The many accomplishments of Linda Elland, CHME, ought to be chronicled in a book. Her progression from hotel sales to helming an independent planning business is only the latest career development. As she points out: “This industry really starts to own you. It becomes your lifestyle. As an independent planner, I’m not competing for another planner’s job; I just help make it easier.”
Linda, you’re a hospitality pioneer. Take us back to your career’s beginning.
You’d have to go back many moons, to when I was in Detroit, which is where I grew up. When I was 21 years old, I took a vacation, a package deal through the airline, which took me to San Francisco, then Puerto Rico and then St. Croix. I found myself in this beautiful island setting and decided right then that I had to choose a career that would take me to an island where I could live. I thought, “I could learn the hotel business.” So I returned to Detroit with a dream. I applied and interviewed at the Hotel Pontchartrain, which was an independent hotel, and really the signature hotel of Detroit. I told them I’d do anything to work there. Finally, after five weeks of anticipation, not to mention having given my current job as a telephone operator a six-week notice, I was offered a front desk position. I was so hungry to learn everything I could. Of course, things were a lot different back in the day. I mean, hotels were just starting to get computers.
Well, I stayed very focused and driven. I still was determined to get to my island! Within five months, the hotel’s general manager of 18 years told me that in his entire career he had never received so many complimentary letters from guests on one individual as he had me. He told me, “We see something in you.” And then he made an offer and said he wanted to move me into the hotel’s sales department. I accepted, and he handed me a sales book to read over the weekend and said, “You start Monday.”
That’s an amazing accomplishment.
It was pretty exciting. I mean, I didn’t even know group business existed. Starting off, my job was to book weekend business. Inner-city hotels differ from resort hotels in many ways, one being that they tend to be busy during the week, but dead on the weekends. So, I started going after everything I could. I actually booked a lot of musicians and their tour groups, like Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Kenny Rogers, as well as a lot of sports teams. I learned how to deal with the entertainment market. Because I got to know a lot of the agents, I really was building fantastic relationships. The time came when the hotel was sold to the Keating Group, who were big real estate moguls. I could see the changes that were coming to the hotel, so I knew it was time to make a move. I decided that moving to an island maybe wasn’t the most financially sound idea, so deciding I wanted to remain stateside, I looked to Florida as my solution for getting to the sun. I saw Sanibel Island on a map, and it was colored pink. That is why I chose it as my destination. My first job was actually on Captiva Island, as sales manager at South Seas Plantation (now South Seas Resort). During the four and a half years I was there, I worked with the insurance market and had all of the Northeast territory, and I also got to see the design and grand opening of the property’s conference center.
I spent the next 12 years of my career at Sanibel Harbour Resort & Spa, beginning in pre-opening as their national sales manager, with the mission to attract group business. The philosophy was “If you build it, they will come.” And they did. We hosted the Davis Cup within the first three weeks of opening. After a year and a half, I was promoted to director of sales. I learned how to work with various markets, and when ideal times were for attracting them. The hotel went independent in 1992 because I demonstrated that our team was attracting and booking business at a higher percentage than the corporate branding did. An expansion for an additional 107 guest rooms, expanded meeting space and a yacht was decided upon, my position changed to director of sales and marketing, and I was entrusted with a $32 million budget to oversee the project. We added a 10,000-sq. ft. ballroom, 3,200-sq. ft. junior ballroom, two large breakout rooms and enormous pre-function space. All of it on the same floor as the existing space, in the same architectural design capitalizing on water views. Designing that space was [one] of the most exciting adventures of my life.
After spending 12 years there, what happened next?
I tried to leave the industry briefly. I experienced a change in my personal life, and submitted a three-month resignation notice. The management company expressed a desire to keep me, so I accepted their offer to run their vacation rental business. A friend of mine had a corporate training company, so I took some time off and worked with her on a project that resulted in me putting together training programs for a hotel and casino that was opening in Louisiana. After a month of that, I was back at the vacation rental business. But I realized it wasn’t my business, it was their business, and they didn’t seem too interested in it. So, I tried my luck briefly in the real estate industry, and just realized that I really missed the hospitality industry. Right after 9-11 occurred, I decided to return to the industry that I was passionate for. It was difficult for hotels during a time when people were afraid to travel. I found another independent hotel, TradeWinds Island Resorts, moved to St. Pete Beach, and accepted the job as vice president of sales. Trade Winds consisted of three properties and 1,200 hotel rooms, all on the beach. While there, I redesigned the guest rooms and renovated the meeting space at one of the properties, The Sandpiper. I also added a 10,000-sq. ft. pavilion at Island Grand. I was responsible for a staff of 56 people, including reservations, group sales, the convention department, etc. My whole job in the hotel business really changed from sales to managing all revenue streams as it related to guest rooms, catering and conventions.
I had a blast! Eventually, one of my independent planner friends needed some help. She had two big clients with overlapping meetings and need someone to manage the kick-off of her newest client’s event. She entrusted me to take care of them. I took some vacation time to execute the program. The group was a little hesitant at first, but I won them over. I loved it! And, then I imagined what it would be like to be on the other side. It was a side of the business I had not yet done, and I had accomplished a lot, so I decided it was time to open my own company.
Tell us about A2Z Meetings & Events.
I started the company on Jan. 1, 2009. I am officially two years old now! Our mission is to handle all of the negotiations and logistics. I also [make sure] the group is being nurtured. Having been on the other side, I do know what hotels will do to earn a group’s business. I tell the group’s planners that my goal is to make them look better. I chose the name because it will appear first on any kinds of listings. I have been alpha-challenged with all of my previous jobs being listed close to last. Plus, I will do everything for an event “A to Z,” so it really fit.
What do you like most about your job?
Being able to help other people is the biggest thrill. I love the “Mission Impossible” facet of creating behind-the-scenes magic, staying below budget, and pulling it all together. It is so exciting and exhilarating for me. It’s also a lot of discipline. With no boss to tell you deadlines, you have to always have a plan. As an independent, you’re your own everything. You have to figure out how to go out there and get the word out and meet people to make an impact. I cannot go into anything part way, so if I take on responsibility, I stick with it till the very end. My reputation rides on the job getting done.
What is a CHME?
It stands for certified hospitality marketing executive. It’s issued through the Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International (HSMAI). The designation started as a CHSE, but the “s” for sales was changed to “m” for marketing. People value sales people, but do not always place the same value on marketing. But, sales is a result of marketing, so both skills are equally important. I am also working toward obtaining my CMP.
You’re very involved with Meeting Professional International (MPI), particularly with the Tampa Bay Area Chapter.
Yes, I recommend involvement with MPI because it is available in most cities. But really it’s so important to join and commit to an organization and get active in a committee or serve on the board to demonstrate your reliability and build your reputation. Your involvement in these organizations really makes an impact on people that you meet. And, it is a way for me to give back, too.
What advice can you share with our audience?
Make sure you maintain a good reputation and have integrity. People will find out if you’re not and it will damage relationships. This is a very transparent industry. Also, life happens when you least expect it. If you don’t love what you do, whatever it is, get out. You’re going to be great at whatever you love; and people will relate value to that. If work is fun, then it’s not work. Associate with great, positive people. Find an awesome mentor, and return that. Always have one hand up and one hand down. In other words, pull someone in, and become a mentor to him or her. Whenever you grow, that’s when you can give it away. And if you’re charged with managing, remember, the simplest form of delegation is to make your idea their idea, don’t worry about getting credit. If it is their idea, they will see that it gets done.