For the past 15 years, Nicole Tabel has been in charge of the conference business for the Meliá hotel chain. She can still remember a time when all queries came in by telephone and fax. This makes the key account manager value the online sales process all the more.
TEXT: Jürgen Baltes
Basically," very little has changed in the decision-making process for booking conferences, says Nicole Tabel. The key account manager for Meliá Hotels should know: Every day for the past 15 years, she has looked after the companies and agencies who book events in one of the around 370 Meliá Hotels worldwide.
Very little has changed? Yes, Tabel grins: Conference planners are still as inflexible as ever, and typically first set the date and place for an event, and only then start to look for a suitable location, she says. In addition, subjective criteria play – both previously and nowadays – a significant role in the selection process, she says, for example experiences with individual hotels or personal travel experiences.
And last but not least, she adds, hotels and companies – unlike the process of simply booking a room – still seek out personal contact in advance. All to often, there are still things that have to be clarified, whether these are special requests or seating arrangements, details regarding the lunch break or the technical facilities, she says. Once, a hotel actually had to organise an overhead projector, Tabel reveals, because the conference customer wanted to bring along his classical slides. In the end, the hotel managed to find this dinosaur of media technologies among the discarded stocks of a university.
However, at the same time, she says, the conference business has also "changed considerably" because of digitisation. Tabel can still vividly remember a time when event planners leafed through massive printed tomes, like Kurt Schüller's 1,300-page "Tagungsplaner" (Conference Planner), selected suitable hotels from this – and called them. "Fifteen years ago, almost all booking queries came in by telephone and fax," Tabel recounts. Until a query had been processed – particularly abroad – several days frequently passed involving numerous telephone calls.
Today, like the fax, the printed conference planner has been relegated to the history books. Both hotel chains and newly established conference portals have put all the information onto the internet – and thereby created a comparability that was hitherto unknown: Whether location, star rating, fixtures and fittings or parking spaces, today, the worldwide choice of conference locations can be selected according to numerous criteria. Tabel: "This helps companies in their decision-making process and speeds up the query procedure enormously."
And it also helps the hotel industry: "Nowadays, we quote every second query online," Tabel reports, "that's a huge step," because standardised RFP processes save the banqueting manager a lot of time. Particularly when it is a question of a hotel's "bread-and-butter business", she says, that is, conferences for between 20 and 50 people with one or two overnight stays. "That can be handled wonderfully online."
Because it is a large chain, Meliá covers the entire spectrum of distribution channels, with its own conference departments in the hotels and at headquarters, its own online marketing and several distribution partners. And Tabel is pleased "basically about everyone who conducts our sales with us." She has worked with conference portals like Meetago right from the start. "They are becoming increasingly important," she finds, because more and more companies are handling all their conference bookings through them, from small seminars right up to big product launches. They want to finally bring some transparency into their conference volumes, she says.
However, Tabel does not just value the portals as technology partners. She differentiates between purely technological service providers for more efficient RFP processes and portals that advise their customers in a similar way to agencies. "And that's where it gets interesting." Because despite all the transparency in the online world, it is not easy for hotels to really get their unique character and their services across. "It simply makes a difference whether muesli bars or tasty petits fours are served in the coffee break." That is why the employees in the portals are given regular training by Meliá.
And what if companies could simply book conferences from start to finish? According to surveys, planners would like to have live availabilities and a real booking button. "That would be an option for standard events," Tabel believes. "This would enable the larger hotels to create a buzz." However, the key account manager sounds the note of caution that a hotel always has to keep its hands on the wheel, meaning retain sovereignty over processes, conditions and contractual arrangements.