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The Caterer

Selling conferences and functions

14 February 2003 by
Selling conferences and functions

With the advances being made in sales and catering software, it's all too easy to focus on the tools but forget about the basic disciplines needed to run your hotel's conference office efficiently.

What really matters is, of course, having in place accountable and measurable processes that bring results.

In order to win profitable conference and function business, you need to stick rigidly to the following practices:

Taking the details

All your staff need to know that no enquiry comes free. You have paid in some way to make those telephones ring. See each call as a cost and put in place comprehensive systems for gathering the information.

Your hotel can't afford to lose the call. If you have limited resources, make sure you have a system which answers all calls within five rings. If your conference office is busy or unmanned, make sure you have a back-up in place to deal with the enquiry.

Everyone who deals with the enquiry should be trained in product knowledge. The important thing is to make sure enquiries are dealt with in a positive, friendly and informative way. Equip each person with an enquiry form. Make sure it is close at hand. Ban alternatives such as scraps of paper.

The form should guide the caller through name, company, telephone number, request, dates, alternative dates, size, residential or non-residential, rooms required, format, break-out rooms and dining configurations. It is essential that the form is dated and that you make a commitment to get back to them within a certain number of hours - not days - depending on your resources.

Time is money

Remember: if they are calling you, they are calling your competition. Efficiency is everything. And if you don't win the business today you need the information to build a chase system for prospects.

If they ask for a quote, make sure you have procedures in place that can quickly determine a price. You can't wait for the general manager to return to make the decision; you must have already agreed what you are selling, in what format and at what price. Where bedrooms are required to win the function business, break down traditional practices that create divisions between reservations and conference and group sales.

Return quotes immediately, by e-mail or fax. A letter with the support material can follow. Sign everything off with a "we will call you…" line. Call back within 24 hours and if they can't make a decision immediately, press for a specific time to call again. Create an urgency and pace. Don't give up.

Don't just set up a chase system and leave it to take care of itself. Make sure it's accountable - that someone else checks it to make sure the right calls have been made at the right time.

Business you want back

There are three types of function business you want back.

  • Business that came, was profitable and paid on time. Build your relationship. It is easier to sell to a satisfied customer than to find a new one. Find out what other conference and function requirements they have that you can satisfy. Remember to chase for the repeat business on the anniversary of the day they first called, not on the date they returned the contract.
  • Business you turned away. You may have turned it down because you were already booked, but they wanted to come to you. They may have been prepared to pay more than the business you took.
    They may have wanted to book for a longer period, wanted better rooms or chosen more expensive menus and wines. Whatever the case, you should have tracked their request with the same diligence as your did for the business you took, and be ready to chase for that business again on the date they originally called.
  • Business that booked and then cancelled. Rather than hit them with the cancellation fee in the contract, find out why they cancelled. They will be only too willing to tell you. Most companies cancel through no fault of their own. They actually wanted to come. If you can convert them to another date in lieu of the cancellation fee, you will have the beginnings of a strong and profitable relationship.

What agents really want

Good conference placement agents want the best possible price, not necessarily double commission.

Agents who really look after their long-term clients see best practice as providing the best service. You too can build relationships with agents as customers by supporting this philosophy. Throwing double commission at them is only a short-term measure. Talk to them about working with them on providing the best price and service and see your business from those agents blossom.

by Stuart Harrison Stuart Harrison, formerly managing director of brands and franchising at Premier Hotels, now runs his own consultancy, the Profitable Hotel Company. He is also a visiting fellow of Oxford Brookes University.

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