Advice to suppliers: Bone up on your customer service. That was the No. 1 message planners had for sales reps hungry for business.
Plan Your Meetings conducted an informal “state of the industry” roundtable with 20 Atlanta-based corporate, government, association and independent planners who attended its PYM LIVE Event in Birmingham. They talked about current industry challenges, and spent a lot of time discussing how the relationship between planners and suppliers could be improved.
“Sales teams need to understand the big picture,” said one corporate planner. “My favorite sales person was someone who stuck with me the whole time and didn’t just kiss off after the contract was signed. I’ve had maybe two in my lifetime who have done that.”
Another planner added, “They need to listen. I told my salesperson, ‘It’s a law firm, my attendees are between the ages of 25 and 35, and I need activities.’ He said, ‘We have this wonderful thing where we have pig races.’ I had to have him removed because I’m talking golfing and spas, and he’s throwing pig races at us.”
Several planners voiced concerns about multiyear contracts. Many said they avoid signing them because they’ve found the quality of service declines if hotels know you’re coming back.
One association planner had such a negative experience with her onsite event manager, she was planning to ask the property for a different business contact this year. Before she could, she received an e-mail from the woman saying: “Guess what? We’re going to work together again!”
“I really don’t want to work with her,” she said. “And I don’t know how to tell her.”
A hotel sales person present suggested the planner be honest, but professional. “Nearly every manager I’ve worked with has gone through it more than once,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s just a personality issue, or it’s because they’ve become immune to the need to provide customer service.
“Make sure that when you get that customer satisfaction survey and you didn’t have a good experience, you tell them,” he continued. “Hotels want word of mouth and repeat business, and they still discuss the customer satisfaction surveys, so be as honest in your feedback as possible. If they get into trouble or fired over it, it’s their fault. As hard as it is to hear constructive criticism, it’s vital for businesses to hear it.”
Going into 2009, the planners’ biggest concerns were whether there would be meetings to plan, helping their companies out, making budgets stretch and job security.
“You’ve got to diversify yourself and be able to do more than just plan a meeting,” said one participant. “You’ve got to work with budgets and work with all the departments.” An independent planner said she was keeping her calendar full by taking on social and religious group business to fill gaps left by cancelled corporate meetings.
The general consensus was that now was a great time to get creative. “If we’re not planning meetings, maybe we need to become an expert in something else,” one corporate planner mused. “We need find out where we can be instrumental, maybe go to another department and say, ‘We know how to read contracts and set up contracts because we do it all the time,’ and become a resource for them.” An independent planner reported that she was augmenting her income with consulting contracts, helping small businesses plan events and operate more efficiently.
Transportation was identified as the most important factor they considered when selecting a meeting destination. “It has to be a place with a major airport, so all guests can come in on a direct flight,” said one participant. “If not, it’s not even an option.” Drive-in destinations were increasing in popularity among the corporate crowd. “They’re downsizing and looking at driving more than flying,” reported one planner. “They’re voting now to do something they can drive to in less than four hours.” For executive or legal partner events, planners reported, the drive time had to be two hours or less.
Four and Five-Diamond properties were still in demand, the independent planners insisted. But even if clients were spending less money, they still expected everything to look nice and to receive excellent service.
Next to bad customer service, the fastest way a sales representative loses business is by being too pushy and calling too often, the participants said. “Call once, follow up with a message and then send an e-mail,” recommended one corporate planner. Another added, “Ask which way I want to be contacted and if calling once a week is too often.” One independent planner chimed in, “And don’t drop by my job. I didn’t invite you!”
Planners also weighed in on what reps could do to win business. “Listen to what the client needs and address that,” one recommended. An independent planner added: “Accessibility is huge. I ended up planning a meeting for 400 people in five days. I just called all my vendors, because I had their cell numbers and I said, ‘This is what I need. Can you do it?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’ And I had nothing to worry about; it was done. Because [they’ve] been so accessible, who do you think I’m going to go to next time? And if someone is wondering who is dependable, I will send them to [those vendors].”
On the topic of stuff we all get (SWAG), planners agreed that it doesn’t have to go away, but that what can be condensed or eliminated should. “I prefer you give me a business card, so I can look [the service] up,” said one association planner. “Sales people give us too much collateral, I’d prefer it if they could give me one USB stick and a business card.” Another said, “I can’t stand the amount of paper. I’ve started to say, ‘No, thanks.’ Don’t be offended if we don’t take it. DVDs are great. There are some great options that can keep you from shipping packets.” An independent planner added, “We want things that we can use as planners. Food is always great.” From the back of the audience, a planner yelled out, “I don’t need another stress ball!”
The next PYM Planner Focus group discussion will be held on Jan. 28 at the PYM LIVE 2009 Atlanta at the Renaissance Concourse Atlanta Airport.