EPISODE 096: Here’s How Hospitality Sales Leader Jen Erney of ALHI Helps Her Member Hotels Sell Experiences…and Plenty of Sleeping Rooms
JEN’S CLOSING TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “My motto is that it takes seven touch points to make one memorable experience so don’t think that just one email is going to get you in the door or one left voicemail message or one directory or collateral that you sent through the mail. So do it often, do it thoughtfully and don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions.”
Jennifer Erney is the Regional VP of Sales at the Associated Luxury Hotels International, also known as ALHI.
Find Jennifer on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: I’m excited to talk to you today. As a little bit of trivia, you were a graduate of Johnson Wales University and you said you met your husband there. I also have a son who went to Johnson Wales University, we’ve interviewed probably about a half a dozen to a dozen people for the podcast who come from the hospitality space and many of them have been graduates of JWU so it’s great to talk to you and it was great to have learned that about you. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you sell today, and tell us what excites you about that?
Jennifer Erney: Fred, I have the great privilege of representing a finely curated collection of independent and emerging branded hotels. Here at ALHI we are a global sales organization and we’re dedicated to those hotels that have a keen interest in booking meetings and incentive business. We’ve been granted the authority and we have the very well respected and honoring responsibility of providing global sale services for all of our members.
We’re also proud to say that we have close to 300 luxury level hotels and resorts around the world and we also have an alliance of cruise ships and DMC services. We have a distinct portfolio that was hand selected and we want to ensure that our customers receive the four and five diamond quality service for all of their meetings.
Fred Diamond: You used the word “members.” Tell us what an emerging hotel looks like, you also used that word as well. What does that mean for the people listening to the podcast?
Jennifer Erney: For members which here in Washington DC should be very easy for people to understand, we operate just as an association so these independent hotels who didn’t necessarily have a voice on their own to compete in this very cluttered marketplace where there’s many obviously large brands, we give them the opportunity and have the voice to do that.
As a member, they can curate their member experience with us through events, marketing and of course in having a very experienced sales team in many different offices. As far as emerging brands, there’s so many great boutique brand hotels and when we see of emerging brands think of those collections that probably are no more than 60 or 75 hotels and for many of those they also need augmenting to their sales service, and we’re able to do that as well.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little bit about how you got into sales as a career.
Jennifer Erney: I had to think back to that for a little bit, and actually my first job I am proud to say was at a video store in my home town. When I was thinking of that and it also partly to my great association experience because my job before Blockbuster ever existed as I was asking the folks in my town to become a member of our video store and obviously I was selling them, if you would, the benefits of the free popcorn, the additional movies or free movies that they would be able to get so that truly was my first way to get into that. With sales there’s perks so of course I had many free movies for myself and my family and friends and when the store was slow I got caught up in all of my favorites which are Weird Science, Goonies and of course 16 Candles.
Fred Diamond: 16 Candles is a classic, of course the great Molly Ringwald.
Jennifer Erney: That certainly dates me [laughs].
Fred Diamond: Now again you’re selling services to hotels, your members that we talked about before, some luxury chains, you also talked about cruises as well. I’m curious, what are some of the lessons you might have learned from working in a video store that have continued with you today?
Jennifer Erney: I think a lot of things have also changed in the selling methodology from the 80’s till now as well. I think the one thing that I learned was to be patient, there’s so many times that you want to get excited and tell them all about your services or all about those memberships and it might not be what they’re looking for so I think being a great listener and I also feel to, actually the terminology of show up and throw up doesn’t work.
I actually had a sales I guess we’ll call leader at some point that said, “Throw it out there and see if it sticks” and I asked, “Sticks to what?” so if you’re spending all those time and resources and it’s not for what the end user wants, then we obviously need to take a different approach. I also think there’s a very different approach too, to the business to consumer and business to business and I find myself suited in more of the business to business type sales situations.
Fred Diamond: I have a quick question for you. The concept of being a better listener comes up throughout many of the Sales Game Changers podcast, so I like to ask some of the guests how have you become a better listener? Can you give us some insights into how you’ve deployed better listening skills over the course of your career?
Jennifer Erney: I think to become a better listener you have to have an agenda for yourself before you walk into any sales activity or situation because at the end of the day if you actually listen they’re going to tell you all that you want to know, just as we are here today and I’m excited to share with you about my experience, your customers are too. So many times I have witnessed salespeople throughout my career just show up and tell them everything about their product, their service and what they’re so excited about when they probably didn’t actually find out where the synergy’s lie with that relationship.
