CHARLOTTE, NC—Without sales, and the ability to drive revenue and guests to your hotel properties, there would be no hospitality. And, travel buyers are a vital part of that. For Extended Stay America (ESA), it was important to make that message clear; even though ESA has been providing travel buyers with certain perks, the company wanted to make it official by rolling out its Works program to its current accounts.
“To be completely transparent, in 2018, we spent a lot of time looking at our sales model—thinking about our strategy; how our sales force was designed; looking at our processes, notably our sales process; of course, our associates’ level of engagement; and our sales operations and planning function,” said Tom Buoy, EVP of revenue for ESA.
When it came to the sales process, his team at ESA learned they had been selling their properties in a manner more consistent with ESA’s B2C strategy, which would appeal to a transient customer.
“We were emphasizing a kitchen, a great price and a hotel that’s just right,” he said.
While travel buyers do share similar needs with transient customers, there’s more to booking travel for large groups. “When you think about a travel buyer or a travel manager, we believe that they were also looking at other things that they would perceive valuable that we were, in many cases, already providing but weren’t receiving credit for. We believed there was a way to transform our sales process to really frame it for the customer and to give them an understanding of how Extended Stay America works for them,” Buoy said.
Eventually, after determining the additional needs of travel buyers, his team began developing the Works program—a comprehensive business travel program composed of products and services designed to help manage all facets of a company’s travel requirements—in February 2018. Then, after a pilot phase, which targeted only Works’ Business and Business Plus accounts, the hospitality company rolled out Works to more than 4,000 accounts, encompassing all of the program’s tiers (the program itself comprises three tiers: Business, Business Plus and Business Pro).
Now, ESA’s executives are touring the country to not only promote Works, but elicit feedback about the program and ESA’s brand in general.
“We’re actually going to tell them our story and how our story is evolving—we’re talking about our renovations, talking about our new-builds, our new franchising model that we’ve adopted,” he said.
With a goal of meeting with more than 100 accounts, ESA is expected to be on tour for three weeks.
“It really is a tour designed to do primary research and really understand whether we are working for them and, if we’re not, understand what we need to do to continue to work for them and to earn the right to service their travel needs,” Buoy said.
ESA breaks out its accounts into eight tiers. Accounts are ranked by how much of their travel spends are with the hospitality company. For example, business accounts producing more than a million dollars in travel spend revenue for ESA are classified as tier-one accounts. “Those would be the ones where we align those accounts with our most skilled strategic account managers,” Buoy said.
While ESA does plan on pitching Works to new accounts, it’s currently focusing on transitioning current business accounts to Works.
“It’s basically how well we’re able to penetrate and saturate our existing accounts, because sales is not only about relationships, it’s about identifying accounts that have the potential for growth; further qualifying the account; finding out where that account has an opportunity to secure more business; and, obviously, working with the account manager, decision-maker or the travel buyer to strengthen that relationship, earn the rights to increase your share and demonstrate that your company continues to work for that account not only today, but in the years to come,” he said.
Some of the key benefits of ESA’s Works program include customized client landing pages for one-stop booking; specialized booking processes, which allow companies to book reservations, manage travel spend and reduce processing costs; preferred partner pricing; dedicated account managers to partner with directly and assist companies with bookings, billing and reporting; dedicated customer service specialists for when help is needed during travel, such as adjusting a guest’s length of stay due to last minute travel changes, made accessible via a personalized 800 number; and central direct billing.
“You’re putting people that you care for greatly into a hotel for an extended period of time and, in some cases, the purchasing of that product can’t be done entirely electronically, so it requires either a dedicated salesperson or a call to a property to confirm whether you have certain amenities, whether you allow pets, whether you have kitchens in the rooms, etc.; this may require multiple calls to a hotel,” Buoy explained. “A lot of that travel spend is probably large groups/projects where, traditionally, you want to talk to either a travel agency perhaps, but also book direct at the hotel through a salesperson because a salesperson is going to help the buyer buy the way they choose to buy and meet the needs that really can’t be fulfilled or met electronically.”
The Works program is designed to be accommodating to travel buyers. “If we perceive ourselves, not only to be an affordable hotel company, but a caring company, we want our travelers to be able to book how they choose to book and our buyers to be able to buy the way they choose to buy—and to let them know that we’re here to help meet the needs of their travelers through being completely transparent in the information we provide them and, of course, providing accurate and fact-based information to them, so they can make the right travel decision,” he said.
These travel buyers become more than just accounts; they become members of the ESA community as a whole. “It’s not like a transient stay, where you’re booking for one or two nights,” Buoy said, noting that the longer stay alters the guest experience. “You’re booking a hotel where you become part of that community and, at the same time, you want to validate that the hotel has the amenities and services that you need.”
With regard to the ESA Works program, the feedback from accounts has been overwhelmingly positive. “They highlighted, certainly, some of the things that I had mentioned—having a dedicated account manager was well received, understanding who they can actually speak to on a recurring basis to make sure that we’re fulfilling our commitments. We also go through great lengths in on-boarding the company, the contacts and associates,” Buoy said.
ESA has more in store for the program in 2019. “One of the things that we will be piloting later on in the year is the ESA Works Booker program, which enables us to establish a relationship with individuals that book travel and continues to build their affinity for the program,” he said.
The way this would be done is through special incentives and benefits. “For example, gift cards or we [could]—and this is still being determined and designed—make a donation to the American Cancer Society in their name for booking a certain number of rooms,” he said.
“There’s still a lot of work we can do in terms of improving the program,” he said. “We’ll also look to, in time, create what would be a Works Portal for our accounts, where they can go online and access the pertinent information related to not just their travel spend, but also to interact with their account owner, as well.
“But, again, we won’t do that without involving the account base and the decision-makers—those who are stakeholders in the program,” he said. “And, as their needs evolve, we’ll continue to earn the right to service more of their travel.” HB