Best Practices to Make the Most of the Return of Group Business

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group business

Even for properties that are not “convention hotels” per say, group business can be a key part of their clientele. Executive retreats, board meetings, training sessions, incentive programs, and a variety of other corporate and association gatherings can find a home in hotels of all sizes, bringing revenue from room nights, F&B, meeting venue rental, and more. While slower to return post-pandemic than leisure, this segment saw significantly more activity in 2023 compared to 2022, which calls for hotel operators to ensure their sales teams are capitalizing on the increased opportunity.

LODGING recently spoke with hotel executives on trends in group business, and it is encouraging that all nine participants confirmed the 2023 rise in revenue and anticipate that trend continuing in 2024. A case in point is Gary Spencer, SVP corporate sales strategy, Aimbridge Hospitality. “Across the Aimbridge portfolio, we saw a 27 percent increase in 2023 compared to 2022 in total company group rooms and event revenue, including banquet and catering,” he said. “Given the promising growth we’ve seen in 2023, we’re optimistic for group bookings to continue to bounce back in the year ahead. We have strong definite group revenue on the books for 2024, with all hotels up 18 percent in 2024 for bookings already secured compared to the same time in 2023.”

André Fournier, chief commercial officer, CoralTree Hospitality, specified that for his company’s portfolio, 2023 bookings exceeded 2022 only in Q1 and Q2 of 2023. Regarding overall 2023 revenue from this segment, the percentage increase is similar to that of Aimbridge. “Group booking revenues are up 23 percent year over year, driven by better-than-anticipated average group rates,” Fournier said. “The outlook for 2024 group bookings remains positive, up 3 percent over the same time last year. While group booking demand is stabilizing to reflect more normal growth rates that are similar to what we experienced pre-pandemic, group booking revenues are still growing at double digital rates, driven by higher group average rates. So far, 2024 group booking revenues are up 11 percent versus the same time last year.”

Director of Sales and Marketing Scott Gentile provided insight from a major convention hotel, the Marriott Marquis Houston, which offers nearly 153,000 square feet of function space. “Our 2023 group room nights are up 13 percent year over year. This is on top of a very substantial growth in 2022,” he related. “All forecasts point to another very robust year, with year-over-year growth in group rooms and average daily rate.”

Planner Relationships

Developing and maintaining long-term partnerships with meeting planners is essential to keep the bookings momentum going in 2024, and hotel sales representatives must lay the foundation for a successful business relationship. For Spencer, “Trust is the biggest factor with meeting planners. These clients want a reliable relationship with their sales partners at hotels so there are no surprises or unexpected costs down the line.” Jeremy Sadler, general manager, 106 JEFFERSON, Curio Collection by Hilton, added that “honesty and transparency” are key. “Never over-commit the operation or promise something you are unable to deliver. Guests then trust you and will return over and over.”

Second, imparting a sense of a shared goal helps build long-term relationships. “It is imperative for the sales executives and the client to feel a connection and to know that we have the same goal in mind—a successful event,” said Gentile. “We want our customers to look good in front of their boss, and in turn that makes the hotel look good too.” That connection is strengthened when the sales representative can “make suggestions to elevate [the client’s] event and overall experience,” said Spencer. “I encourage our team to embrace this role of supporter and trusted advisor, because it helps inspire our group organizers to return to us again and again.” The advice should always be geared to the specifics of the meeting or event, added Fournier. “We stress the importance of finding the right sales strategy and solution for each customer versus a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.

Third, stronger relationships are forged when the representative goes beyond email and text communications. Fournier cited “the lost art of picking up the phone or going to visit a customer,” and went on to explain the importance of that art. “Many of the sellers today would rather communicate via email or text channels versus face-to-face. At CoralTree, we stress that emails and text are used to follow through on an actual conversation versus in place of a human conversation.” Kimberly Elder, director of sales, The Harpeth Franklin Downtown, Curio Collection by Hilton, added that representatives should go the extra mile to establish those deeper connections, by “welcoming each client and checking in with them on multiple occasions to ensure that they are happy and don’t need anything. Send them a note afterwards thanking them for their business. Also, get to know them personally and possibly reach out to them asking how the family is, their promotion, etc.”

