Need to book room blocks for your upcoming event? Here are 10 tips straight from a hotel sales rep.
With rising vaccination rates worldwide, things should hopefully get back to normal. This is good news for everyone, but especially for event planners, who have had to postpone events or transfer them to the digital world instead.
While things seem to be returning to a familiar pattern, many things might never be the same. Like the hotel industry. I sat down with Aquelah Robinson, Director of Sales and Marketing for the Hampton Inn and Suites in Chicago/Schaumburg, to learn more about how event planners can work with hotel professionals to ensure their clients’ experience runs as smoothly as possible.
Aquelah has been working in the hospitality industry for nine years. She originally went to school for marketing and public relations but found it challenging to find a job in that sector due to the 2011 recession. “I saw an advertisement for a job at a new hotel opening up in a newspaper and thought, why not? I didn’t really know what it was, but it was sales, and I had a marketing degree. I got the job a week later and totally fell in love with it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Aquelah has the unique experience of working for two hotels — the Hampton Inn and Home2 Suites by Hilton. I was fascinated to hear what it was like working for such well-known and well-regarded companies. “A lot of people don’t understand that with the majority of hotels, the physical buildings are actually franchise properties. So while we’re under the Hilton umbrella, we’re actually owned and managed by a separate company that pays Hilton to use the brand. That means that the Home2 Suites Inn and the Hampton Inn are actually within the same management company,” she explains, noting it’s common. “A lot of sales directors are responsible for multiple properties now. It’s a little bit easier for me because my properties are down the street from each other, so I can go back and forth within one day if necessary.”
1. Know What Amenities Are Offered
The way properties are managed isn’t the only thing that has changed about hotels during COVID-19. According to Aquelah, things are still changing almost weekly, and event planners especially need to be aware of these changes. “There was a time when you could call a hotel, and there would always be a salesperson on site. That’s not the case anymore because there are a lot of us who haven’t been brought back to work yet, and a lot of hotels that still have not reopened. Some people are still laid off right now, so don’t be surprised if there’s nobody to talk to you right away or you don’t get a call back for a week. Some things are coming back – like breakfast buffets – but again, that could change. We hope that we’ll be able to keep moving forward, but anything can happen, and we have to be prepared for that.”
2. Ask Questions When Booking Room Blocks
When it comes to booking blocks of rooms – something familiar to all event planners – Aquelah was happy to share some expert advice on making sure the process is as easy as possible, both for the event planner and the hotel staff. It all begins, she explains, by asking a lot of questions. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question when booking room blocks. Whether you’re booking for a corporate event or a wedding or family reunion, there’s always a purpose to the room block in your hotel, and I’m always going to ask people what that purpose is. Asking these questions makes it easier for your guests, the hotel sales rep, and the planner.”
3. Make Sure You Understand The Financial Commitments of Room Blocks
Aquelah says planners want to watch out for financial obligations when it comes to booking room blocks. “Some hotels require you to be responsible for a certain amount of rooms. It’s called an attraction cost. If you block 20 rooms, for example, the hotel wants you to be financially responsible for the cost of 80% of those rooms. If 80% of that 20 room block doesn’t get used, you still have to pay the hotel that money.
For new event planners, that kind of financial obligation may seem daunting. Still, according to Aquelah, there are ways planners can protect themselves. “If you’re a professional event planner, it’s a matter of knowing your client, the market, and the industry. If you’re new to this, it’s a matter of asking those questions and getting a feel for what you really need. It’s up to the hotel to make a good business decision and help you figure out how many rooms you need. That’s why you’ll often hear hotels state that ten rooms is the bare minimum.”
4. Know The Cut-Off Dates
Cut-off dates are also something planners need to know about. “They’re important because that means that three weeks beforehand, hotel sales reps don’t have to worry about the rooms still being held in the inventory and not needing them. We can just release them back to inventory and still have time to sell the suite if necessary.”
5. Book Room Blocks Early
When it comes to the right time to book blocks of rooms, Aquelah’s recommendation is the earlier, the better. “Our rates typically rise as time goes on. For instance, if you are booking a room block for next weekend, your rate will be a lot higher because we already have a good amount of blocks sold. If you know you’re having an event a year from now and email me just to get something on the books, I’m going to work with you and give you a decent rate because there is probably nothing on the books yet that far in advance. That being said, we can only block rooms up to a year in advance.”
6. Call For The Most Accurate Rates
Another piece of advice Aquelah shared with me is to not assume that you know for sure what rate you’re going to get. “I have people tell me what my rate is all the time, and I have to correct them. They say they googled it, but googling a rate means that you’ve pulled up a travel website’s rate – what we call third parties – who give you discounts. But there are always different hiccups with those discounts. I’m not looking at that. I’m looking at what’s in my specific system. It depends on what groups we already have in-house and the demand. It’s always best to call with an open mind and just ask the question versus assuming you know the answer right away.”
7. Avoid 3rd Party Booking Systems
When it comes to third parties, Aquelah encourages people to steer clear of them and book directly instead. “That way, when you call the hotel, you can try to ensure you have flexible cancellation. You can also check what rates are available. There’s nothing wrong with third-party sites, but you need to know that there are some differences with the rates. And it’s typical that your cancellation policy won’t be as flexible with a discounted rate from a third party.”
8. Let The Hotel Help You
Sometimes, there are actually ways that Aquelah can work with event planners to lower their rate, and she says this is something she enjoys doing. “Sometimes there is wiggle room with the date of the event, and that makes my job a lot easier. Because if you want to have your event on Memorial Day weekend, your rate will be higher. But if you tell me your dates are flexible, I can provide you with dates that have lower demands so that you end up with a cheaper rate and we get our rooms filled. It’s a win-win situation.”
9. Ask For Extras
Aquelah also likes helping planners who ask about amenities. “It never hurts to ask for extras. The worst we can do is say no. Just ask for it. Ask if there’s a way to get a complimentary suite, for example, or whether or not breakfast is included. It never hurts to ask for those extra tidbits because you never know. We may be able to throw that in there to sweeten the deal and get you to sign the contract earlier.”
10. Be Clear About Expectations
During the entire process, from when the event planner first reaches out to the hotel to when the event wraps up, they need to be on the same page with the hotel sales rep. According to Aquelah, this can be accomplished by being clear about what you need and being realistic. “There used to be a time when weddings were always held in the summertime and always on Saturdays. That’s just the way it was. May would come around, and it’d be wedding season, and come September, wedding season would be over. That’s not the case anymore. Especially coming out of a pandemic, things are a lot different. So you really need to be clear. Don’t just tell the hotel, ‘My wedding is on the weekend of July 3’. We need to know the specific date -Friday, Saturday or Sunday. It actually happens all the time. Ask about what’s going on at the hotel, but don’t freak out on us if the shuttle isn’t available right now or if breakfast isn’t the way it used to be. Because everything’s changed because of COVID. Your wedding is important, your event is important, but be realistic.”
11. Build Relationships
If every event planner is lucky enough to work with a hotel professional like Aquelah, I think it’s safe to say that everyone involved will have a great experience. And hopefully, build relationships that lead to exciting opportunities in the future.