EPISODE 020: Kimpton Sales Executive Telesa Via Reveals What Leads to Exceptional Success in Hospitality Sales

EPISODE 020: Kimpton Sales Executive Telesa Via Reveals What Leads to Exceptional Success in Hospitality Sales

Telesa Via is the vice president of sales for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.

She has global responsibility for helping grow the brand’s business to corporate accounts, individuals, and associations. She runs a team that provides services all around the globe.

Telesa started her career with the Ritz-Carlton, eventually moving to the Hyatt brand and then moving to Kimpton, where she became the VP of sales in 2016.

Find Telesa on LinkedIn!

Fred Diamond: You’re the VP of sales for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants. Telesa Via, tell us what you sell today and what excites you about that.

Telesa Via: What I sell today would be hotels, and that means that it’s guest rooms, it’s meeting space, and it’s restaurants. What excites me the most is just the thrill of the sale itself. If I had to come up with my most ideal job that I would do 100% of the time, it would be getting contracts and working with customers. That’s my thrill.

Fred Diamond: Tell us the main customers Kimpton sells to.

Telesa Via: The customers will vary. We will have airline crews. We will have corporate group customers. We will have association group customers. We also have your transient customers—a company who is close by a hotel and is trying to negotiate a corporate rate where they will have their customers or their employees to stay, we’ll negotiate that. Then we’ll have people who are planning their bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, birthday party, or wedding. They will be booked in our meeting space. And then, of course, we have individuals who actually want to come and dine in our restaurants. Our salespeople would be focused in all arenas: group, transient, catering, and restaurant.

Fred Diamond: For people who aren’t familiar with the Kimpton brand, why don’t you tell us a little more about the brand, what it stands for? I know it has a very exciting history. Just give us a little more background into what the brand of Kimpton stands for.

Telesa Via: Kimpton was started by Bill Kimpton over 30 years ago. Bill Kimpton started the hotel because he had traveled internationally and really loved the boutique-size hotels. We are the first. There are many are out there who have appreciated what we have brought to the table as it relates to the community of the hotel world, but I’m proud to say that we are the first. Sometimes when people think of boutique, they think of 30 rooms. We have some hotels that are over 400 rooms… We are 66-plus strong domestically and also we are in Amsterdam and Cayman Islands.

Fred Diamond: You represent sales for the entire brand, and you just mentioned you’re now international with Cayman and Amsterdam as well.

Telesa Via: Absolutely. You’re absolutely correct.

Fred Diamond: How many people are reporting to you? How many people are in the sales organization?

Telesa Via: My goodness. If I had to count… it’s a couple of hundred.

Fred Diamond: I’d like to hear a little more as we go through the podcast today about how you manage such a large organization and some of the things you might be doing to help them grow and improve. We’ll be asking a little bit later on about some of the challenges. But let’s talk more about your career. How did you first get into sales as a career?

Telesa Via: My dad, who was in sales, introduced me to Valerie Ferguson, who at that time was the first African-American president of the Hotel and Motel Association, so a great achievement. His comment to me was, “She reminds me of you, and I’d love for you to meet her.” We talked about sales, and I, at that moment, said, “Sales is not for me.” Boy, was I so wrong, because I made it my career.

Fred Diamond: What were some of the first things you did in sales? What were some of the first sales jobs that you had?

Telesa Via: My first job in sales in the hospitality world was a transient sales manager for the Ritz- Carlton in downtown Atlanta. My responsibility included setting up contracts and corporate negotiated accounts. That would mean that Company X would sign an agreement with me, and then they would actually get their employees or their customers to use that negotiated rate to stay with us when they were in town for business and or for leisure.

Fred Diamond: Your first job in sales was at the Ritz-Carlton, which is essentially one of the gold-standard brands in hospitality. What were some of the things you learned there that you have carried on through the course of your career?

Telesa Via: One was, Ritz-Carlton has a very—“rigid” may not be the best word—a very structured program as it relates to how to answer the phone and also the presentation. It was very, I want to say scripted, and scripted is an awesome thing because at that point I was so brand-new that I needed that guidance. So what Ritz-Carlton brought to me at that time in my career was the ability to have a roadmap to be successful. Ritz-Carlton brought me that. What it did bring me in addition was the idea and the success behind building a successful strategy and/or a plan. Being very young in my career at that time, I had no idea. I had talked about it in college, things of that sort, but when you have to put the rubber on the road it becomes a different story. Ritz-Carlton brought me those two things.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk a little more about you specifically. Telesa Via, tell us what you are an expert in. Tell us a little more about the specific area of your brands.

