The PYM Town Hall: State of the Industry was a partner appreciation event hosted by Plan Your Meetings and held at the 755 Club at Turner Field in Atlanta, Ga., on Feb. 5, 2010. The event was designed to be a group “think-tank” session between PYM advertising partners, representing hotels, convention and visitors bureaus, restaurants, special facilities and meeting and event service providers. The list of questions was created from a pre-event survey in which partners were asked: What is the biggest challenge you are facing now? At the conclusion of the event, one representative from each table gave a summary of findings.
Here are the questions our partners had:
- How can you keep things fresh, exciting and creative with limited budgets?
- How do you choose which events to attend when there are so many?
- How do you reach the decision makers?
- How do you get business into restaurants?
- How can you get creative with menus and still make money?
- How do you hang on to existing business/get repeat customers?
- How do you get customers to commit when they’re still leery of the economy?
- How can you get people to visit your property?
- How can new CVBs get established?
- How can you develop new leads?
- How do you find new business and close the deal?
- How can you increase visibility?
- How can you help planners with no budgets?
- How can you increase business during the off-season?
- How can you compete with luxury hotels that are undercutting your rate?
- How can you sell luxury in this cost-conscious economy, while still maintaining high standards/price points?
- How do we raise morale after all the cutbacks?
- Are things going to pick up in 2010? What’s happening with the meetings industry?
Here are some of the solutions we found:
Keeping things fresh and exciting with a limited budget:
- Go online — there are so many different things you can do online to keep it fresh. E-mail marketing programs like MyEmma.com and business development tools like BusinessWise.com are cost-effective ways to stay in touch and organized, plus they are easy to use. Network via social media like Twitter and Facebook, but monitor it regularly.
- Promote both by department and as a company to establish a good brand.
- When your company offers online purchasing, add more options people can buy that your company (alone or in partnership) can offer. Example: When purchasing baseball tickets online, ask if they would like to purchase museum tickets, as well.
- Partner with schools in your area.
- Use the trade that you have for marketing purposes and events. Hosting events is very important. Many agreed that radio was the most effective, but expensive, form of advertising — so see if you can offset the costs with trade there, as well.
- Some say that direct mailing doesn’t provide much ROI any more. Some say that since there isn’t much direct mailing going out any more, it could be something different, if you can make it stand out. Also make sure if you are sending mail that it is addressed to a specific person and not a title.
- Become members of the CVBs around you to have them help get those leads that you normally wouldn’t reach out to.
- Create and produce your printed ads, literature and marketing pieces in-house.
Choosing which events to attend when there are so many:
- When trying to decide which event to go to if there are multiple events on one day, we decided that the time of the event is the biggest deciding factor. Do switch it up, though. Go to all time frame events, because different planners go at different times.
Reaching the decision makers:
- Ask whomever you get in touch with if they will be the ones making the ultimate decision. Don’t ask, “ Are you the decision maker?” A better question to ask is “Is there anyone else that should be in on our meeting/phone call?” Also, remember that the decision maker is not the one planning the event. Sometimes you will need to speak to the event planner and let them talk to the decision maker.
- Research the company before calling them so you are knowledgeable when speaking.
Getting business into restaurants:
- To get more restaurant business, try reaching out to financial planners that go out for meetings all the time.
- When approaching companies to get them to come to your restaurant, suggest the idea of “employee appreciation” lunches or happy hours.
Being creative with menus in ways that still allow you to make money:
- Stay current on “buzz” trends like farm to table and make sure the staff is, as well. Don’t lose integrity by not knowing your product, or what you are promoting. Example: If you are offering “organic beef,” make sure the staff knows where it’s coming from so they can speak intelligently about it.
- Surprise your clients with a special chef selection or catering upgrade. Example: If there is a buffet, add one complimentary item as a way of saying “thank you.”
- Find out from the client where the “bigwigs” are sitting and offer them a special upgraded wine or extra selection. The decision makers will recognize and appreciate the upgrade.
Converting existing business into repeat customers:
- Work relationships and hold onto good communication; hold planner appreciation parties; offer a discount for repeat business; and have incentives.
- Never assume the business is yours to keep. Make a point of saying “thank you.” Send thank you notes or gifts. Introduce your planner to new contacts from different departments within your organization, but don’t lose the relationship that you have built with them.
- Always listen to your clients and guests; the chefs need to listen as well. Ask them, “What is your vision for the meeting?”
- Skip years when reaching out. Many companies don’t go to the same location each year. Tell them what you can do for them now that you couldn’t do a year ago.
- You are going to sell more when you sell yourself less.
- Go in to the sale with a positive attitude.
- Find something that makes you different and go with it every time. It will give them something to remember.
- Give group attendees something to take home with them, like a muffin or a spa upgrade with a small bottle of nail polish, so they will remember the event/venue and what a great time they had. Clients are always looking for something unique to take away from their experience. It’s about creating relationships.
- It’s important for hotel general managers to make an appearance at the event, so make sure they stop by to tell your clients “thank you.”
- Remember to ask your staff, “Why do we do this?” Don’t get comfortable in your routines. We need to question things in order to refresh new ideas to draw in repeat customers or new business.
Getting customers to commit when they are still leery of the economy:
- For those that are leery about the economy, build in early incentives and smaller deposits.
Getting planners to travel to your property:
- Pay for clients to come see your site.
- Join the local FAMs offered by CVBs to get planners to your site.
Establishing a reputation for new CVBs:
- Help your organization grow by developing relationships with other CVBs.
- Partner with businesses and organizations.
- Use branding to help establish your identity.
