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EPISODE 208: Hospitality Sales and Marketing Expert Bob Gilbert Says Getting These Insights from Customers Can Swiftly Grow Your Career and Influence
BOB’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Sales professionals will always be successful if they leverage the insights they get from customers into value for them, for their customers and for their company. Salespeople are in a unique position to leverage that knowledge to help senior management in their organizations. In the hotel industry that gives them influence and the ability to influence design and capital expenditures at hotels. Leverage that and you’re always going to position yourself well within any organization.”
Bob Gilbert is the President and CEO of the Hospitality, Sales and Marketing Association International, known as the HSMAI.
Bob can be found on LinkedIn here.
Bob Gilbert: HSMAI’s mission simply is to help hotels and their partners grow their revenue through sales, marketing and revenue optimization. That’s really what we do as an association. I’ve been here at the association for 24 years but I think something unique about me is in my 37 year hospitality career I’ve had two jobs. I worked for a hotel management company initially and then I’ve worked for the Association ever since.
Fred Diamond: Tell us a little more about the HSMAI, tell us what you offer today and tell us what excites you about that.
Bob Gilbert: We’re primarily an educational association for hotel, sales marketing and revenue management professionals around the world, but we’re also in the sales business if you think about it. The business model of nonprofit associations like HSMAI is really predicated on selling three things: we sell memberships, we sell registrations and we sell sponsorships and in nonprofit world, those are the things that really make an association happen. We bring together all of our members and their stakeholders to really talk about the issues that they’re facing in their business and that’s what associations do.
Fred Diamond: We’re broadcasting today’s show from just outside of Washington DC, it’s in Northern Virginia. As a matter of fact, Hilton’s headquarters are about maybe 500 yards away from us here today and of course, a lot of other great hotel brands like Marriott is in the area and some others as well. We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, you mentioned that you serve sales marketing and revenue. Could you tell us about each of those roles in the hospitality space and what someone does if they’re in sales, what someone does if they’re in marketing and what someone does if they’re on the revenue side?
Bob Gilbert: Absolutely, Fred. We have members around the world as well that represent hotel brands, management companies and ownership groups, those are our three primary categories of stakeholders and most of those company types will have individuals that really focus on the discipline of sales, marketing or revenue management, and as you go up in the ranks of hotel companies there’ usually SVPs, EVPs and C-level executives focused on all of those commercial services.
The sales professionals in the hotel industry typically are responsible for actually getting new business into the company or into the hotels, the marketing people are usually responsible for the branding and a lot of the loyalty programs, the public relations initiatives that are built around hotels and hotel companies, and the revenue optimization professionals are usually responsible for the analytics and the strategy driving the pricing and the distribution decisions as it relates to how business gets booked at hotels. The convergence or the interdependence on those relations in a hotel company is really vital and that’s really where HSMAI comes in as an educational source for all of those disciplines.
Fred Diamond: I’m excited to talk to you from the two perspectives, from being in sales from an association. We’ve got a handful of people on the Sales Game Changers podcast that are also curious about some of the challenges facing your members as well and things that they’re dealing with today because again, we have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe. Tell us a little more about the HSMAI and what do you physically offer your members? What do you physically do to bring in sales for your organization?
Bob Gilbert: It’s interesting you talk about some of the challenges that the industry is facing. HSMAI has actually been around for 90 years. When the association was founded in 1927, the big topic then was talking about the ethics and convention sales promotion and how sales professionals needed to step up their game in terms of bringing group business into hotels. For the last 5 to 10 years, the major issues that our members are dealing with have really all had to do with the online marketplace. How do you manage distribution, how do you manage the intermediaries that are in the space whether it’s for a piece of group business that’s coming to a hotel or whether it’s the advent of the online travel agencies that now a lot of consumers use to book their business online? Or whether it’s even the major search engines like Google and the meta search engines that have really changed the game in terms of the shopping funnels for consumers looking for a hotel.
Some of the specific things that we do, we have strategy conferences, we have a portfolio of executive round tables that we produce for C-level executives and marketing and sales and revenue optimization and loyalty. We also have certification programs in the areas of digital marketing and in revenue optimization as well as business acumen, we also have certification programs for students and hospitality schools around the world that really make them ready to go directly into the hotel industry. That helps address one of the talent challenges that’s facing our industry like many others. There’s a variety of things we do, but I think the biggest thing is we have three signature strategy conferences: one in sales, one in marketing, one in revenue optimization and we do these regionally around the globe. You find them here in the Americas region, Europe, Middle East and the Asia pack and that’s really where the industry convenes to talk about the issues that’s keeping them up at night and be educated on the latest trends that are going to help them be more successful in their jobs.
