EPISODE 662: Sales Success Ideas from IES 2024 Women in Sales Leadership Award Winner Gerilyn Horan from Hilton

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Today’s show featured an interview with Gerilyn Horan, Vice President Group Sales & Strategic Accounts at Hilton. She is the Institute for Excellence in Sales Women in Sales Leadership Award recipient for 2024. Learn more here.

Find Gerilyn on LinkedIn.

GERILYN’S ADVICE:  “Ask for the business. I think we have to be very intentional about that this is why we’re here, we want this partnership. But that also, it should be a partnership. In any engagement, it’s not just we’re going to give and do and give and do. There should be a little bit of the what’s in it for us? As for the business, understand that the customer understands you’re committed and this is what you want, but that it is a two-way street, a strategic partnership, and there should also be some win in it just beyond that transaction for you and your company. When there’s skin in the game on both sides, it changes the dynamics of the relationship I think in a positive way, that is meaningful.”


Gina Stracuzzi: Hi, everyone. I am interviewing the 2024 Awardee of Women in Sales Leadership, Gerilyn Horan. Gerilyn is VP of group sales and strategic accounts. As always, I like my guests to tell you in their own words a little bit about themselves. Gerilyn, take it away and welcome.

Gerilyn Horan: Hi, Gina. Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be back with you and I’m so honored to receive this award this year. I appreciate the recognition. Gerilyn Horan, Vice President Group Sales and Strategic Accounts at Hilton. I have the good fortune to lead our global sales organizations. Part of the business that works with our large enterprise customers in that space, have been doing this for probably three to four decades now. I have just an amazing career, work with some fantastic people, with some incredible brands, and have gotten to travel the world. It’s been a good gig.

Gina Stracuzzi: Let’s talk a little bit about how you got here and what you think are some of the best qualities that you brought to your career, maybe your trademark approach that got you to where you’re now being recognized as the Women in Sales Leader for 2024.

Gerilyn Horan: I thought about this question. I think one of the things that just came to me first off was just connecting with people. I like to, before I start working with someone in a business environment, just connect with them person to person and make some personal connection. I think I have a general curiosity about people, and I like to know them. I like to understand them and ask questions. I think that’s probably helped me establish some connections that have made the business side of the business a bit easier. I think that also goes with just approachability, the ability to put people at ease and so they feel comfortable and safe in the conversation that you’re going to be having.

On that conversation, I think one of the other important things is just to always be curious, and back to I do have a natural curiosity about things in people. That leads you to hopefully ask a lot of questions, ask good questions so that you can understand what it is that’s important to your customer, what they’re looking for. Most importantly, then listen. I know that’s hard for a lot of us salespeople. We get excited about our products and we want to start talking about what we can do. The most important thing is just to listen and hear everything you need to hear before you start trying to solution because you can miss some good tidbits and good things you should know.

Gina Stracuzzi: I think we are all getting just horribly bad at being present. Even if we have our phones turned off, we can feel them vibrating. Your mind’s just gone.

Gerilyn Horan: Honestly, the attention span. They’ve said our attention span has got whittled down to something like seven seconds, something horrible.

Gina Stracuzzi: I think it might even be less than that now. It’s just pathetic. Talk to us a little bit about what’s happening in your sales organization at this point. What are some of the biggest issues that you’re trying to solve and weave that into what you’re doing to attract and retain women?

Gerilyn Horan: Well, I have to say, we are very fortunate in that Hilton is literally a great place to work. In 2023, Fortune and Great Place to Work recognized us as the number one place to work in the world, as well as the number one place to work for women in the United States. That’s pretty incredible. There’s obviously reasons behind that that have created lots of opportunity for us. But what’s happening with us today? I think the truth is, I have such a stable team. We have very little turnover. I think for me, it’s looking for opportunities to continue to keep the team engaged, excited, motivated, learning, and growing, and we have so many opportunities to do that.

