Booking Sports Teams and Events: Are You and Your Property “Game Ready?”

So you’re a hotel sales professional tasked with booking teams or sports events. Are you “game ready”?The sports event and team business can be an enjoyable, challenging, and lucrative market, but there are some major differences from the usual corporate or association groups that come your way. They can be, shall we say, quirky. Many travel managers say you’re either in the sports/team business or you’re not.A Different Breed of Group Business”Sports teams are unique,” cautions Barry Waters, former director of team travel for the Houston Astros and a long-time veteran of MLB team travel. “A lot of what we do is last minute, and you’ve got to be able to adjust and react to that flexibility. You and your property have to be totally dedicated. We get last minute changes to our rooming list due to injuries and trades, special requests from families travelling with the athletes on a trip, etc. Your operations team has to be primed to handle those. Nowadays it’s all last-minute. “But you first have to get the business. If you and your property or facility are new to the teams/sports business, it isn’t always easy. Reputation and word-of-mouth testimonials count for a lot. Bill Brown, team travel advisor for the Detroit Tigers, looks back on his 32 years of arranging the Tigers’ travel this way: “My top 3 criteria for booking a hotel are, one — what do the other baseball travel managers say about it? Number two — what do the other baseball travel managers say about it? And number three is what do the other baseball travel managers say about it? Only then does rate come in to play, but if the other guys really liked –or were leaving — a hotel, that counted far more than anything else for me.”All Hands on Deck – Sales & Operations Pulling TogetherInexperienced hospitality salespeople may not know that they can’t go it alone in this market. They’ll need the operations team to fulfill their promises to the teams and events. Making sure the operations team backs up a salesperson’s promises is critical to making successful sales pitches to new team accounts or retaining team business. In my own experience booking teams at the Parc 55 Hotel in San Francisco for 11 years, we could not have increased our sports business if the internal operations team – front desk, reservations, and bell staff — were not primed and “game-ready,” just like the athletes.

Waters was the MLB trailblazer for us as he signed his Astros to our hotel. We took great care of them that season, and when I pursued other MLB teams for the next season, as Brown said, he was instrumental in backing up my claims as to how we could handle teams. That was the break we needed to begin building our sports market share. We spent a lot of time planning in advance for the uniqueness of the teams and sporting events we hosted, including NHL, NFL, US Open Golf, the ATP Tennis Tour, and MLB clubs. Operations had to make good on the delivery of what I promised the travel managers and event coordinators. We realized the critical nature of successfully hosting that first team to make a positive impression on the others.Do Your HomeworkIt helps know a bit about the sport or event you’re pursuing, and many of its quirks. I met with Dirk Smith (founder/president of Sports Destination Network), the travel manager for the San Francisco Giants at the time, assembling the things I’d need to know before going into my first sales presentation at the MLB Winter Meetings, where all of the team travel managers gathered. Dirk was very helpful in tipping me off on much of the “inside information” that his fellow travel managers would be looking for.Brown also strongly urges salespeople to do their homework. “Be prepared for our questions and have the answers ready, like what is your rate, how many doubles, suites, amenities, extra room requests, upgrades, etc. What can you commit? I didn’t pay any attention to someone who didn’t have the answers.”Keep in mind professional and college team trips are business trips, not fan gatherings, sales rallies, educational conferences, or reunions. And MLB teams’ needs are much different than of those in the NFL, NHL, NBA, and NCAA. For example, NHL and NFL clubs need meeting rooms and meals, MLB does not. Learn those differences before going into the mouth of the lion, so to speak.Waters agrees that salespeople pursuing team business must understand something of the sport itself, how it operates, and when it operates: “For example, we’d often get calls from hotel salespeople while we were down in spring training, asking if we were all set for the season that was starting in 2 weeks. Sometimes, they’d even call during the season, too. A bit late, I’d say!”Venturing Outside the Typical Sales Box – Stay With ItBrown appreciated the salespeople who set his mind at ease. “The ideal sales rep is one who acted as our team concierge, able to handle any request no matter how unusual. “”I like one-stop shopping,” adds Waters, “Often a salesperson books you, and then you get shuffled off to a conference services person who doesn’t get that our sports business is different. It’s very frustrating. “On the other side of the coin, what causes a hotel to lose a team’s business? “We’d look at leaving a hotel if I heard complaints from 4-8 people on the team or coaching staff,” says Waters. “Also, we like multi-year deals, to hedge a bit on inflation. I understand having different rates for different times of the year, but I don’t want to be tossed out by the hotel in October if we make the postseason because they have other higher-rated business they booked. If you can’t commit to us for the whole package, we’ll look elsewhere.”

Waters believes that good salesmanship carries all the way through the process, including once the contract is signed. “The worst treatment I ever got was not getting at least a courtesy call from my sales rep when we were in the hotel for four days!” He also adds that some hotels don’t think of keeping relationships open after the contract expires, just in case. “One hotel, after staying there for nine seasons, never even called to ask me why I moved the team to another hotel the following season!”Tipping Points Between Winning & LosingIf you are going to be responsible for booking teams or sports business, know and respect these important tenets as you approach the planners and travel managers:* Understand their specific sport/event and how it works, when the best booking windows are, and what special needs you’ll have to accommodate in order to be competitive

* Make sure your property is ready and able to do the unusual and handle the quirks inherent to their business, unlike many other groups you typically handle

* Be honest and straightforward in your solicitation. Know what you can promise and deliver

* Stay informed and involved with the your team/event travel planner along the entire process and during the season or event – be in touch with how it is playing out and don’t rely on “auto-pilot”By following these keys and getting both your sales and internal teams to support the total effort necessary to succeed in this market, only then will you and your property be “game ready” for acquiring and retaining team business.”Game on!”

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