By Cory Hagopian, Vice President of Sales, Entertainment, and Executive Travel, Accor, and member of HSMAI’s Sales Advisory Board
To cluster or not to cluster, that is the question that HSMAI’s Sales Advisory Board (SAB) members were asking one another on a recent call. With limited staff and resources, many organizations switched to cluster selling during the pandemic and are now deciding whether to keep this model or not. There are pros and cons to that approach. Here are key takeaways from our discussion:
Many SAB members either began cluster selling at the start of the pandemic or had already been doing it for years with positive results. “We clustered from the get-go at the start of the pandemic,” one SAB member said. “Any electronic leads are sent directly to the enterprise level. And the enterprise team is then organized by pods, and each pod has three to five sellers, and each pod has five or six hotels. So, these sellers need to learn inside out each of their five hotels. If we look at productivity from a conversion rate or productivity by person pre-pandemic and now, the enterprise is producing a lot more.”
Another member suggested that clustering hotels works best when it is done not just regionally but by customer type. “I think the more similar the customer is across different hotel properties, the better the clustering would work,” the member said. “I think you’re better off to kind of cluster where you’ve got sales resources toward similar types of properties, especially if the customer can use multiple locations.”
Another benefit that an SAB member mentioned is that off-property salespeople can work remotely because they are not tied to one hotel. “People do not want to come to the office, and if we keep insisting on bringing people to the office, we might lose our opportunity for that great talent,” one member said.
There are risks and drawbacks to cluster selling as well, as several SAB members pointed out. “I came from a cluster environment, and I felt that one of the risks there was career development,” one member said. “The development track there for the sales professional changed significantly. Leadership roles were less, and paths were muddy.”
Another member added that they had seen and experienced biases in cluster selling that favored some hotels over others. “I was director of sales for a brand that was not as well-known as other brands in the cluster, and it was very clear that that hotel suffered because the sellers take the path of least resistance, and they’re going to book whichever hotel is the easiest to book,” the member said. “So, if you’re the hotel that needs somebody fighting and scrapping for business, then that model is probably not going to be advantageous for you. I certainly found that to be the case, with very strong evidence that there were implicit biases in the system that had to be considered.”
FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Not every SAB member is firmly in one camp or the other regarding cluster selling, with several members saying that there are a lot of factors that determine the effectiveness of it. One veteran SAB member said that the effectiveness of clustering is situational, depending on variables such as markets, leadership dynamics, and types of hotels.
“I’ve been working in this business for 30 years and been in clustered situations, both as a seller, as a leader, and as a regional role, and I’m still left 30 years later with sort of a mixed feeling,” the member said. “I can’t say it’s either good or bad, works or doesn’t work, because I think it can work for some hotels but not others or in some markets but not others.”
Another member added that while clustering is working for their company, they think that the reason it works well for them is because there is only one owner — but in a different situation, it wouldn’t work as well. “I just don’t know how it could work for multiple owners,” another member said.
However, one member shared their more positive experience clustering with multiple owners. “I was part of a cluster sales organization back in 2002, and it was company-managed hotels, but there were multiple owners,” the member said. “I think in order for it to work in this situation — and how it worked for us — is that we had really strong buy-in from the GMs at each property that supported our sales organization, and then that trickled to the owners. And there was a lot of education that had to happen during the ownership meetings. If you have a strong-performing team and you have the buy-in from the GM and are able to really anchor home the reason why that’s a benefit to the owners, then it works.”