Fred Diamond: Just curiously, again we have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, most of our listeners are in the sales space. You mentioned that you service the sales, the marketing and the revenue management side – are those three distinct professions? Do people jump back and forth, potentially or you’re in revenue management, you’re in marketing or you’re in sales?
Bob Gilbert: We address them from an education perspective as three very distinctly unique disciplines and we really respect the science of each discipline, but the second part of your question is spot on. There is a lot of convergence between those disciplines and people do go back and forth across the disciplines or in a career path in any of our members we may see individuals that cross over from hotel sales to destination marketing organization sales or another sector of the hospitality traveler tourism industry. It’s a massive industry so there’s a lot of cross pollination and a lot of those skill sets are portable, so people can take sales, marketing or revenue optimization skills to another hospitality industry vertical, that works as well. We see both, people staying in that discipline as well as moving across the disciplines or staying in the discipline and going to another industry.
Fred Diamond: How about you, how did you first get into sales as a career? Again, you’ve been running this organization for 24 years so like you said in the very beginning, you’re in sales. You’re trying to get members and you’re trying to get sponsors and things like that so tell us about you, how did you first into sales as a career?
Bob Gilbert: I first started in sales, actually. I went to hotel school as did Frank and my of the people that get into the industry. There are hundreds of hospitality schools in colleges around the globe, I’m a graduate of one of those and during my summers I spent exploring different career opportunities within hotels whether it was food and beverage or marketing or sales. I found my calling in sales, I think the epiphany moment for me was when I realized that the salespeople are really the individuals that are #1 closest to the customer and #2, it’s where the revenue comes in the business. If you have those two attributes or you’re a specialist in those two attributes, everybody pays attention to you and you’re always going to be at the frontline of wherever the industry trend is going. That really captivated my attention and I had a variety of sales and marketing positions with this hotel management company I was with and then I crossed over to the association world basically doing the same thing I was doing in the hotel business but now doing it for the industry at large.
Fred Diamond: What were some of the key lessons that you took away from some of your first few sales jobs?
Bob Gilbert: I think there was a number of lessons. One is always ask a lot of questions and two is be persistent. Those are the two things that stand out in my mind. I think good sales professionals are the ones that are good listeners and they can really understand what a customer is telling them, and making sure they’re aligning those customer needs and expectations with what it is they can deliver. In the hotel business we’re selling a service, we’re not selling a product so that service is really the promise to deliver and you have to really understand the customer needs at a significant level of detail. Sometimes those needs are very complex to be able to be a good, trustworthy salesperson.
Fred Diamond: Again, you represent the hospitality marketplace. What would you tell someone who’s thinking about going into a career of sales and they’re considering multiple things? Brands, food-beverage, hospitality. Why would you encourage someone to go into the hospitality space if they want to be successful in sales?
Bob Gilbert: I think if they want to be successful, hospitality is such a wide open industry, it’s massive, it’s growing globally at a very significant pace. There’s a societal trend that we’re seeing globally where people feel they have this right to travel and everybody wants to travel so the demand for travel will continue to be high for a significant period of time. That’s almost in spite of any economic waves we see around the globe, people are still traveling so the opportunity to be a sales specialist in an industry that continues to grow is huge. Also, it’s not just hotels that are part of that whole travel and hospitality sector, you think about the breadth and depth of the travel industry, it’s hotels and airlines and marketing companies and cruise lines and destination marketing organizations and travel agencies. There are so many sales skill sets that are portable across all these industry verticals and you can find them in basically any market. It gives any individual that wants the autonomy in a career path that sustainable but also wants to go anywhere geographically in the world. It’s the best of both worlds.
Fred Diamond: You’ve interfaced with tens of thousands of sales professionals, I’m going to guess, in the hospitality space. We have Sales Game Changers listening around the globe, they’re thinking about possibly moving into other careers or pursuing different types of sales, different types of industries. What are some of the characteristics or attributes of the great sales professionals that you’ve seen in the hospitality space? What are some of the personal characteristics that they have? Again, you mentioned asking questions and persistence but what are some other things that you’ve seen that would make someone really good to be in sales in the hospitality space?
