Succeed in Downturn, Overcome Rate Talk.
By Doug Kennedy
Saturday, 5th December 2009
As an active hotel industry trainer who works with hotel and call center reservations agents from virtually all market segments and geographic locations, it is extremely intriguing to observe firsthand the various ways that hotel companies are responding to current economic conditions.

Despite the economy, there are superstar performers in even the most negatively effected geographic markets. I have observed clients who are operating in some of the most down markets, where the comparative set is looking at negative 25 percent RevPAR versus 2008, but they are somehow carving out a RevPAR performance that matches or exceeds 2008. Other call center clients have somehow managed to increase their call conversion rations even while overall call conversion for most locations is down because online bookers now call to double-check the rate offer.

So what are they doing differently? It all starts with having inspired, in-touch owners and financial leaders who knew in advance that the conga line of record years of RevPAR growth couldn't last forever. These hotels were well poised to realistically adjust their rates according to demand in their local market and their position in the local market. Not only did they have a handle on pricing, but they also had become experts on marketing and distribution before the downturn.

Therefore, they were able to offer the right price to the right person at the right "place," or channel. They were also able to turn on the "faucets" of other new hotel distribution channels as they continue to emerge.

Another common attribute is that they have also recognized that their frontline soldiers in the battle against the erosion of RevPAR is the frontline employee who answers the phones everyday, whether in the group sales department, on-site reservations, at the front desk or at a third-party call center.

Regardless of title, they are all faced with the value-driven deal-seekers on the other end of the line who do in fact sometimes lead off with the question: "Hello, what is your cheapest rate?" More often than not they don't divulge that they've been online already and know the rates you are showing at several websites, in addition to your own. Worse yet, they occasionally react obnoxiously to the rate by saying "Don't you know there's a recession going on?"

Today's callers are armed with insight, and thanks to TripAdvisor and other social media, possibly more knowledge about your hotel than the representatives they are speaking with, especially if they are off-site at a regional sales office or call center.

If you're like managers who closely monitor RevPAR these days and know enough to ask the right questions of your sales and reservations staff as to why the average rates have gone down so drastically, no doubt one response you've already heard is, "Well, all callers want to hear about these days is the rate."

Having heard this myself voiced honestly as a concern of the reservations and sales people I train each month, I have so far restrained myself from saying "Okay, you are right! Let's just give them our lowest price on the phone right up front! I'm sure they have done all of their homework and know what a great property we have to offer. Let's just e-mail it in the subject line with the price as soon as we get their dates."

Instead I say with restraint, "That's a very good question," and refer back to my latest favorite saying: "If you want to get what you've already got, just keep doing what you're already doing." I sometimes adapt it specifically for hotels to say, "If you want to keep getting your exact fair share of revenue as your comp set, just keep doing the same things that your competitors are doing."

In life as in RevPAR, to get what we've never had before, we must do what we've never done before. That being said, let's acknowledge that the lodging industry environment today is as challenging as it has been since the early 1990s. Your sales, reservations, and front-desk teams need help. Here are some discussion points for your next meeting or in-house training:

Know the competition. Nearly every hotel has to deal with a local competitor that simply drops their rate for the short-term goal of filling beds. Instead of pointing out their obvious shortcomings, point out what is unique about your hotel.

Over deliver on service from their first inquiry. Despite how desperate most hotels are for new business, it still amazes me how long the average response time is. While phone calls and e-mails do seem to be returned more promptly these days, many sales people lag behind in their follow-up or fall short on demonstrating their attention to detail with follow-up.

Sell value over price. It is such an old sales axiom, but even more so today our sales people have been beat up so much on price by value-driven deal-seekers that they sometimes even forget to embellish details regarding the added value of their destination, location and amenities—not to mention the details about the special packages and rate offers which so many hotels have in place today.

In all the noisy confusion of modern life, keep remembering relationship selling. It doesn't take much extra effort nor time to find some commonalities with the fellow human beings we call prospects, clients and guests. This plays out when you have a real conversation that includes brief and appropriate side chats about the weather, where you are, the background noise such as pets or kids, or possibly even that you know the city that the caller is calling from. 
Remember you are speaking with a real person and it is easy to have a real conversation verses a transaction. Even if you field 25, 50 or 75 calls a day, the inquirer bases their entire first impression solely on their own experience.

Since today's callers have most likely seen an overwhelming amount of information online, make those web photos come to life by enriching them with your own personal stories, examples and remembrances from other guests that relate to the inquirer's situation or circumstance.

Since everyone these days seems to be seeking some kind of a special deal, make sure to reference the "normal" rates (as in the rates charged during periods of peak demand) as a reference point before you offer any type of discount rate or package.

Sell to emotion verses intellect. Put simply, people can always have their most basic lodging needs of four walls and a bed fulfilled for considerably less elsewhere in your locale. And when you switch off the lights, they all look the same once you fall asleep. Instead of listing the same basic features of your hotel that everyone else in your market segment has, make those features come to life by providing descriptions that allure and entice versus inform and notify.

Make sure your sales and reservations teams can properly explain promotions, rate offers and special packages before the advertisements are released. Ask your senior marketing and revenue management staff to test drive their promotions by role-playing it with a frontline salesperson.

By discussing ideas like those listed above with your frontline sales, reservations and front-desk teams, you can give all of your associates the tools they need to, more often than not, overcome the "All they want to hear is rate" mentality.

Founded in 2006, Kennedy Training Network (KTN) is the lodging industry's best source for training programs and services in the topic areas of reservations sales, hospitality and guest service, and front desk revenue optimization. Services including customized, on-site training workshops, private, individual hotel team webinars, and reservations/front desk mystery shopping assessment and coaching reports. Additionally, KTN is also a resource for conference keynote and break-out sessions for management companies, brands, and associations.

For more information, visit www.kennedytrainingnetwork.com for details or e-mail doug@kennedytrainingnetwork.com
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