Telesa Via: My two would be my ability to sell. It is a passion of mine. It’s something that I think is very natural, and it’s something that in my most recent days I don’t have to work hard toward because it’s a natural part of me. The other piece that I would say is building strategy. If there is an issue and if there’s a problem, that is something that I look forward to. It’s something that I’m successful with, and then also measuring the success of that strategy.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned one of your initial mentors. Tell us more about who was a specific impactful sales career mentor to you and how they impacted your career.

Telesa Via: I’m going to go a little different with the answer to that. As I mentioned to you, the person who brought me into the industry was Valerie Ferguson, and she still continues to be a mentor. As my career progressed, I actually worked with a young lady who was the GM of the Hyatt Fair Lakes. Her name is Gail Smith-Howard, and she came up on the operations side. My expertise is sales, and of course she is the general manager, so she knows a lot of everything. She’s the general conductor of that particular hotel. While sales was not her day-to-day job, because she was responsible for all facets of that organization, I was able to learn the importance of operations. If you sell it, someone has to operate it and execute it; if they don’t execute it well, then the customer is not coming back. At that point of my career, that was an eye-opener and a game changer for me to understand the nuances and how things must work from an accounting, from an operations standpoint. So while that’s not a sales response, I will just say that salespeople have to understand the nuances of the operations part because if the experience is not good, the customer does not come back.

Fred Diamond: With Kimpton Hotels, how do you prioritize your customers? Do you prioritize corporate, business-to-business, or individual or associations? I’m just curious as to how you view your customer and how you target specifically.

Telesa Via: All customers are important, I want to first and foremost say that, and each hotel has a little bit of a different life—a resort property versus a city property versus a different type of property has different nuances behind it, so I don’t know if I can give you a one-size answer. But what I will say is that what’s important is to figure out who your top potential accounts are, who’s going to give you that baseline business so that you can build repeat, because it’s less expensive to book a repeat business than it is to go out and find a new piece of business from a sales perspective.

And then, once you’ve completed that and you’ve built a strategy, then you’re going to look at what is the icing on the cake, what can I put on top of that. Let me figure out my baseline that’s going to give me the best return on investment, and then what area do I go to, to put that icing on the cake, whether that’s transient or whether it may be another form of a transient business such as FIT [free independent traveler] or retail, which is what was booked online. It varies by hotel. But the goal is “What’s your foundation?”, “What is the base business that you’re going to put on the books?” and then how are you going to manage that upwards in order to get to your 100% occupancy from a hotel’s perspective.

Fred Diamond: What specifically is it about sales that you enjoy today? Is it dealing with customers? Is it managing teams? Is it working with marketing, being in the operations side, at the C-suite table? 

Telesa Via: My priority would be with my customers. Secondly, I would say that it is the team that I work with because I can only be successful if I have a great team. And then, the third piece of that is recruiting. That is another important piece of this because if I’m not bringing in the right people then I can’t spend time with my salespeople because I don’t have the staffing to do it. Those would be my three top.

Fred Diamond: As it relates to that, Telesa Via, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?

Telesa Via: Recruiting. You can never have enough people. There is always turnover, and turnover is not necessarily a bad thing because that means people are also growing and getting promoted up, so that’s exciting. And then, my second area is marketing and working on the right marketing solution for the issue that you may be faced with.

Fred Diamond: When you say marketing, I presume Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants has a marketing organization. You have a peer, I presume, on the marketing side as well. Is it homing in on the message? Is it getting the word out? Is it getting your salespeople in sync with what the message is? What are some of the marketing challenges that you believe are the biggest challenges?

Telesa Via: To answer your question, it is all things. So we’re looking at what does a salesperson need to have so that when they’re going out to sell to the customer they have the correct information. For example, we have a sales app so that if a sales manager is meeting with the customer, we have a sales app that will take them through the 66-plus hotels that we have. If they ask a question they can actually email right then and there the information that they’re looking for.

But it’s also what’s on our website. It’s also how do we proactively market to customers that may not have been introduced to us in the past. And then the other piece of marketing could be our internal customer and how do we get them to come back. Things are so different than when I started 20 years ago. How leads come in, now we are working with systems that are more electronically based. So we have to market digitally to them, and that wasn’t the same 20 years ago.