Fourth, quick response time is appreciated by all planners and paves the way to a relationship. “If you want to be a good partner to your client, ensure you are responding to them swiftly, using their preferred method of communication,” advised Justin Jabara, president, Meyer Jabara Hotels. “When responding to online RFPs, make sure you answer and address each question the client proposes.” These practices save the planner time during site selection and booking, which is especially important given that short lead times have been more common lately. “We’ve heard from several planners that the days of negotiation are declining. There isn’t time to go back and forth, [and so] presenting your best and final offer up front leads to a more streamlined process,” noted Megan Pierce, director of sales and marketing at The Curtis, a boutique hotel in Denver, Colorado.

Hiring the Right Reps

Finding representatives with a passion for building long-term client relationships is critical, but several other qualities and skills are also important, including prospecting, time management, and the willingness to understand client goals in depth.

“Prospecting for new business is essential, so an outgoing, welcoming persona often sees the most success in these roles,” said Spencer. “In the past, groups might return to a property or market year after year. Now, we need to seek out new group business and new potential customers, and our sales leaders need to be willing and unafraid to actively identify opportunities.” The post-pandemic market also demands more effective time management skills. “Sales managers often have twice the number of leads to respond to now, so an effective communication style coupled with excellent time management is vitally important,” said Fournier. Prioritization is part of time management, and new RFPs and opportunities to close deals take precedence. “Sense of urgency is No. 1. The quicker we respond with an eagerness to earn the business and tailor to their requests, the better the outcome,” said Sadler.

Lastly, a salesperson should have the patience to delve deeper and “truly qualify the program to find out what the important objectives of the event are,” Fournier said. “This allows the property to deliver a quality experience and ROI for the company. Long gone are the days of “burn and turn”; there needs to be a deeper understanding, not only of the program but also the business climate impacting the industry.” A background in operations can help a representative better understand the kind of experience a planner seeks. “I always like to see some hotel operational experience,” said Gentile. “The operation knowledge makes such a difference when collaborating with customers and their care-abouts.”

Training and Sales Support

With many post-pandemic sales teams including more junior-level representatives than before, training becomes even more conducive to success. “During the pandemic, many sales professionals left our industry and as a result, new sales executives have been hired who don’t have that same level of experience or historic relationships,” Fournier observed, adding that many of the younger reps favor email communications. The negative impact of these developments is “reflected in data collected from the CoralTree Advisory Council, a group of 30 planners who have provided feedback and best practices over the past five years,” he said. “This group has shared that response time, face-to-face interactions, and trusting relationships have all eroded. At CoralTree, we have addressed the challenge by investing in upskilling our sales and conference planning leadership. We are committed to monthly community calls with our sales leaders, sales executives, marketing, and revenue disciplines to focus on the guest journey throughout the sales process. … Additionally, we train our teams through internal and external relationship selling experts to help them make every conversation count.” In addition, reducing salespeople’s administrative tasks improves their focus and productivity. “As an efficiency measure, we have hired additional sales admin to peel away the day-to-day tasks that distract our sales team,” said Fournier. Jabara added that this approach can also serve as career advancement opportunity for other associates. “We have started leaning on other departments to assist with sales admin tasks, such as the front desk. This is a great training opportunity to involve other departments in sales,” he said.

Work/Life Balance

Recognition and sales incentive programs are well-known boosters of performance and engagement. Accordingly, “we spend a lot of time thoughtfully constructing fun ways to approach goal achievement,” said Lizzie Raudenbush, general manager, The Curtis. “For example, stretch goals, need month goals, sales weeks, sales Olympics, and offsite strategy setting meetings are all areas we have explored and have led to an engaged and productive Curtis Sales Squad.”

But perhaps less appreciated is salespeople’s need for work/life balance and stress relief, even as Type A personalities who thrive on achievement. “The pandemic shed light on the importance of mental health and work/life harmony. Training shouldn’t be limited to just job-specific development. We have to take a holistic approach to our team’s well-being,” Fournier commented. “At CoralTree, we bring in experts to share best practices on everything from managing stress to mental well-being. We want to demonstrate to our team in a meaningful way that attitude, compassion, and higher purpose are just as important as training on sales acumen.” Pierce added that allowing salespeople the flexibility to work from home can contribute to their work/life balance.