Bob Gilbert: It’s a great question, Fred. It’s interesting, so many people that are doing a job search, the #1 thing they say is, “I want to be in the industry because I like people.” That’s such an overused colloquialism in the hotel industry, but the reality is you’ve got to have the persistence and the personality that’s going to be outgoing and forthright in terms of your drive. If you’re going to bring in business for your company, you’ve got to be a self-starter, there’s no question about it, that’s one of the key attributes that anybody needs to be successful in sales in this industry or otherwise. This is not a passive keyboard based type of a data entry job, if you will, somebody has to have the drive, they’ve got to have the willingness to go out and talk to people, understand their needs, be really good at questioning, really good at listening. Those are the people that can really take the information they’re cleaning from all the different people they’re talking to and convert that into business for their hotel or their hotel company.
Fred Diamond: Bob, tell us what you’re an expert in, tell us about your specific area of expertise.
Bob Gilbert: I would say there’s a couple different areas that stand out from both my hotel career as well as my association career. I’d say one would just be persistence because if something doesn’t work the first time then keep on trying. I think the other thing is the ability to be a strategic planner. In the association world you’re always selling but you’re asking questions, in my case to our board of directors in terms of really defining the direction of the organization. My role as the staff exec, you’re really the facilitator of taking all these insights from these leaders that serve in governing positions for the association and convert that into a direction for the association.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve been running this organization for 24 years, you were in sales before that, you must have come across some great mentors along the way. Why don’t you tell us about an impactful sales career mentor or two that have really helped you take your career to the next level?
Bob Gilbert: Listeners are probably going to laugh when I say this, but early in my career I listened to tapes. Remember the old days of cassette tapes? I remember people like Brian Tracy and Zig Ziglar. I had a boss who also was one of my mentors, he always gave us the tapes, “Listen to these in your car, listen to them on the way to work.” Now, of course it’s all podcasts, right? But in the olden days that’s what we did and those are some of the people that I remember well and sometimes names like that would come and speak at our sales conferences at our company and those were all inspirational and we learned.
In the hotel industry there was a gentleman early on by the name of Tom McCarthy who was actually a past President of HSMAI and I saw him do a number of training programs a years ago. Tom was one of the hotel sales icons, if you will, back in the 1970s in the hotel industry and was a Senior Exec at Marriott for many years before he started his own training company. Tom has been a mentor to thousands over the last number of decades in the hotel industry. Then there’s a couple of bosses I’ve had along the way that certainly have left their lasting impression on things that I learned from them.
Fred Diamond: What do hotels sell? What are some of the main things that someone who’s in sales for a hotel either for a great facility or for the entire brand, what are some of the things that they physically sell that help generate revenue for hotels? Just put in a little context for the listeners.
Bob Gilbert: The #1 way to think of what a hotel has to sell is who buys and what’s the purpose of the trip. Ultimately the hotel is selling a guest experience, the biggest revenue stream for most hotels and hotel companies is rooms and rooms are bought by three different buckets. It’s either meetings and convention business, there’s business travelers or there’s leisure business. If you’re a salesperson in one of those three markets or you’re a director of sales for all those markets, basically you’re going to be a subject matter expert in all the different sources of business that drive business in those three primary types. I’m generalizing because there are multiple channels but typically, business for hotels is generated through groups, leisure or meetings and conventions.
Outside of guest rooms, then you have all source of ancillary services whether it’s banquet, food and beverage, your restaurants, your spa, your golf. When you get to the resort business in many cases the golf and spa and food and beverage business represents as much revenue as the rooms business does. Really you’re selling on a contracted basis or on transaction basis the promise to deliver an experience at the hotel or within the hotel company.
Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about some of the challenges. What are the two biggest challenges that you face as a sales leader?