Obviously as a hotel company, we have new hotels opening every day. Like the Signia Atlanta, the Conrad Orlando, we just acquired Graduate Hotels. We’ve got a lot of new product, if you will, that keeps things exciting. But I think the biggest challenge is probably just continuing to figure out how to manage the influx of business, because things are very busy right now, which is great, and maintain a work-life balance as there’s a lot in play and we’re a team of high achievers who want to succeed. How do we continue to look for ways to help the team manage their workload, truly disconnect when on PTO and thrive? Because that needs to happen for them to be effective not only in their home life, but at work. I think that’s something we work hard on.

Gina Stracuzzi: I can tell you that you are an anomaly. Hilton is an anomaly, and your particular team, in retaining people. It’s really getting to be a thorn in the side of employers that it’s really hard to hang on to people now, and women leave for a variety of reasons. Good on you and congratulations. That says a lot to your leadership and a lot to the company.

Let’s talk a little bit about some of the challenges and opportunities you see. You’ve got a number of new properties and new brands coming on the market. I see things all the time and I’m intrigued. What are some of the challenges and opportunities that you’re seeing in this market, in this industry?

Gerilyn Horan: Well, first of all, it’s getting the team up to speed on all the new product. Because we’ve got to be able to articulate it and share that with our customers and find the matches where we know who has what opportunities for what hotels and make sure that we connect those dots. Obviously more responsibility for the team, but again, opportunity for fulfilling needs for customers. It’s nice when you’ve got a large portfolio and there’s something for everyone. That means that no matter what travel or in this case meeting or event they’re doing, hopefully we have a product so that we can continue to serve them from A to Z, whatever their needs are. That’s a really nice place to be.

Gina Stracuzzi: Because most of our listeners are in the B2B space in big corporate enterprise sales to a large degree, how do you go about getting those big clients? Is that something that you work on, your team works on, and talk to us a little bit about that, because that’s something we don’t get to hear about very often. We hear about a lot of public sector stuff and big tech sales and enterprise sales, but we don’t hear about going after those clients from this standpoint.

Gerilyn Horan: The teams that I work with are all working with our large B2B enterprise customers, and they could be in the corporate sector, which we then parcel out by vertical. Pharmaceutical, finance, insurance, tech, that sort of thing. We work with specialty markets, so that’s I think sports and entertainment. All the sports leagues and all the teams within them, amateur sports, that’s huge business, et cetera. These teams have a roster of accounts that they manage. They are not actually proactively looking for new business. We have a business development team that does that, and so finds any new opportunities, grows up those accounts. When they’re ready, they will then be transitioned up to one of the team members on my team to manage them.

We really think of ourselves as not only transactionally obviously working with them to book meetings and events and business travel. But we think of ourselves as a true trusted advisor. We have shared goals and objectives with them. We understand what it is they’re looking for and what they need to do over the course of the year with their travel program. How can we support that? Again, mutual goals. We think of ourselves as thought leaders, so helping them understand things that are happening within our segment, our industry, the business, so they can more intelligently speak to their stakeholders about the travel sector and hotels and why things are the way they are today. Many of the challenges today are rising costs. Rates have gone up, food and beverage has got up, labor’s got up, and so how can they explain that to their stakeholders? Those meeting hosts, we try to help them with education and things to help soften that or explain the situation of the market today.

Gina Stracuzzi: As somebody who uses the hotels increasingly, it does hit you that the costs have gone up. It’s funny, because you can see it in the grocery store and you can see it when you go out and shop, and yet you still want the same price in your hotel room that you had five years ago.

Gerilyn Horan: Gina, welcome to my world, how do we fix that? But that is the works though. We talk about the rise in food costs, the energy costs have gone up. When COVID hit, many of our team members had to go to other industries because we were shut down for 18 months or a year, whatever it was. Having to attract people back to our industry in some cases caused the need for increase in salaries. Everything has gone up. When you look at it in the aggregate, the rates have gone up and what hits the bottom line of the hotel, it is a very minute amount of that. They still have to put money into the assets and make sure that they are up to speed and renovated. But I think when we can explain those things in a way that people understand, it’s like, “All right, I get it. I might not like the fact that my rate has gone up X, but I understand. From a business perspective, I understand.”