I think checking yourself at the door and making sure that you know that you have to be a great listener. I’ve also found when I say to a customer, “If it’s OK with you, I’d like you to tell me more about your organization and your needs and I’ll be taking some notes” and that puts you in the position of listening.
Fred Diamond: That’s actually very powerful. If you think about it, your members, your customers, anyone listening on the Sales Game Changers podcast, they can pretty much get anything they need to know about your offering over the internet so there’s not a huge amount of value to them if you come to the meeting and just show up and throw up, like you said.
Jennifer Erney: Exactly.
Fred Diamond: So how do you get to the core of what they’re trying to get to? Last thing before we ask you about some of your specific area of brilliances, who do you specifically sell to? What type of a title is your typical customer?
Jennifer Erney: Great, very easy. We sell to meeting planners and those meeting planners come across all sectors here in Washington DC, of course we’re very fortunate, I can’t remember the exact number but I think it’s upward of over 6,000 associations and every association has a meeting of some shape or size. We also work with corporate meeting planners, nonprofit, government and of course those intermediary agencies as well.
Fred Diamond: Very good. For the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast, I know you’re also friends with Melissa Riley in Destination DC and she was on a previous Sales Game Changers podcast. If you want to know some of the challenges that media planners face, please listen to that podcast and we’ll have a link to that on the show notes from today. We’re talking with Jennifer Erney, she’s the regional VP at ALHI. Jennifer, what are you an expert in? Tell us a little more about your specific area of brilliance?
Jennifer Erney: This was a very humbling question because you never want to say that you’re an expert but I will say that my brilliance is probably in being an analytical thinker with a human touch. My business is so much about relationships and how to continue that relationship after the sale. We pride ourselves if not doing a transactional sale that it should be this forever long relationship cycle, but many times because sales is stressful it gets sometimes very emotional so people want to make a decision based on their emotion as opposed to the data so I’ve prided myself through my 20 + years in the industry of stepping back, reviewing the data and then coming back to what the decision is and knowing that sometimes the decision might not be the best for both parties but in the end we want to make sure that the outcome is what the client wanted, not necessarily always what we wanted and that once we’ve made the decision that we stick to it.
Fred Diamond: I like that, it’s the first time I’ve heard that on the Sales Game Changers podcast, you’re an analytical thinker with a human touch. A lot of the people that we’ve interviewed have had 10, 20, 30 years of experience, you have to understand data, you have to be data driven but in almost every case everyone understands that you’re dealing with people so how do you be as effective as possible? Jennifer, to have gotten to where you are today you must have had some great mentors along the way. Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two and how they impacted your career?
Jennifer Erney: I’m so glad that you asked this question because I have to say I’ve sought out a mentor in every job opportunity that I’ve had so to come up with one or two is a very difficult one but I do want to share a few of my favorites. When I worked for Lowes Hotels, there was this incredible woman by the name of Charlotte St. Martin and at the time she was the EVP of sales and operation so she definitely knew both sides of the business. She taught me the appreciation of graciousness, poise and that a hand written note will never go out of style.
Then at Kimpton Hotels I had the great honor of working with Christine Lawson who now works for Lowes Hotels and I just enjoyed her spunk, her spirit and energy and same, there has to be a human touch to what it is that we do. She took a chance to promote me into a regional role and as a rookie I appreciate all the time and attention that she gave to me.
Moving on to Fairmont Hotels where I spent a large part of my career – just over 10 years – I worked with Liz Erickson. She had 40 years with the brand here in Washington DC and she took the time to introduce me to everyone and also impacted my desire to give back to the industry by volunteering with organizations such as PCMA and ASAE so they were a few of my favorites.
Fred Diamond: You said you do some volunteering, what kind of things do you do? And you said PCMA, what organization is that?
Jennifer Erney: My apologies, PCMA is the Professional Convention Management Association and that membership base is of both those from the supplier space so you would find hotels, convention and visitors bureaus, technology companies and then of course meeting planners. We get together very frequently and throw our annual meetings and fund raising events and the one thing that always inspired me about PCMA is that they have a foundation and their true mission is actually to raise funds to offer scholarships so I was very fortunate that I didn’t need a scholarship to go to school but so many people want to get into this industry and they might not necessarily have the means to do that, and PCMA the foundation is very focused on that. I’m very passionate about them.
Fred Diamond: Very good. Do you still have relationships with the mentors that you just talked about?
Jennifer Erney: I do, I speak to all of them.