It’s a big job. We do have representation in our team of individuals at our home office from a marketing perspective who’s responsible, but I think that it takes a team to be able to make sure that we have solidified the correct and right way. While my expertise may be in sales, theirs maybe in marketing, but we have to work together to make sure that it’s the right sale to the right customer.

Fred Diamond: I want to ask you a follow-up question about recruiting. How do you overcome that? First of all, tell us a little more about what the actual challenges. Is it hard to find people? Just tell us, in general, what is the problem with recruiting and then what are some of the things you’re trying to do to overcome that as a challenge.

Telesa Via: I had to look at recruiting as different levels. In my mind you’re looking at it as it relates to entry level, then you’re looking at it as mid-manager level, then you’re looking at as director level, and I can go on and on and on. Each of those areas will actually require a little bit different of an approach.

I’ll give you an example. We’ve been talking about how do we recruit for internships and how do we get entry-level individuals out of college. We’re building a plan so that we can work with the colleges to build that relationship so that we can get people in on an entry level. Our goal is for them to have a lifelong experience with Kimpton. We’re also looking at using a company that will assist us as well on the higher levels. That has worked, but at some times it may not be as successful for every single level. What we also work on is requiring our managers to talk to individuals, whether it is at an industry event or sitting down having dinner with someone, because we all know someone.

That has been a big focus of just having general conversations in order to make connections as it relates to recruiting. To me, recruiting is the recipe that will either make you successful or not, and if you don’t have the right ingredients in that recipe, your strategy, whether it’s marketing or sales or whatever, may be may not work. Nine times out of 10, for every single deal that comes into the company, I interview via phone or in person. That is extremely important because they’re going to be messaging my leadership and my strategy. I want to make sure that it’s good, that Kimpton is going to be great for them and vice versa, so it is extremely important and is one of my top priorities.

Fred Diamond: Telesa, you’ve had a great career of success. Take us back to the number-one specific sales success or win from your career that you’re most proud of.

Telesa Via: I’m going to have to tell you about when I actually got the opportunity to step into this role as VP of sales. I can tell you many, many stories, but as I look through the audience who may be listening to this, I think a lot of salespeople really want to hear “What is out there for me?” and “How did someone achieve their goals?” When I started I didn’t necessarily have a lot of that, so I think it’s a great opportunity for me to share that. When I started in the industry over 20 years ago, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t think that sales was for me. And then, once I got in and embraced it, I built a strategy. My goal was to be a VP of sales, so I could do so many other things.

I achieved my goals on a quarterly basis. I was creative. I built out plans. I did kick-butt site inspections to be able to get customers to select me. But this was a personal gain and a personal achievement to be able to achieve this goal. Out of all of the millions of dollars that I’ve booked as a salesperson, as a career this was the most important. Just to let you know, when I came into Kimpton, which was about nine years ago, I came in thinking, “How long am I really going to stay here?” Because I’d left Hyatt and had been with Hyatt just short of 10 years, and when I came over to Kimpton I did a shift. Hyatt and Kimpton, while they’re both great brands, they’re also different. There’s a lot of difference between the two, but both of them are great companies.

When I came over to Kimpton, I knew it was the right move for me. It was different. It was outside of my comfort zone because I was in big boxes, very different strategy, and now I was going to more boutique. I mapped out my plan thinking I was going to stay here for X number of years. Nine years later I’m still here, and I will just say that this is the best company that I have actually worked for. In mapping out my career and understanding who Kimpton is I was able to be a part of so many things that I may not have been in other companies—building strategies that I never had the opportunity to but also being able to get my feet in arenas that were brand-new to me.

When I achieved this goal of VP of sales, which was my dream 20 years ago, I accomplished so many things. One is, I think that I validated to the clients that I have booked over years that I’m a salesperson at heart. Wherever I go they come with me, which is awesome. But most importantly, I had been able to accomplish things that I put on my list. That is my best achievement, and it is the thing that will go down in the history in my life: accomplishing something that seemed so far 20 years ago but it’s here today.

Fred Diamond: Thank you so much. You’ve had a great career in sales. You’ve told us some of these successes along the way. You’re representing a world-class brand right now. Did you ever question being in sales? Was there ever a moment, Telesa Via, where you thought to yourself, “It’s just too hard. It’s just not for me”?

Telesa Via: Twenty years ago when I came into the industry, I probably said that a thousand times. But I will tell you, after I got over that first six-month period and I had the opportunity to build some contacts, also develop the mentor I felt was going to provide a roadmap for me, there has not been one time that I’ve looked back and asked myself, “Is this for me?” Since that day, six months into my job, have not turned back and looked at it anything differently than the plan that I have actually have gone through over the past 20 years.

