Converting group business via online channels
20 JANUARY 2015 7:37 AM
As online channels such as Cvent and StarCite generate an ever-increasing volume of meeting leads, success in converting them is critical.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.–As the number of meeting request for proposals generated via online channels increases, the importance of improving their conversion increases as well. One key reason: That's where more and more business is originating, especially for smaller meetings that are more transactional in nature, according to sources.
"The number of leads that come from online channels continues to increase year over year at almost a double-digit rate," said Tom Santora, chief marketing officer and senior VP of sales at Omni Hotels & Resorts. "And we will certainly see those leads continue to grow."
As a result, he said, finding effective ways to improve lead conversion ratios is more important than ever before.
Content is king
As meetings planners become more reliant on online research, a hotel's website will play an increasingly important role in generating leads and converting them to bookings, sources said.
"You need to tell planners everything they need to know," said Ed Simon, VP of sales at Destination Hotels & Resorts, which will launch a new website with more meetings-related information this year. "You have to fill in all the blanks. It would be nice to have direct contact, but if they want to buy that way, you have to make sure they have all the information they need."
Ed Carey, managing director of sales at Boca Raton Resort & Club in Boca Raton, Florida, agreed that clear, comprehensive meetings content online is more important than ever before.
"We provide every single detail from every department in the hotel, along with contacts for each department," Carey said. "That is all centralized now in one location so planners can access that without having to call the hotel."
Another factor in the lead conversion equation is quick response to the RFPs that are typically submitted via Cvent, Lanyon's StarCite or other online channels.
"Omni has a two-hour response policy," Santora said. "If we do not respond within two hours after you call or submit your RFP, you get 5% off your master account. And when you respond that rapidly, you build trust with customers."
But a thorough and detailed response also is required, he said. "One of the pet peeves of planners is that the hotel does not completely answer questions or address all of the requirements in the RFP."
As part of its affiliation with Hilton's Waldorf Astoria brand, Boca Raton Resort & Club must respond to RFPs within four hours. "We see increasingly that that kind of response plays more and more of a role in converting a lead to business," Carey said.
And rather than provide a huge amount of basic or generic information, he said, it's important to craft a "bullet point" response that clearly links the hotel to the stated needs or wishes of the planner.
"The more concise and focused you can be, the better," he said. "That means understanding what the customer really wants outside of dates, rates and space."
Omni Hotels has added an option to its website that allows planners to submit RFPs directly to the company, rather than via Cvent, StarCite or any other third-party platform. As a result, Santora has seen the number of RFPs the company receives increase significantly.
"What's really interesting is that the conversion ratio on business where the RFP comes directly to Omni, versus going through Cvent or StarCite, is almost double," he said.
The Holy Grail?
While most hoteliers looking to improve their group lead conversion are investigating factors such as better website content or faster response times, Los Angeles-based L.E. Hotels, which serves as sales and marketing representative for more than 100 hotels worldwide, including three in Los Angeles, is aiming to achieve a major innovation—the ability to provide meetings planners with group rates and room inventory, and book room blocks online.
"When I say 'book online,' I don't mean just request rates and dates, but actually do the whole booking online without any human interaction," said Michael Lorenz, L.E.'s senior VP of sales and marketing.
The company is rolling out a new platform, developed over the past year with a technology partner, to fully automate the booking process for small meetings.
"In today's world, 24-hour response time is probably the norm for meeting RFPs," Lorenz said. "We'll have instantaneous response time with our new platform."
The company also will use pay-per-click technology to generate hot leads, although a substantial number still will come from Cvent and StarCite.
"That's an interesting concept," Santora said. "But my question would be are customers really searching online for that information? I don't know the answer to that. I guess time will tell."
In the meantime, Simon said, success in the lead conversion game will come down to building good old-fashioned relationships with meetings planners.
"And perhaps these online channels can allow us to build those relationships earlier in the process and do so consistently throughout the year, rather than just when there is an opportunity to sell," he said. "New media is opening a ton of doors to be able to get in and talk to meeting planners and create relationships."