Fred Diamond: What are the two biggest challenges that you face today as a sales leader?
Jennifer Erney: Technology is always top of mind for me on both sides of everything, both on how technology is affecting our meeting planners in the space, how are they receiving information, how are they curating their data and also in my side here with a sales team of 10, how are we being perceived, how are we using technology and how are we making sure that we’re staying top of mind whether it’s our presentations, our marketing and all of those.
Technology is always top of mind for me, and just trying to stay current. There’s so much that goes out there and it’s obviously at this crazy rate so you’re proud that you know go to meetings today but there’s going to be a new product tomorrow so just continually staying up to date on all of those.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you take us back to the #1 specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of? Take us back to that moment.
Jennifer Erney: It actually wasn’t too long ago, it was during my Fairmont career and there in global sales we were moving forward with the total account management process or we like to call TAM and we recognized that we had a corporate client of ours that we saw that was very loyal to our brand but we had four salespeople devoted to this account in many different fashions.
All four of them collectively booked about 1 million dollars in business and that is a great accomplishment nonetheless. However, as we did more mapping and understanding more about their strategic meeting management platform, their procurement, how legal was involved, how they viewed brands together, we opted to have one global sales contact which I was honored was myself and after one complete year of having one contact and understanding all of their business we increased our share from 1 million to 5 million dollars.
Fred Diamond: Jennifer, I have a quick question if you don’t mind. A lot of the people listening to the Sales Game Changers podcast are coming from different industries – they’re in technology, professional services, we talked about B to B. Most of them are B to B, many of them don’t really understand what sales means for a hotel so can you give us a little bit of an insight? Are you trying to sell rooms, are you trying to sell conferences? Typical hotel, what does sales mean and what are the highest priorities if you will, from a sales perspective?
Jennifer Erney: Absolutely. We’re selling an experience and it’s something that’s tangible from the perspective that yes, you’re going to receive a meal and yes, you’re going to sleep in a bed but in the end of the day, our meeting planners are trying to curate an experience and they use us as the vehicle to be able to do that. What’s highest priority, of course, is that we need to put heads in beds first so people obviously the guest room count is usually the most important followed by then whatever their meeting needs will be – general sessions, the amount of great break outs if they’re having a gala dinner and then working with them to find out how it is that that’s going to help them. If they’re an association, they of course want to be able to have their members have a great experience to come back.
Many times in the corporate space it could be for an incentive because they’re rewarding their people so a different experience that we need to curate for them but truly it’s the experience business.
Fred Diamond: You started off working in a video store, you went to a great college, Johnson and Wales, but was there ever a moment where you thought to yourself, “It’s too hard, it’s just not for me”?
Jennifer Erney: Actually, no. When I saw that question I really had to think back and a mentor that I didn’t mention but I first entered Johnson and Wales thinking that I was more in the restaurant business, quickly learned that maybe the hours weren’t for me and I had a professor who actually was a meeting planner in her past life and she shared with me obviously how great hospitality sales and marketing could be.
I’ve always had a passion to be the best I can be, I approached my role actually as a relationship builder, a connection maker and through that the clients find value and partnership with me. I want to be their trusted adviser and they see I want to seek to understand them and their organization needs and I’m really not trying to “sell” them anything. It’s obviously obvious they have meetings and we have a solution, we just have to find the synergy in the middle to make that work.
Fred Diamond: Jennifer, before we go to break and listen to one of our sponsors, I just want to ask you one of the quick questions. I know the first question we asked you is tell us a little bit about your company and what excites you but one think I can get through this interview is that you really do have a passion for the hospitality space, for the meeting planning space. Can you just talk for a second before we go to break and listen to one of our sponsors, what is it about this industry that excites you? You have such an exhilaration about not just what you’re bringing, I know you have a lot of confidence in the solutions you bring in to your member hotels, etcetera, but what is it about this space that excites you? You do exude just a joy for the market that you’re serving.
Jennifer Erney: I very much appreciate that, and yes. My passion has run through and through since obviously graduating from Johnson and Wales and at the end our industry is actually fun. I know it’s stressful, we have goals, there’s pressures, we’re all respectively running a business whether it’s me and providing the service and obviously meetings for my members and of course providing the results for the leadership within our organization but our meeting planners, they also are doing that as well. I think the space for those who are ever thinking of coming into it, we do try to have fun while we’re doing it, we have great opportunities to go to conference, create networking events and as we’re all trying to show that we’re the best of the best, we have fun being able to attend receptions and seeing what’s new and exciting out there.
