What’s Your Story

Suzanne Schlanger, CMP

The co-owner and managing director of the SK Group Inc., a meetings and events firm, talks about getting it right the first time - so there will be a second time.

When I create a short list of venues for a client, they always want to hear which one I would choose and why. Every meeting planner is, in a sense, a decision maker, which is something I wish hotel salespeople would understand when they get caught up asking, “Who is making the final decision?” Other questions I hear: “What are the challenges you are facing?” “What are your goals and objectives?” These are important, valid questions. But it’s what they do with the information that really counts. Here’s what I mean.

When I attended PCMA’s Convening Leaders 2012 annual meeting in San Diego this past January, I was introduced through friends to several salespeople who had properties that seemed a good match for some of my clients – one in particular. The following week, I followed up on the verbal agreement made over Merlot with my salesperson, set up a site visit, and flew out to see if the property was as good a fit as it seemed. I had a beautiful room, a thorough site visit, and a lovely dinner with my new business associate, as well as the salesperson who would be directly responsible for handling my account going forward. We bonded. I saw a long, mutually beneficial, happy future together. What could go wrong?

Once a contract is signed and turns definite, we are, of course, handed over to a different department. In my organization, I do the same thing. And I check up from time to time that things are going as they should, occasionally having to step in and go back to my salesperson to clarify an issue here and there. With this particular meeting, there had been some bumps in the road, but I was not alerted to anything major, and the one time I did have to reach out to sales, it was handled quickly and to my satisfaction. It never occurred to me that we would have challenges on site.

But we did. Lots and lots of little ones that kept me busy all day long, as my main goal was to shield the client from knowing that there were any issues at all. And even though I would speak to the hotel about it, the same things would happen over and over again. So I was left with two options: Walk away angry, never to return again, or go over everything with my salespeople and give them the chance to make it right.

As I believe that this is a relationship-based business and that I could provide valuable feedback, I chose option two. I went to dinner with sales and lunch with convention services. I reviewed all of my issues that I had experienced on site, and I patiently went through everything with each department while they patiently listened. I tried to get them to understand one basic thing: It is easier to get it right the first time, and it is certainly cheaper. Now they would have to spend more time and money wining and dining me all over again in order to regain my trust and therefore my business, when all I needed was for the other departments to do their jobs well out of the gate, and I would have been ready to book more business.

After 20 years in the business, I have learned that what’s most important is not what went wrong with your meeting, but how the hotel steps up to make it right. In the effort to increase business and outdo their competition, every hotel chain is spending countless time, effort, and money to reinvent the sales process – hours and hours spent discussing tactics and techniques with expensive outside consultants, to give them insight that they could be getting from the meeting planners in the trenches. Have they lost sight of the fact that for the client, the process doesn’t end with sales? That is only the beginning. It is the entire experience, right up through getting the bill paid, that dictates whether or not I am a satisfied customer, willing to rebook.

Once we have a great experience, we want to come back. And that makes everyone’s job easier and saves time and money. The whole courtship between sales and planner becomes unnecessary – we’ve been through the negotiating process together already, and we can use the same contract language from previous meetings.

Meeting planners like me who are in it for the long haul want to feel that our salesperson is there for us, too. While all meeting planners understand that after the contract is signed, we are going to get handed off, not all salespeople understand the importance of stopping by the registration desk on the first day of the event to say hello and thank us for our business. The more, the merrier – and if the GM himself comes by, we feel like Brad Pitt came and shook our hand!

Suzanne Schlanger, CMP

Suzanne Schlanger, CMP, is co-owner and managing director of the SK Group Inc.