child care programs a year.
- Know when to say no. Be aware of your limitations. If you can’t fully commit to this labor-intensive market, look at alternatives. Perhaps pre/post meeting mini vacations are your best fit.
With work days extending way beyond 9-5 and technology connecting us to the workplace 24/7, people are finding it hard to take time off even on the weekends. There’s always a deadline to meet, an appointment to keep, expectations to be managed. And families are suffering. One prescription to alleviate the pain is to pack up the spouse and kids and bring them along. And whether you are ready for it or not, they’ve set the GPS and pointed the car in your direction.
Today, I saw an ad that promised to “generate proposals in minutes.” Another ad offered software that produced an automated sales proposal and saved 42% of your time. A third ad shouted that you could “easily create a sales proposal. Just fill-in the blanks and print!” These ads came as no surprise. With shrinking payroll dollars, an expectation of doing more with less and added pressure from a hungry competitive set, time has become a more valuable commodity in most every sales department. Add to that the changes technology has brought about in the way we communicate: e-mail, texting, IM’s, and it’s no surprise that proposals have been relegated to paperwork status.
From the proposals that I have reviewed lately, it seems that we may not even know the difference between a proposal and a contract. Remember those 5 sales steps we learned when we first started out: opening, questioning, presenting, handling objections and closing? It doesn’t matter whether you are a hotel sales newbie or a seasoned veteran; these straightforward steps haven’t fundamentally changed at all. Note that presenting and closing are two very distinct steps. Simply put, a proposal is an extension of your presentation; a contract is a formal agreement, a pact between you and the buyer. A proposal should outline beneficial solutions that persuade the planner to choose your hotel. It does not include “we’ll-break-your-knees-if-you-don’t…” language. Save that, if you must, for the contract and the attorneys.
Let’s do a quick test. Take the last proposal written by each member of your team and spread each of them out on the conference table. And don’t forget to throw your latest proposal into the mix as well (you do still write proposals yourself, don’t you?). What do you see? A unique collection of targeted solutions, each reflecting the personality of that particular sales manager? Or a pile of Stepford forms, all copied from a template that requires only rates, dates and space to be completed and e-mailed?
Today I’m recommending that we try incorporating a little old with a little new. Combining some Madonna with a splash of Lady Gaga. We can use technology to our advantage but don’t be afraid to incorporate a little old school. Here are six tips to get you started.
- It’s all about them…not you. Meeting planners are more concerned about how you can best meet their needs than how wonderful your company may be. Focus on them and what your questioning skills have uncovered. Notes a little skimpy? Call back and, this time, listen to what the planner is telling you. Get all of the information that you need to create a kick-ass proposal. And remember, when your customer is ready to know more about you or the company, they will do what most people do today: Google you.
- Avoid feature throw-up. You know what I mean…when you regurgitate everything there is to know about your hotel whether the client needs it or not. Generally, this manifests itself as a long list of bullet points. Toss that approach today and concentrate on the meeting objective and the business needs that come with it. Don’t forget the planner’s own needs as well. Focus on the features that will be a part of the solution, always combining the feature with a benefit statement specific to the objective or needs of their particular meeting. It’s not all about rates, dates and space. In fact, that’s the easy part. If you provide solutions that explicitly meet the business objectives of the client and that play up your points-of-difference, you will find yourself creating indelible value for your product.
- Be yourself. Write as if you are speaking to the customer. As a former English teacher, I am encouraging you to be a little more casual and let your personality show through the proposal. Stop looking over your shoulder for the nun and the ruler. One rule though: use active, not passive voice. Thought you wouldn’t see that again after 5th grade? You might have to look it up. And forget the hotel jargon and acronyms.
- Show some style. Use props. Yes, props. This is where technology can really make a difference. Include testimonials, pictures of people attending a successful event (not miles of empty banquet tables or lobbies with no guests), video clips. Electronic proposals open up a whole new world for you. Evaluate the complete proposal package to determine if it has enough “wow” factor to move it to the top of the pile. Don’t forget about the power of Skype, my favorite tool of the day. There is no reason why you can’t do every sales presentation in person. You can talk about your hotel’s stunning beachfront location, but what if your Skype “set” shows that view in the background? And remember, Skype works just as well across town as it does 1,000 miles away. It you are finding it difficult to schedule a meeting for the presentation, suggest a video call.
- Include an Investment page. There is a huge difference between cost and investment and we spend way too much time using words like charge, price, rate, fee and expenses when discussing an event. A cost immediately conjures up visions of money slowly floating away into a big black hole, never to be seen again. An investment is money spent with an expectation of getting something back. Businesses and organizations invest in meetings because they expect to gain something from them. That is why it is important for you to thoroughly understand the meeting objectives. Use them to position your solutions. And when it comes time to discuss “costs,” shift the semantics. When you successfully demonstrate how their investment in time and money will pay off by partnering with you and your hotel, you will get more business. More importantly, it is the first step in the development of a mutually beneficial, potentially long-term, relationship. And that, my friends, translates into repeat business.