Gina Stracuzzi: That comes down to building those relationships that you started with, because when you have them, then you can have those conversations versus someone who just goes online and checks it and gets frustrated and leaves.

You forayed into my next question nicely in that what else has changed over the last four years for your industry?

Gerilyn Horan: So much, and it’s crazy to think it’s four years already. I would say the biggest thing that has come out of it, which sometimes when bad things happen, good things come out of it, I would say that we are a much more nimble adaptable sales organization than we were before. Our CEO’s used the term before, and I love it, scrappy, when we had to make some major changes and pivots and there was hardly any business to be found. Everything that was happening with COVID, we knew there had to be some opportunity, people that were going to need hotel rooms. They weren’t going to be the typical people we were talking to. Think about universities were suddenly needing rooms where they could house students who couldn’t be in quads and doubles anymore. We had a team that started calling up all the universities and we started thinking about the vaccine supply chain and how would that potentially have demand for hotel rooms, and National Guard setting up tent hospitals.

We became very nimble and adaptable at that time. That has really carried on well into even what we’re doing today. We are constantly looking at our segments, our account rosters, and who’s performing and who’s not, and do we have the right deployment in the right places, or should we over-index somewhere else if we see that the demand is speaking to us in a way now that it wasn’t before. There has been a lot of reshuffling in terms of the way different industries and different segments have come back to their hotel usage. We’ve had to adjust there. It’s been really fascinating to do that. The team’s been just great and nimble. I would say that’s the biggest change.

Gina Stracuzzi: I love that you’ve taken those lessons and applied them moving forward, because we all found stuff in ourselves, I think, and in our companies, that if we’re just presented with it let’s say five years ago, we’d be like, “No, we can’t do that.” Yet when faced with, “Well, you either do or you die,” it’s amazing you come out of it. I love that you’ve carried on with those things.

Your industry’s a little bit different than tech sales, which is predominantly male dominated. I would think in your industry that women probably excel at these kinds of sales. Are there challenges that you see for women now that weren’t there before, or if you don’t see any challenges, what do you see as the biggest opportunities for them?

Gerilyn Horan: We’re really fortunate, I have to say, our industry across the board, whether you are a travel manager in a Fortune 100 company or in our hotel world, we are over 50% women, I think, at Hilton. I think in our management level, we’re about split. We’re very fortunate. I do think though we still have room to grow and there’s work to be done, is the further up the pipe you get, there does seem to still be fewer women in the very senior roles. I think it has changed dramatically just during the case of my career, which is great. There are fewer obstacles but I think there are still some that are self-imposed.

I think some women just don’t have maybe the confidence or whatever to be as vocal and purposeful about their career as sometimes men can be. If women choose to have children, that puts a point on it that requires some change and adaptability and sometimes can put us on a path that might take a little longer then to get to that next role. I think some of those things are still in play. But I think companies are doing a much better job, and I know Hilton is, on helping women manage those responsibilities, showing flexibility, working with them on their timeline of growth.

If today you’re comfortable in the role you’re in because you can manage that in your family, but you aspire to be a leader, just not today, fine. Then we’ll carry on and figure out how to keep you engaged and happy until you’re ready. When you’re ready, we’ll be ready. I think it’s really a lot of that, just working closely with our team members to help them and give them the space to grow with some of the things that can get in the way.