The Latest Tech Tools

Representatives also appreciate being empowered with leading-edge technology to help meet their sales goals. “Sales teams need to be forward looking and in order to do so, you need to invest in technology that can provide you with this data to make educated decisions,” said Jabara. As can be expected, AI is helping to improve that decision-making for some sales teams, including CoralTree’s. “We have introduced Gen AI experts to our sales executives to improve our sellers’ knowledge base of the client. This increased knowledge and insight allows for customized proposals and content that is relevant,” said Fournier. “We encourage our sellers and leadership teams to interact with variety of different AI tools to enhance their intelligence, solve for imagery, create customer videos, and more.”

And speaking of imagery and videos, pictures often help to sell better than words, and so Valor Hospitality Partners uses “360-degree and 3D tours to help our sales teams provide prospective customers with high-value virtual tours,” said VP of Sales Wade Bryant. “This content allows our sellers to be more confident in their product and provide more relevant information to clients based on their needs.”

Overall, Bryant stressed the importance of “giving the property teams the tools and resources they need to be effective. We utilize systems like Knowland, Costar, and Kalibri to understand the market and uncover leads. We also created a Sales & Revenue Toolkit that acts as a clearinghouse for all things sales and revenue. And we’ve automated as much of the recurring reporting as possible in an attempt to create more selling time.”

All such measures help sales teams convert the increase in group business opportunity to more revenue for their hotels.


Catering to Group Clients: 5 Planner Expectations to Keep in Mind

Value and impact

With the rise of virtual meetings during the pandemic, the need to demonstrate ROI for in-person meetings has also risen. Thus, hoteliers do well to help planners create as much value for attendees as possible. Gary Spencer, SVP corporate sales strategy, Aimbridge Hospitality, explained, “Meeting planners are looking to show value and educational benefit as part of their meetings, so they are looking for support in providing attendees with powerful takeaways in the absence of events in the last few years.” Scott Gentile, director of sales and marketing, Marriott Marquis Houston, echoed that imperative: “I believe that meeting planners are most interested in the attendee satisfaction at the event, hotel flexibility, and creative/personalized offerings. With post-COVID attendees being protective of their time away from home, the events must be robust and impactful.

Efficient planning

“Make it easy for meeting planners and don’t over-complicate the process,” advised André Fournier, chief commercial officer, CoralTree Hospitality. “Being a one-stop-shop and the expert for meeting planners in your region and at your property is important as they build out their programs. Everyone is busy, so take the burdens and obstacles away and show meeting planners how to best navigate with you as their resource.” Offering virtual site inspections is especially helpful. “This provides meeting planners with 360-degree virtual tours for site inspections of guestrooms, restaurant, bars and nightlife, and dynamic meeting and event space setups, and provides customers with a real-time look at the property spaces,” Fournier added.

Outdoor spaces

The socially distanced gatherings of recent years were often held in outdoor venues, and these have remained popular. “During the pandemic, CoralTree properties leveraged their outdoor spaces, and today we find that many meeting planners are opting for our creative outdoor meeting packages for events and food functions or enjoying the restaurants that have adjoining outdoor spaces,” noted Fournier.

High-speed Internet

The utility that virtual meetings demonstrated during the pandemic has resulted in more in-person meetings becoming hybrid, and hotels keen on group business must have the required infrastructure. “This trend is not going anywhere, so making sure you have robust bandwidth to support virtual meetings is pivotal,” said Justin Jabara, president, Meyer Jabara Hotels.

Flexibility on contract terms

“Many larger corporations post-pandemic are using addendums, so having the flexibility to allow their terms and conditions during need dates, and provided you won’t be displacing any business, will help you to win the business,” Jabara advised. The desire for flexibility is particularly evident in cancellation and attrition clauses, which have been drawing more attention due to economic and travel conditions. “Group attrition is unusually high across the board, and at an all-time high since the pandemic. This can be attributed to airline transportation delays this summer, recession fears, geo-political issues impacting international travel, and the uncertainty of attendees’ travel commitments,” observed Fournier. “We anticipate this to normalize in 2024 as recession fears, unemployment, and airline transition delays subside.” GS

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