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“Road warriors”: growing requirements

Weak economic growth had slowed the arrivals of travelling sales forces, but now they are back on the road. However, these so-called “road warriors” high-volume consumers of hotel nights are nothing like the sales reps of yore, and their new requirements mean hotels must adapt.

A home away from home: this is how travelling sales reps experience hotels. Regular clientele, they are thus demanding by nature, and these indefatigable travellers are well known by economy properties for which they represent the core clientele during certain periods of the year. But also mid-range and upscale segments for the upper range of the profession. The consortia also see this population as precious source of occupancy. They make up for their atraction to negociated rates with their regularity and loyalty, which are very precious when it comes to ensuring a minimum occupancy rate during offpeak periods. For a hotelier, a room sold to a sales rep systematically includes breakfast and a meal. There is no way to attract them without a restaurant. And yet, all they want is loyalty: when they find a pleasant property on a route they take frequently, their return on a regular basis is guaranteed, and good deals are often passed on to colleagues. “They are increasingly demanding with regard to both the room and restaurant,” confirms Stéphane Bensimon, business sales director for the Accor Group. Their imposed weekly “nomadism” makes them particularly sensitive to hotels that stand out for their warm reception and better-than-average personalisation of services. Economy does not mean cold and soulless, even at the centre of an industrial zone. Far from their family, often alone, they like to experience a certain amount of conviviality during their time off.The upside is when this certainly demanding clientele becomes an opinion leader. The investment required to satisfy this clientele has effects that permeate their private lives...A feminine touch to decoration helps soften the impersonal and purely functional feel of all too many chain hotels that have been designed to address weekday business clientele. But the main argument remains rates. “The notion of budget prevails over the notion of category,” explains Stéphane Bensimon, business sales manager for the Accor group. “They are pragmatic and look harder at the price per night than the number of stars, unless they have to receive a client at their hotel”. Reception and rate: these are the two key arguments in the decision-making process. This is why brands have deployed an arsenal of special offers and small details. “We have implemented a loyalty card that is the same size as a business card. Ten nights in our hotels earns its holder a bottle of champagne. Fifteen nights earns a reduction of 40,” explains Christelle Ormancey of the independent network Inter-Hôtel. “We also have preferential packages such as “Soirées étapes”, or evening stopovers, that include the room, dinner and breakfast. Our hotels without a restaurant must have a partnership with a nearby restaurant”. Nonetheless these famous “Soirées étapes”, once practised across the board in French hotels (they even had an official guide!), progressively disappeared in the 90s. Sales reps are no longer their own homogeneous caste, and even the French acronym VRP has fallen into disuse. The archetypes are no longer so present. The profession has changed, their needs have patterned themselves after those of any businessman and the major brands no longer make any real distinction. To put it plainly: the same means for developing loyalty are implemented and the same equipment are required. At Choice, the “Dormez gagnant” (Favoured Guest card) card, which is valid in 400 hotels throughout Europe offers one night free after ten paid nights. At Citotel, where businessmen and sales reps are also at the centre of the target, it is the twelfth night that is free, unless the guest prefers a case of wine... Hotel chains thus must seduce not just individual sales reps, but also their company. In many cases, it is the company that decides what hotels accommodate its sales force. And, of course, its choice depends essentially on the rates offered. It is thus common to sell blocks of 100, 200 or even 500 nights in a special offer for a Corporate contract.The bill is paid directly by the company based on a bill for nights consumed. The sales rep accommodations budget is one of the expenses that is increasingly being consolidated by Buying department at large corporations to facilitate negotiations. Hotel chains naturally offer preferred rates to encourage the signature of this type of contract in exchange for a guaranteed volume over the course of the year. One year ago, Accor adapted its “Favorite Corporate Guest” card, which had been individual until then, to this demand for group purchase. Corporations may buy them in groups of ten or more, at a lower price, and benefit from a detailed analysis of their consumption. Of course, budgets vary enormously depending on whether the company is national or regional, whether the rep is a sales manager for an entire sector or travelling sales rep who is just beginning. In the same way, Stéphane Bensimon identifies three sub-groups within this clientele: “In France, sales people from pharmaceutical laboratories and other medical visitors are more numerous and frequently attend seminars; sales people from companies that own automobile dealerships or do pyramidal sales that use the hotel to present their product; and finally the famous travelling sales rep, who only buy one or two nights with no additional services or just a meal.” Another worn out cliché: this universe is not as male-dominated as many think. Women now represent more than 40% of the segment.Travelling sales reps of 2006 are also better informed and indéabove all more hi-tech than their predecessors. After managers, this is the profession that is the most massively equipped with laptop computers that increasingly frequently have Wi-Fi Internet connections. Thus a “hot spot” location within the property is increasingly being taking into consideration as are connections in rooms. A group such as Accor, for example signed a partnership with Orange to equip all its Ibis, Novotel and Mercure properties —the three brands that are most frequented by sales reps and seminar goers. Since 2004, the group Rezidor SAS Hospitality adopted a Wi-Fi friendly policy through which the service is provided for free in all its properties. Major brands see this increase in technical requirements as a godsend because it allows them to make the difference with the independent hotel industry which sometimes has difficulty keeping up the march. It is also one of the professions that most willingly uses the hotel room as a work space. Studies have even shown that regular business clientele in the economy segment spend more time working in their room than business clientele staying at 3 and 4* hotels. Thus, a practical and pleasant surface that may be used as a desk is highly appreciated. Moreover, software designed especially for them can provide interactive information to visualise information about and the location of car parks, hotels, restaurants in the area around the addresses of the clients they have to visit. Thus it is in Hoteliers’ best interest to be sure they are mentioned by these programmes! Agreements are currently under negotiation with Michelin Guides to enrich the GPS software used in cars.Technology is moving forward at high speed, and this is not necessarily to the hotelier’s advantage, particularly with the development of video-conferencing and other at-a-distance sales and prospecting techniques that would limit travel, and even make the notion of seminars obsolete... Regarding this question Stephane Bensimon is confident: “we were quite worried about videoconferencing a few years ago, but in the end we realised that the need to gather around a real table is stronger. Even with regard to rates, if the procedure were really much more advantageous, then our clients wouldn’t hesitate to make us com- pete with it. And yet that rarely happens. Webcams are mostly used when nothing else is possible or for discussions between two people, but not for meetings with more than two participants”. Finally, has the 35-hour work week —which is often accused of having dealt a harsh blow to the business segment by shortening the week— really had an impact on the sale of nights to sales people? “It is true that we’ve lost bed nights on Thursday, Friday and Sunday nights which used to be strong days. But on the other hand Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are growing stronger. Moreover, this also developed the leisure segment, thus there is a certain balance of things,” continues the sales manager of an economy chain. Particularly when we frequently observe salespeople unhesitatingly bringing their families to the regions and the hotels they discover while travelling on business.

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