Gina Stracuzzi: That comes up in the Women in Sales Leadership Forum, that some of your women have gone through. It is that raising your hand, letting your aspirations be known. That is probably one of the biggest challenges for women, is we hold back saying it out loud. You and I have had that conversation before. It’s just unfortunate because people can’t read your mind. Your point is so well taken, Gerilyn, that it’s okay to say, “Not at this time, but keep me at the top of the list because I do want this.” That comes for different reasons. As you say, it might be child-rearing, it might be caring for an elderly parent. It could be anything. But even that part sometimes comes hard for women, that I can’t right now, but I still want. Those are words that are very hard for a lot of women to say.

Gerilyn Horan: Well, I think because in a lot of cases you want. I know for me, when I made that decision to step back a bit for a few years while my son was small, it was a really hard decision, because I’m a career-oriented person, I’m competitive. So much of my identity is what I do for business. It was really hard to say, “No, I’m going to sit for a while in this particular role because it’s easier and I’m not going to continue to look for that next opportunity and continue to grow.” It’s hard if you’re a certain type, but everybody makes the decision that’s right for them. That was the right decision for me, and I’m glad I made it when I made it. But it’s not often an easy one.

Gina Stracuzzi: Now that you’re at the pinnacle of your career and still going, what advice would you give women who are coming into the sales profession or just starting their career in sales?

Gerilyn Horan: The first thing that comes to mind is to believe in or at least like what you’re selling. You can sell anything, from computers, to makeup, to hotel rooms. Having an interest in or an affinity for your product, I think your clients will see that. They’ll see your authenticity. They’ll see if you really believe in what you’re selling and that’ll contribute to your success. I never planned a career in sales. I got into hotels and I loved the environment. I loved the hotels, I loved the business, I loved everything about it. When I got into the sales side of it, it was a natural fit, it was an easy progression. I’m sure that probably shined through as I got into the sales role.

I would say whenever you’re getting into a sales situation, always do your homework on your customer. Early on I can remember making a couple of mistakes. There’s one, it was horrible, I went into a pharmaceutical company and I was like, “Any new drugs coming out?” They had just recently released what was one of the biggest drugs at the time that was all over every newspaper. I was mortified. That was a very big learning experience. I never did that again.

Make sure that you do your homework on your customer, you know them, because they appreciate that, they feel valued then if they know you’ve taken the time to get to know them. Prep for your meetings, always make sure that you’re taking the time to make sure you’re clear on your objectives, your agenda, if there’s anything you want to send them in advance to understand. But you can never be over-prepped. I just think just know that you’re in the room, whatever room it is, because you’ve earned the right to be there. Own that. Be confident.

Gina Stracuzzi: Have you noticed a change in over the last 10 years of the level of desire to get into senior management of women? Or has it remained the same and it’s just more visible now?

Gerilyn Horan: On my team, I think I know all the women who have a desire to be in management, either who aren’t in management yet and want to be, or who are in management and want to continue to grow. I think that’s really important for a business leader to understand that, because obviously we’re all thinking about succession planning and making sure we’ve got a good bench. Plus, it’s important to know what your team members are aspiring to and then how do you help them get there? What is the work to be done between today and when they’re going to be a leader, because everybody’s got their gaps and we all have our things we’re good at and the things we’re probably not as good at. The further along you go, the more you have to at least have a good working knowledge of most parts of the business.

I think understanding who they are, and they’re vocal about it, which I think is great, because that’s something I think is part of the problem. Then making sure we’re doing what we can do and there’s a plan. Our team all have development plans where we talk about those sorts of things. Is it more education you need? Is it an outside coach? Is it people you need to know, what is it that we can do to help smooth the path for future advancement?

Gina Stracuzzi: That takes me into a question, because this comes up in the forum quite often, and I’m sure you’ve come across these kinds of bosses in your own history and maybe you even have some peers that are less than open to people’s aspirations. What advice would you give someone who doesn’t feel like their immediate boss is really open to knowing what they want? Or even we’ve had some women who have bosses who really seem to do everything in their power to make sure they don’t get seen as leadership material. What advice would you give for difficult bosses?