Developing new leads:
- Businesswise.com provides B2B development tools for Atlanta and Charlotte and can provide sales leads.
- Find leads using keyword search engines.
- Partnering with Plan Your Meetings has been very helpful. Some other publications promise to deliver leads.
- Ask all guests to answer a brief survey; some leisure surveys have generated leads for group business and inquiries for weddings/meetings. One partner reported averaging 15 leads per week from the surveys, which they follow up with e-mail responses.
- FROG is a free Windows-based database that can be used to keep track of contacts and leads (http://www.innovativesys.net/).
Finding new business and closing the deal:
- SMERF is still bringing in business, particularly social and weddings. If your venue is the right fit, think about hosting a bridal show.
- Get involved with your local CVBs and rotary clubs. Go outside your local footprint and join other cities’ Chamber of Commerce and CVBs.
- Continue to host events and build relationships. Do your homework; offer transportation if needed. Offer planners a “behind the scenes” look during events, to give them unique group business ideas. Example: Show them batting practice at Turner Field or an inside look at the Georgia Aquarium.
- Be honest; deliver on your promises. Be there for your client through the good times and bad.
- Capture dialogue with the attendees at the event and gather contact information, such as e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Then, follow up.
- Offer giveaways and incentives to get planners in the door. It’s a great way to gather information on potential clients.
- Gather Web research: Where are companies meeting? Is your venue in their target market? For example, are they looking for a resort setting? If you provide what they’re looking for, you have a lead.
- Ask the client, “What do you need from me?”
- Give the best deal you can, while still staying competitive.
- Find areas of the market that you are not an expert in and learn about it. Go to seminars, expos, Webinars, etc. Then you can promote it with your products/services. Example: If you are a caterer or a company that does catering, look into doing Kosher to break into that industry as well.
- Restaurants should find local food critics or bloggers. Offer them a $50 gift certificate or the chance to “have a meal on us.” This almost always guarantees online and media coverage. Always remember to thank them, whether by e-mail or thank you notes.
- Use billboard advertising.
- Purchase targeted Facebook ads.
- Invest in the Gathering Guide (gatheringguide.com) – a wedding/social/meeting venue listing book.
- Start relationships with your competition. Refer business you can’t handle so they’ll do the same.
- Join networking groups like Business 400.
- Go to association meetings held by the local Chamber of Commerce and CVBs.
- Ask everyone you talk to how they heard about you/your company so you know what’s been working.
Helping planners with no budgets:
- Suggest sponsors they may enlist to help offset costs.
- Try to specifically qualify what they mean when they say “no budget.” If you can find out what it is that they really need and can’t live without, you can figure out a way it can work within the amount of spend they have.
- Don’t turn down clients that can’t afford your product/service. Work with them because you never know what guests they will bring in. They could bring in a guest that is going to book big business. Don’t undersell yourself too much, though, because word of mouth spreads.
- If you can’t lower the price, add value to the package. People like to see the perception of more.
Increasing business during the off-season:
- Offer a percentage discount off of invoices.
- Advertise incentives.
Competing with luxury hotels that are undercutting your rate:
- Always have the best customer service.
- Develop relationships with your clients.
- Send hand-written personal notes.
- Deliver something fun so you are remembered. Example: Send ice cream with a scoop and a note to “call me for the scoop.”
Selling luxury in a cost-conscious economy, while still maintaining standards and price points:
- Price is negotiable, but don’t cheapen your value; find the balance.
- Find your value and add to it.
- Offer team-building programs; companies need that internally right now, and if you can bind it to a charity or corporate social responsibility angle, that’s even better.
- Avoid across the board discounts, focusing instead on offering perks that also make good business sense during negotiations, like complimentary upgrades for top executives or company leaders.
- Stress the partnership between you and the planner so that you can give them what they need. Encourage them to work with you to create a successful meeting, rather than feed their instinct to take advantage of your need for business.
- It’s give and take. Work with them, but ask for something in return. Example: Provide gift cards, but only if the group will book again within the next six months.
- Don’t be afraid to let potential business go if they are not the right fit for your company. Be polite and respectful, but flexible.
- We’re all in this together, and tightening the belt makes us all value our jobs even more. The staff that remains are wearing multiple hats, so you need to make sure that the operations manager, for example, has scripts so he/she can answer sales leads.
- Provide members of the staff with small gifts and make them feel like they’re part of the team as well.
- If you are receiving negative feedback via e-mail, comment card, etc., acknowledge the comments by contacting/calling the customer and telling him/her: “Thank you for the feedback. This information is vital to helping me grow my business and ensure customer service. Thank you for your time and information. How can I make this right for you?” The once irate customer will be amazed at the sincerity, and may become a customer for life (and tell others), because people just want to feel like they are being acknowledged.
- Post testimonials on the Web site or in the office.
Predictions and advice for 2010:
- We have to stay positive.
- Some partners project a 20 to 30 percent increase in business.
- Hotels are still seeing lower rates, but occupancy is up.
- It’s still a buyer’s market, but hotels need to be making budget numbers by producing revenue; currently rates are too low and we’re making too many concessions.
- There will still be peaks and valleys.
- Many are keeping up-to-date with newspapers/trade publications/business journals. Research is stating that budgets will be tight through 2011. Recommended references are PKF Hospitality Research and Cornell University webcasts.
- Employ all best practices; through tough times, you become a better sales person.
- Small group leads are picking up. Companies who might not have had meetings or events last year are slowly coming back. We are reconnecting with groups/planners from 2007 and 2008.
For transcripts and video summaries from current and past Town Hall events, visit PlanYourMeetings.com/townhall.
To download this transcript as a PDF, click here.