How to Communicate with Customers in a Changing Environment

By Katie Davin, Associate Professor, Johnson & Wales University College of Hospitality Management, HSMAI Sales Advisory Board Member

The world that customers are living in has changed. Leisure travel is crowding out business travelers midweek, making corporate rates go up. Inflation is impacting the costs of food and other commodities, and some food products are simply not available. Labor shortages and outsourced labor are influencing both costs and service delivery. How can we talk to customers and educate them about issues that affect them because they are directly affecting hotels? The HSMAI Sales Advisory Board (SAB) recently discussed this question and offered some guidance.

Provide Correct Information

Hotel websites must have correct and current information, and all customer communication must be accurate. It is essential to keep the salespeople informed so they can inform their customers with this information. One SAB member recommended providing sales with a one-page document describing the latest supply-chain challenges so they can be transparent with customers about the possibility that substitutions may be necessary. Some recommended adding a message directly on the banquet event orders, stating that substitutions may be necessary. For BEOs written more than 30 days in advance, provide a statement that prices may increase.

With such transparency comes a need to provide thoughtful messaging, too. Rates may be high and availability may be scarce for groups, especially in a booking window that is less than 12 months out. High prices and sold-out dates can lead to the perception that convention business is not important. It is, and customers need to know that. Customers should also be encouraged to book as early as possible so they can get the dates they need and receive a price they feel is fair.

Say What You Can Deliver, and Deliver What You Promise

The current environment is leading to occasional problems with service delivery, such as running out of food at events. Travelers and meeting planners understand the current problems with supply and labor to a point, but their patience is wearing thin. One SAB member said, “I think people are getting to the point of, ‘Get this fixed, and let’s get on with it.’”

There are some customers who are willing to spend the money and, therefore, expect to get what they pay for. One SAB member advised clearly setting up the expectations upfront, with a direct message such as, “We’re going to charge you $10 more per person, but we are going to have the right amount of food, and we are going to make it a buffet instead of plated because we don’t have enough servers.” The member continued, “I think we’ll find that people will pay for it if we’re actually delivering what we say.”

Another SAB member added, “I haven’t had so many issues on price because I think they do get the price piece. If anything, we’re having more issues with our hotels having the confidence to push price.”

To meet customer expectations, some hotel companies are experimenting with menus. One SAB member explained, “We’re looking at redoing all our menus, providing core menus. You can do it with two cooks versus a chef and five cooks. So, we’re really looking at the efficiencies of our offerings. And then, if we don’t have enough waitstaff, we can add runners.”

Update Contracts

Salespeople are continuing to deal with changes and cancellations, due, in part, to lingering COVID problems. If someone has COVID or has been exposed, or if they have a family member with COVID, they are canceling their trip. These incidents can affect attendance numbers. There is also, as one member said, “the inability to count on the airlines. If a flight gets cancelled and they can’t get you out until two days later, you’re going to change or cancel your hotel reservation.” Therefore, hotels are adapting contract language and requiring earlier deposits. One SAB member said, “The bigger issue is these legal clauses. Our hotels are being more restrictive because the owners are getting more involved … we want more deposits earlier because we were burned for the last two years on some cancellations.”

However, one SAB member advised “not to make it a 20-page contract. We want to protect ourselves, but we want to be easy to do business with. Some of these contracts just get too [outrageous].”

Get Comfortable with Being Direct

The main piece of advice from this discussion was for salespeople to be proactive and direct with customers. For example, one member explained, “There are going to be more normalized issues such as contract labor and outsourced labor, which there was a fair bit of pre-pandemic, but now the buyers have more of a focus on that. We just need to get everybody talking about that.”

Categories: Sales
Insight Type: Articles