- Ask for the business and indicate next step. Always. In today’s competitive environment, the person who actually asks for the business and vigilantly follows up in a timely manner is the person who has the best chance of closing the sale.
Writing a dynamic proposal, one that the client actually reads instead of flipping to the back page, is time consuming and requires creativity and intense concentration. Face it; most people don’t like to write. Why? Getting started seems to be the most common roadblock: finding the time, developing a compelling opening. It could be, however, some of the most lucrative time spent in a standard work day.
Going back to that investment part for a moment…..Suppose a salesperson makes $50 an hour and spends two hours on a customized proposal for a $10,000 meeting scheduled to occur within the next 90 days. In financial terms, that would be the same as purchasing a 90-day CD for $100 and withdrawing $10,000 when it matures. Still think pounding the pavement is your best investment?
Cathy Enz, I could kiss you! During the Cornell Hospitality Research Summit last month, Cathy, a Cornell professor, delivered results from her seven-year study of the hotel slump in the U.S. She found that hotels that held rate or priced above their comp set had predictably lower occupancies. But the real kicker: their bigger RevPAR gain more than made up the revenue loss. Bottom line: “Deep discounting doesn’t do much.”
Even the Wall Street Journal is weighing in. An article in October’s Money Hunt, “Raising Prices Pays Off for Some,” Emily Maltby highlights the conundrum facing everyone with a product to sell: Raise prices? Lower prices? Let them ride? In this article, only 12% of the small business owners surveyed were raising prices. A whopping 88% were either lowering prices or holding firm. Research published in the McKinsey Quarterly reveals that rushing to lower prices, even if it attracts more buyers, generally doesn’t put a company ahead. And here I was thinking that the hotel industry was the only one with prices dropping faster than a cliff diver in Acapulco (though not nearly as gracefully).
Remember when you first heard the term “yield management”? Later, along with a little tweaking, yield management became “revenue management” and, lately, I’ve heard the term “revenue optimization” thrown around. Bottom line, isn’t it all about selling rooms at the right time, in the right place, to the right people, with the right length of stay, at the right price?
I understand that this sounds all well and good in theory. But let’s face it—with staff cut-backs and everyone expected to do more with less, research, analysis and strategic planning may be taking a back seat to answering the phone and checking people in. It seems as if each market has a hotel who thinks they can steal business by lowering rate. When everyone else follows suit, they drop their rates once more. They continue with this strategy until the entire market finally fits Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
Some markets have been seeing recovery both in rate and occupancy though in the last couple of weeks, economic research firm e-forecating.com, in conjunction with STR, announced that the Hotel Industry Pulse Index dropped in September. Evangelos Simos, chief economist of e-forecasting.com is concerned. “September’s report gives us pause and provides questions to the sustainability of the U.S. hotel industry recover.” In other words, it ain’t over yet.
So, if you’re going to panic, at least panic constructively. Step back, take a deep breath and consider these suggestions:
Avoid thinking like Jimmy Neutron. Jimmy: “But dad, all my friends are gonna be there!” Hugh: “I know, son, but if all your friends were named Cliff, would you jump off them? I don’t think you would.” In other words, just because hotels in our comp set are lowering their rates, it doesn’t mean we should lower ours, too. We have access to rate-shopping tools designed to monitor comp set pricing tactics. Though handy, sometimes we become too reliant on the data alone, resulting in pricing decisions based on what the competition is doing, not necessarily what is best for us. Stop allowing the competition to control your strategies. Use Revenue Management 101 to move rates higher when it’s right for you.
Value Rules! Let’s take a look at a study recently conducted by Epsilon, a leading marketing services firm. Only a third of the people they surveyed were sure of where they wanted to stay when making a hotel reservation. The number one buying point for all of the customers they surveyed was price. Not that four-letter word RATE. PRICE. Providing value through creative packaging doesn’t mean you have to compromise on rate. The dictionary defines value as “the worth, importance or usefulness of something to somebody.” Create unique meeting packages, value-driven IBT packages and dynamic leisure packages comprised of items that are of significance to the market segment being targeted. When describing them, use benefit statements to reinforce their value.
Channel Management has never been more important. And you won’t hear me go on about dumping the OTA’s. Goodness knows we’ve heard enough about that lately. It’s all about where you distribute your inventory, its value on that channel and, think like an operator here, the profit represented by each booking. It’s the mix that matters. Keep in mind that the only part of revenue that you can take to the bank is the profit.
We’re not in Kansas anymore. There’s no “waiting until we get back to normal.” This is it, Dorothy. Refrain from depending on strategies that were working two years ago. Rate management has become a game of who blinks first. Make adjustments for shorter lead times, different arrival/departure days and more diverse booking channels. Booking windows are much shorter now with last minute deals as common as knockoffs in Chinatown. When making decisions, remember Wethern’s law: Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups.
Reports of rate and occupancy improvement are welcome news but a sustained recovery is dependent on the decisions we make now. It’s time to stop cannibalizing the market and work together to recapture the pricing power that we abandoned in alarm over declining demand. Continuing to participate in mindless price wars is not helping your business which means it’s not really helping the economy either.