Bob Gilbert: I think the biggest challenge that sales leaders are facing right now is really the intermediation and this is happening across all the disciplines that we work with in sales and marketing and revenue optimization. Certainly we all live in an online world today and have for the last 20 years at least, but the implications of the online marketplace have really changed the role so sales leaders have had to adapt to what that means. If there’s now an intermediary between you and the meeting planner or if there’s an online travel agency that the consumer is shopping at before they call you directly, that changes where you are connecting with customers in the sales funnel. What started that customer journey, do you begin to connect with what we consider a prospect or a lead? Some are delivered right to your door but it may not be the highest quality lead that you always wanted. Depending upon what your market is and where you are in the company, it depends on where you’re going to work in that sales funnel. Where we work in the funnel has changed dramatically because a lot of the times the online industry now is delivering it to you. Good examples of even what Google and meta search companies have done for leisure travelers and business travelers, it’s significantly different how they buy and how they shop for hotels than they did even 10 years ago.
Fred Diamond: How about for you, just curiously? You’re running a large association here where you service the hospitality marketplace, what’s the biggest challenge that you face as the sales leader of this organization?
Bob Gilbert: I think the biggest challenge that we face as an association is not unique to HSMAI, it really has to do with business in general today. It’s really the time poverty that so many of our members around the world have, everybody is super busy as there’s more and more pressure put on individuals from their companies, their ownership groups and people have more and more responsibility sometimes with the same or even less resources. Our members are constantly dealing in a state of change, it could be a merger and acquisition that has implications on their company, it could be merger and acquisitions of their customers but there’s a huge amount of pressure to stay on top of every single issue that’s changing up to the minute because it may have an implication on your ability to convert a piece of business or actually perform or bring value to your business.
Fred Diamond: What’s the greatest sales success or win from your career you’re most proud of?
Bob Gilbert: I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made here at HSMAI during the tenure I’ve been here. We’ve been through probably three major reorganizations of the association, most recently within the last 5 years we’ve totally changed the mix of membership where today 62% of our members come from the corporate offices of hotel brands, management companies and ownership groups. 20 to 25 years ago our primary point of contact and our point of relevance used to be for the individual at the hotel unit level.
Now we still have a lot of members from the unit level that have a fantastic chapter infrastructure around the world, but that’s primarily where those hotel sales professionals at individual hotels engage. The value proposition we’ve been able to create in the last 5 to 10 years has really been at the corporate office in addition to the unit level and that’s really been a game changer for us, if you will.
Fred Diamond: I’m just curious also, before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, now there are so many different layers of hotels and most of the brands compete at the very basic level and of course the high end level. I was looking at probably a company that’s one of your members and I was looking at their brands not too long ago. It was almost like 15 different brands of hotels, is that a challenge for the industry as well where a customer may not understand the differentiation between the various levels but the hotel company is trying to market different levels specifically to different types of customers?
Bob Gilbert: That’s a great question, Fred. Internally and externally that’s called brand proliferation. The brand extensions that may of the big global brands now, it’s more than 15, you may have 30. I think the largest global brand has 36 different sub brands in their portfolio but I think the strategy there is really how they leverage all their consumers across to all their brands, how they tie them together through a loyalty program.
At the end of the day the major brands are looking to move market share and they can do that through their loyalty programs across to all brands, but what that also does is it gives the consumer the ability to pick from within a family of a global brand based upon the purpose of the trip. If you’re taking your daughter to college in a tertiary village where you just need to select service property for one night versus where you’re going to go on your wedding anniversary, big celebration, high end luxury resort, versus when you need a practical commercial hotel on a business trip and a major market. You may be able to have three very different trip experiences and three very different product types but all within one global brand.
That’s ultimately what the big brands are looking for. The other in the spectrum, you’ve got a phenomenal option of independent and boutique hotels that can also provide a fantastic experience. The wonderful thing the internet does is it created a level playing field for all of them from the sales and marketing perspective.
Fred Diamond: Before we take a short break and listen to one of our sponsors, did you ever question being in sales? Again, you run the Hospitality, Sales and Marketing Association International. Did you ever say to yourself, “You know what? It’s too hard, it’s really just not for me”?
Bob Gilbert: Never. I think it’s a function of what makes the world go round. There’s an old adage, nothing happens till somebody sells something so as long as you want to be at the top of that funnel and you want to keep moving forward, somebody’s got to start selling something somewhere.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’ve probably stayed in thousands of hotels. I also travel a lot as well and for the major brands, the one thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of years is that the quality has really improved dramatically. Is that because of the nature of the competition, because there’s so much competing properties now? It just seems that at the most of the major brands I hardly ever see flaws from the front desk to the room to the restaurants.
