Tamara Laster is in the hospitality business — as in, figuring out how the business of hospitality works. Newly promoted to vice president of global sales strategy for IHG, she started her career outside hospitality, joining Accenture right out of college and working in strategy consulting and performance management for a variety of corporate clients, then moving to a smaller firm, North Highland, for more of the same.
“I came to IHG as part of a project for North Highland around the 2008 financial crisis, as help with the corporate travel and corporate transient segment,” Laster said. “I loved it so much, I decided to move over to hospitality, because I enjoy the ability to formulate sales strategy and then see that brought to light and see how that impacts revenue and impacts the company. That was really fun to me.”
Recently, Laster talked to HSMAI about balancing the qualitative and the quantitative, creating a global sales strategy during a global pandemic, and looking ahead — short term and long term.
When you worked in consulting, did you specialize in hospitality or travel?
No, I didn’t. It was more around sales strategy. When you’re in consulting, you get a lot of different projects that expose you to a lot of different things, but ultimately, over that period of time, I settled into sales strategy. I was able to take those transferable skills into hospitality and then apply that to our future meeting sector as well as to our corporate transient sector.
What do you like about working in hospitality?
It’s interesting, because people think that it’s simpler than it is, and it’s actually very complex. The challenges that you have change day to day. What I love about hospitality is the fundamental premise — true hospitality is the ability to be able to create a home away from home. But what I like [about hospitality as a career] is that it’s an ever-changing field of experiences. Things change all the time, and you have to change with them, from how people buy, to the demographics of your travelers and your guests. You have to be flexible and agile and really scrappy based upon what the market conditions are. That’s the fun part of hospitality for me.
During your time in hospitality sales, what skills have been the most valuable to you?
Being able to connect with people across different parts of the business and even in different lines of business has been important. But then also, being able to understand how to strike a balance between the qualitative and quantitative. Hospitality is a lot about how people feel and what the experience is, and loyalty is generated by that experience, but it’s also about the quantitative piece — so, experience really drives what you’re looking for from a strategy perspective.
Is that something that’s unique to hospitality?
In other organizations, strategy is all about the data and what the data says you need to do. But in hospitality, it’s taking that data and combining it with the experience, because the truth of the matter is, if people are comfortable in a hotel room, they’ll come back. You to look at the buyer’s experience, the guest’s experience, and wrap that into what strategies you implement. That’s unique.
What are your priorities in your new role with IHG?
I’m the VP of global sales strategy, so really taking on IHG’s B2B strategy. Programs and initiatives for corporate, for group and meetings, and for small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs] are the priorities for my role. But also, with COVID being so top of mind, it’s positioning us for the fastest recovery possible.
How do you approach creating a global sales strategy when we’re in the middle of a global pandemic?
I like to use the word “scrappy,” but being flexible and agile are really important — being able to respond rapidly to changing circumstances and have your team ready to change based upon what’s happening out there in the market. Most markets are shutting down and then they’re opening up simultaneously, so keeping your finger on the pulse of that and then connecting with teams around the globe and sharing best practices and information and insights — that’s what keeps you aware in a situation like this. That is a part of strategy that I really love, that having to flex that scrappy muscle, for lack of a better word.
How closely are you working with other areas like marketing and revenue optimization?
Day to day, I’m working with sales, I’m working with marketing, and working with revenue. In a situation like this where demand is low, where there is so much uncertainty, you have to remain connected. You have to make sure you’re still reaching out to those people who are incredibly loyal, with loyalty [programs] through marketing. From a revenue perspective, you have to manage and optimize your revenue through all of the different revenue management principles that exist out there — making sure that you have the right rates for the right time with the right fences, or unfenced. And then with sales, there are people who are still traveling. We know that nurses are still traveling, those on the front lines, essential workers, are still traveling. How do we make sure that we sell to them, make sure our product is accessible to them? So, those three functions are critical at a time like this.
What’s your outlook for hospitality sales over the next year or so?
In strategy, you have to look at the short term and look at the long term. What we’re seeing is that the SME segment is the most resilient segment. They are going to return quicker than maybe our larger corporate. We’re also looking at the fact that our larger corporate travelers are likely going to start traveling, but they’re going to be a little bit more conservative in their approach.
I think everybody agrees that groups will be the last [business to return], but the amazing thing that I see us positioned for is smaller groups. We have a lot of hotels and secondary and tertiary organizations that are able to support those smaller meetings, so I think we’re going to see the ability to do that as well.
Further restrictions are going to be a challenge, but as demand comes back, we’re trying to be well positioned to continue to grow the business. I think everybody would say that international inbound will take a lot longer to get back, but we expect that leisure is going to come back first and then business will follow. Just looking at the tea leaves and just seeing where there’s interest and making sure we keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening is most important.
What advice would you give to someone who is just getting started in hospitality today?
I would say to take it all in and understand there are different ways that people travel for different reasons, and you have to speak to those different segments in different ways. I know that that’s basic, but there’s a tendency whenever you go into a new line of business to think that you have to address your customers in one way. And I would say, remember that your customers buy for different reasons. The experience is so critical, so pay attention to the customer experience, the buying experience, the guest experience. Put guests and customers at the center of everything, and that will help you be the most successful in the hospitality industry.