Gerilyn Horan: Work around them. Sometimes there’s the, whether it’s a personality thing or who knows what it could be, but I think then you have to find other allies or other mentors. My leadership team, women and men on my team, are really good at mentoring other people in the business. Whether it’s some of our hotel partners, sales partners, or people in other parts of commercial that want to be in Hilton Worldwide sales, they will mentor and/or advocate for them. I would say don’t let one person be a block to your career. Find people that can also help you to move along, but in a mentorship or a sponsorship role as an ally. There’s always HR. They’re there for guidance and support. Ask for their guidance. But don’t let that stop you.

Gina Stracuzzi: Is there one pivotal moment in your career that you think really put you on this path where you are now and getting recognized for all that you’ve accomplished?

Gerilyn Horan: It’s so funny. It was a long time ago. It was early in my career and I had been in sales maybe a year or so. I was very new and I stumbled upon a massive opportunity for a hotel. I literally stumbled upon it. It was going to add 11 occupancy points to the hotel that year, which is huge. It was a long process and we reeled it in. I remember going through that whole process, first big presentation, and we got the whole team together. We got every department involved and it was great. We loved the customer and the whole thing just came together and I was so proud of myself, but I really stumbled about it.

The way the team came together to win this opportunity for the hotel to make such a difference, and I just thought, “This is it. I’m done. I am in and this is what I want to do.” I really respected my director of sales at the time, who was really running things because I was so new, and learned so much there and thought, “I want to go that route, and I want to be that person to help grow these younger people like me who catch a whale and don’t know what to do with it.”

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, you get that juice from the first big thing you do. It is electrifying.

Gerilyn Horan: It was. It was big. When I still think about it, I’m like, “That was amazing.”

Gina Stracuzzi: I remember mine too. Before we end, we always like to ask our guests for one final action step, something that those in sales can put into action today, or perhaps first thing tomorrow, or whatever time they’re listening to this, to take their careers to the next level.

Gerilyn Horan: One of the things I would say is, and it’s going to sound cheesy I think, but ask for the business. I think a lot of times sometimes, especially when we’re very relationship-driven, not that we don’t ask for it, but I think we have to be very intentional about that this is why we’re here, we want this partnership. But that also, it should be a partnership. In any engagement, it’s not just we’re going to give and do and give and do. It’s also there should be a little bit of the what’s in it for us? As for the business, understand that the customer understands you’re committed and this is what you want, but that it is a two-way street, a strategic partnership, and there should also be some win in it just beyond that transaction for you and your company. Because I feel like when there’s skin in the game on both sides, it changes the dynamics of the relationship I think in a positive way, that is meaningful.

Gina Stracuzzi: For what Fred and I do with the institute, we very much feel that way. We’re selling what we do, but we are helping companies become stronger sales units by helping them attract, retain, elevate, and motivate their top tier sales talents. It’s not for nothing. It is great advice and it’s something that we should all put up on our screens and carry in our day planners, that ask for the sale. Because sometimes you do forget. You get so wrapped up in the conversation, especially if you have those good relationships, it can be easy to forget to ask.

Gerilyn Horan: Also, I would say back again to the be curious, continue to ask questions all the time, because I think sometimes that can happen when you do have a very good relationship. You just think, “They’ll tell me when something happens,” but not necessarily. They might not think about it, so you do. Even when you have those deep, long, strong partnerships, we need to continue to be curious and ask questions and make sure we understand where they are today. Again, what are they working on? What’s keeping them up at night? What are their pain points? Anything changing with their org? Whatever the questions are. That’s the one thing I have seen happen. It’s just you’re comfortable. It’s almost like you’re talking to a friend and you’ve got to remember that there’s got to be curiosity and continuing to learn.

Gina Stracuzzi: A great way to end it. Thank you very much, Gerilyn, for coming on the program. We are so looking forward to celebrating your achievements on May 17th. I hope everyone that’s listening can join us. Thanks everyone.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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