Fred Diamond: Telesa, what is the most important thing you want to get across to selling professionals to help them improve their careers?

Telesa Via: The most important thing I would say is to find someone who is going to provide constructive feedback to them. I think what happens when you’re starting out in the industry, you want to continue to hear “You’re doing great, you’re doing great, you’re doing great,” and what happens is that may not be the way you can actually learn from your mistakes and/or areas that you may not be perfecting. While you could simply say “mentorship,” I will go a step further and say find someone that you can connect with who is always going to do a reality check and provide you with a different way of looking at things, because the one lens or the one way is not always the best way.

That is one, and I will add another one: Always continue to find avenues to advance your learning. Sometimes in a professional setting they may have areas of training, things of that sort, but not all sales companies offer that. So I would just say push yourself, go out and reach out to see what tools are out there to educate yourself on how to continue to sharpen your saw because you cannot rely 100% on the company that you work with as the only way.

Fred Diamond: You mentioned “sharpening your saw.” What are some of the things you do to stay fresh and sharpen your saw?

Telesa Via: I am constantly taking classes and continuing to stay very relevant, so that’s one thing. I also will go and look at websites of companies that are not necessarily in the hospitality industry—it could be, for example, Uber or Google or other companies that are out there—because the way that they may be doing certain things are things we should probably take a look at and see‘how would that be relative to where I am and what I’m doing.

Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?

Telesa Via: I’m going to answer this question from the standpoint of, from a business and in my role. Right now, one of the things that I am really working on is, in our world we call it group. That means that that is a contract that comes in and it has over 10 rooms on peak night. That’s our baseline business, which is what I was mentioning earlier. What we’re wanting to do is be able to expand our client familiarity in that particular arena, and we’re looking at all of the tools that are out there for us to really maximize.

We want to look at our unique visitors from a group’s perspective. We want to get into markets that we have been performing well but that we know [offer even greater] opportunity—maybe, for example, pharmaceutical, retail, etc. We want to just make sure that we’re spreading the word out there as it relates to Kimpton Hotels. We do meetings and events, and we are rock-star status in that, and we will continue through that over the next couple of years because everyone can grow.

Fred Diamond: You’ve given us some great insights, Telesa, on how people can be successful as sales professionals. But, sales is hard. People don’t return your calls or your emails. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that keeps you going?

Telesa Via: I don’t like no as an answer, so as I have moved on into my career and looking at 20 years, I could probably tell you a lot of stories, and you probably don’t have enough time to listen to all of them. But “no” means “yes” to me, and so that has allowed me to continue.

The other piece is that from a hotel’s perspective, if I’m talking to a meeting planner, they’re looking for a home. I just so happen to have the best home, in my opinion, and it’s my responsibility to sell them on why my home/hotel is the best place. That’s up to me to do it, and I don’t stop at no. It continues on until we get business from that particular account.

Fred Diamond: It’s apparent that you’re very passionate about the brand that you’re representing right now, Kimpton Hotels. One of the words that comes through on the Sales Game Changers Podcast is “passion.” You got to have the passion, the enthusiasm for what you’re selling, or else it’s going to come through to customers, obviously… Does everyone on your team have that same passion? And what if someone doesn’t: Can you teach them to be passionate, or do you have to just get them off the team?

Telesa Via: That’s a big question, and I will say that not everyone has that. Because if that’s the same, then everybody in the world would be exactly the same, and that’s not the case. I also just think that sometimes people have passion but then it may be a passion for somewhere else and another opportunity. It’s not that they don’t have passion, but the passion may not necessarily be parallel to where we are and our brand. What I will say is that as leaders it is our responsibility to work with them by doing weekly one-on-ones, doing training, to be able to help that individual, because where a person may be today doesn’t mean that they can’t be at my place 20 years from today.

There’s opportunity out there. I think that the leader and the person we’re talking about both have to be open and willing to be able to work towards it.

Fred Diamond: Give us one final thought that you would like to share with the sales game changers listening on today’s call?

Telesa Via: Give me a fish and I’ll eat for a day. Teach me how to fish and I’ll eat for a lifetime. I think that sums up, especially from a sales perspective, so many things. You can’t just be given something. You have to take the opportunity to capture it yourself.

There are opportunities are out there. There are unlimited opportunities, but it’s up to the individual how they’re going to fish.

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