Bob Gilbert: You’re right, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure for competition these days, no question about it but I think it also speaks to the fact that there’s that critical need to have that brand differentiation so that you know what’s brand A versus brand B versus brand C. Certainly the amount of time hotel companies spend on their design and their brand standards and their construction and their employee service training, all those are critical attributes to being successful today.
Fred Diamond: Bob, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to the selling professionals listening around the globe to help them take their careers to the next level?
Bob Gilbert: I would say to get to the next level, be persistent and be at the top of your game all the time. If you’re thinking about changing industries or you’re looking for a job or you feel like you’re a little bit in a rut, get some experience, always be asking questions, always be putting your best foot forward, always make time for prospecting, always find one or two mentors. It’s a variety of things, depending upon the situation that you’re in and what you’re looking for that may be a path forward for you, but it never hurts to get a mentor and some outside perspective. That’s going to give you some candid and objective feedback on what your strengths and weaknesses are.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about one of your selling habits that has led to your continued success?
Bob Gilbert: I tend to probe all the time. I’m clearly always asking questions to learn about different perspectives whether it’s direct or indirectly related to what I’m trying to sell, it gives me more insights and enables you to develop a relationship, and I think through relationships is how you build trust. At the end of the day, if you don’t have trust you’re never going to be able to move forward.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you tell us about a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Bob Gilbert: I think one of the initiatives we’re working on is a major re-envisioning project for a portfolio of assets that the association has. We have assets that have programs and conferences and events that we’ve run in some cases for decades. I think the ability to re-envision how do you always keep them fresh, how do you keep them growing and how you throw it off the competition that may be there requires us always to think differently about how we produce those events.
In one particular case we’ve got six assets and we’ve put together virtual focus groups for each asset, asked a lot of questions, we’re now in the process of digesting all that input and out of that we’ll be coming up with recommendations and solutions for how to continually tweak those assets to make sure we stay at the top of our game.
Fred Diamond: Bob, you’ve given us some great insights today, a lot of great ideas for selling professionals on how they can be successful. Before I ask you for your final thought, sales is hard. We talked about a lot of the challenges, you even started off the conversation talking about how hard it is to find great people to move into sales. That’s been one of the key themes of the Sales Game Changers podcast over the 200+ interviews that we’ve done, the challenges that sales leaders face and acquiring, retaining, motivating and elevating top tier talent. As a matter of fact, we alluded to Frank Passanante over at Hilton, when I asked him that question, “What are the two biggest challenges you face as a sales leader?” he said, “Everybody is faced with hiring and retaining and motivating great talent” so it’s table stakes today. Sales is hard and we talked about some of the challenges that are facing your particular industry, the hospitality industry. People don’t return your phone calls or your emails, you talked about time poverty. Why have you continued? What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Bob Gilbert: It’s interesting, I used to have a boss that gave the analogy that no matter what the hotel type is, there’s always a customer for everybody and I still believe that. I believe that prospecting is ultimately the key attribute that will keep anybody moving forward and being successful. There is a customer for everything and for everybody, it’s just a matter of if you have the right prospect list and you’re persistent about prospecting the right list, you will find the right customer for whatever it is you have that you’re selling. That’s where that persistence and that questioning come into play from my perspective. If you think it’s hard, it is hard but that prospecting is what will differentiate you from the pack in terms of all your other peers out there and when you get the wins, celebrate the wins from the prospecting.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us a final thought to inspire out listeners around the globe today?
Bob Gilbert: I would say sales professionals will always be successful if they leverage the insights they get from customers into value for them, for their customers and for their company. I think salespeople are in a unique position to really leverage that knowledge to more senior management in their organizations. In the hotel industry that gives them influence and the ability to influence design and capital expenditures at hotels because they have direct insight from the customers. Leverage that and you’re always going to position yourself well within any organization.
Fred Diamond: That’s a great point, particularly in your industry you’re always dealing with customers. They’re not remote, they’re not somewhere in procurement, deep in some office somewhere, you’re dealing face to face, you’re also delivering the product, like you said, once it’s sold. Bob, I want to thank you again. Do you want to say something else?
Bob Gilbert: I was just going to say, every organization that you work for needs to have a constant communication stream to the top of all this customer behavior, preferences and trends. Without this, companies cannot evolve and grow and I think sales is a critical piece of that whole process.