Although much has changed in recent years regarding the profession of hotel catering sales, one fact that remains the same is that it can be one of the most profitable departments of the hotel.
Yet, the sales process for catering inquiries has changed significantly, as it has for hotel sales in general. Perhaps the most impactful changes are that those planning the events are faced with an overwhelming number of choices, while at the same time their ability to request electronically has resulted in catering sales managers being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of inquiries.
In the not so distance past, those planning social or corporate events would identify three or four hotels and/or other venues that could potentially meet their needs and then reach out by phone to each location. Today, an event planner typically begins by searching online and sending inquiries at each hotel’s website. Many use third-party event-planning websites.
From the planner’s side of the equation, this can result in what noted psychologist Barry Schwartz refers to as “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” In other words, the more choices we as consumers have, the less satisfied we are with the selections we make.
Today’s catering event planners face an overwhelming number of choices and often have a difficult time making a selection. Their decisions are made that much more difficult when most of the hotel catering proposals are roughly within the same price ranges, thanks to the competitive rate shopping that most hoteliers employ. It is also difficult for planners to make a decision when the proposal collateral returned by salespeople is similar in content and presentation.
From the provider’s side of the equation, most catering sales managers these days are dealing with an overwhelming volume of inquiries. Because it is so easy for planners to inquire electronically to multiple venues, instead of calling three or four locations the planner can inquire at a dozen or more with a few simple keystrokes. As a result, most catering sales managers are struggling to keep up with what some have called “lead spam,” and they often develop what I refer to as “lead fatigue.”
As a result, many catering sales managers are slow to respond or sometimes do not respond at all, especially if there is no space available for the requested dates. Also, the responses they send tend to be generic, using cookie-cutter templates that are not personalized. (As I have addressed in previous columns, this is also a challenge for hotel sales in general.)
Unlike sales, hotel catering sales managers more often than not are dealing with someone who has a vested interest in the event, and less often having to work through a third-party meeting planner. Instead, it is the bride-to-be inquiring; the adult child who is planning his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary; or the parent planning the Bar Mitzvah or Quinceañera.
Even if it is an institution or company planning the catering event, chances are it is a high-profile occurrence that has a heavy emotional value and that is being planned by an in-house contact. As a result, it is even more important for hotel catering sales managers to provide personalized, customized sales experiences that present a positive first impression of how the rest of the hotel team is going to handle the event.
Tips for 2016
If you are looking for maximum results from your catering sales efforts in 2016 here are some training tips to consider:
• Be obsessive about salesperson availability. For those who still inquire by phone, do all you can to field their first call or at least to call back quickly.
• Respond promptly to electronic inquiries. This creates a positive first impression of responsive service. If more time is needed for a full response, at least send back a short note to acknowledge the inquiry.
• Respond to all inquiries. Even if space is sold out and the sender says their date is not flexible, it might become more flexible if most other venues are also committed.
• Respond to electronic inquiries with a phone call. This is a wonderful opportunity to humanize the exchange and build rapport. Even if you only leave voicemail, it will differentiate yourself from most of the others who will probably only email back their response.
• Research before responding. When responding to inquiries from companies or institutions, take a moment to research them and reference what you learned in the response in your voicemail, phone conversation and email correspondence.
• Personalize the response. One simple way to do this is to begin by paraphrasing and restating what the sender includes in his or her original electronic inquiry, or if it was a voice inquiry, what you discovered during the conversation. This demonstrates that you are attentive to needs.
• Offer online meetings and virtual tools. Many events are being planned remotely, and even local prospects do not always have time for a site visit. Offer to host online meetings, providing a virtual tour by showing photos and floor plans.
• Use Skype or FaceTime video calls. Especially if the whole event is being planned remotely, ask the prospect to connect for a video chat.
• Take and send camera phone pictures. One of the most popular components of TripAdvisor is the real “Traveler Photos” section. While it is nice to send and share stylized professional photographs, send camera phone pictures in response to special requests or questions about alternative venues or setups.
• Consider movie-making tools. With such tools, it is easy to put together photos that already exist into fun presentations tailored for various types of groups.
• Send personal handwritten notes. These are a great way to make a personal connection throughout the sales process from the initial follow-up to the proposal or first meeting until after the event.
• Use your sales tracking system to ensure ongoing follow-up throughout the sales process. Be sure to trace out each step in the sales cycle for timely follow-up, starting with a follow-up note to make sure the prospect received the original proposal. (Emails can so easily be deleted on smartphones these days.)
• Include historical information regarding the hotel or destination, if applicable.