Fred Diamond: One other thing that comes up across the Sales Game Changers podcast that we do is that if you don’t have passion for what you’re selling, there’s no way you’re going to succeed and it has to be genuine, it has to be authentic.
Jennifer, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Jennifer Erney: As we were just talking how technology is so very important, I want to challenge them to get out from behind their laptop, get their head out from their smart phone and go out and meet people. You can do this in so many ways and if you’re in the hospitality business on the sale side, we will find any creative way for you to get in front of the customer. Volunteer, attend industry events. It takes you longer and more minutes to try to establish a relationship over email than it would for you to pick up the phone and invite them for coffee. I made friends and clients for life doing it that way so if you’re good at what you do and you have the passion that you want to do this then sales will come very easy for you.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Jennifer Erney: I’ll be quite honest, when I was in my last job I was coasting along for a good while. I loved my brand, I loved everything that I was doing and representing but I realized that I wasn’t doing anything for myself so I did have to sharpen my saw and I realized that if I didn’t evolve to grow I couldn’t sustain – although I could sustain being a seller through retirement, I knew that that’s not what I wanted to do. I knew I had more I wanted to share, just as I’ve had many great mentors I hope I have been mentor to others and I made a conscious effort to read more about our industry, volunteer and take the opportunity to educate myself more.
Through many of these industry organizations it’s very easy to get some certifications so I tasked myself to get one and I have to say I’m very pleased that I have four and I’m working on my fifth which is my CMM so I hope to have that under my belt very soon as well. You’re learning what’s new in the industry and with that many of these industry certifications you’re meeting clients through there as well so they see that you’re investing in yourself and that this is your craft, it’s not just your job.
Fred Diamond: For the Sales Game Changers listening to the podcast who may not be familiar with some certifications in your space, you said you have four. Tell us what they are, brag a little bit.
Jennifer Erney: Sure, I have my CMP which is Certificate in Meeting Planning, I have my K Certified Association Sales Executive, I have my CHSE which is Certified Hospitality Sales Executive and I completed my meeting certificate series with ASAE.
Fred Diamond: Very good. What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Jennifer Erney: Since education has become very important to me again I was thinking of what is my post sales life looking like and just as that great professor helped me at Johnson and Wales I would love to teach some day and of course I would love to go back and teach at Johnson and Wales. They now have an online MBA program for hospitality so I hope I’ll have that under my belt very soon.
Fred Diamond: Once again, as a father who has put a child through Johnson and Wales I fully endorse that school, it’s been a great school. As a matter of fact, we’ve met so many people through the podcast as we’ve interviewed a whole bunch of people in the hospitality space who have gone to Johnson and Wales so if you’re listening to the podcast and one of your children are considering going there, feel free to reach out to me, I’ll give you my opinions which is very high.
Jennifer, sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your emails, why have you continued? You also mentioned some of the challenges along the way with staying current on technology and things like that but what is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?
Jennifer Erney: As we talked about the passion, you can always tell somebody who has the – excuse the expression, fire in their belly – and I come in in the morning, I subscribe to the Franklin Covey method of putting the top 5 things I need to get done that day. It’s very easy to get distracted with all of those other things but when I’ve created a hit list and there’s a customer that I know that I want to get in or there’s someone on my sales team that has not been able to open that door to have that great accomplishment to get in there, the fist pumps come out and we’re really excited to be able to make that happen.
Fred Diamond: There’s so many things that were good about today’s podcast. I really am thinking, it keeps coming back to me that you described yourself as an analytical thinker with a human touch so there’s so much power into that, especially as we listen to your passion for your industry which I’m sure continues across to the passion that you have for your members and for your customers to help them achieve their goals. Jennifer, thank you so much for being on the Sales Game Changers podcast. Why don’t you give us one final thought that you can share with the Sales Game Changers around the globe listening to the podcast today?
Jennifer Erney: First, my motto is that it takes seven touch points to make one memorable experience so don’t think that just one email is going to get you in the door or one left voicemail message or one directory or collateral that you sent through the mail. So do it often, do it thoughtfully and don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. In our business regardless of what you’re selling you do hear no as often and I think that just only builds your confidence and take it as it makes you stronger and not to be defeated, and you have to challenge yourself why you did hear no. Is it that you didn’t have the right solution to meet your needs? Did you talk only about yourself and not learn about them? At the front end and obviously if you continue to challenge yourself it will certainly pay off.