MeetingNews Cover Story: 'Sales Force One' Alters Marriott's Reps Structure

On Dec. 3, Marriott International launched a new companywide sales structure that changes the way the hotel firm deals with most of its meeting planner clients.

Dubbed "Sales Force One," the new framework moves the majority of sales reps out of individual properties and into centralized sales offices in metropolitan areas. Clients have one contact person at the nearest office, who helps place meetings among Marriott's brands, including Marriott, JW Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Courtyard, and Residence Inn. That sales rep also negotiates the contract for each meeting, regardless of where the chosen property is located.

In December, the first centralized office, in Gaithersburg, MD, opened. This year, Marriott plans to open offices in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and St. Louis. No announcement has yet been made on other offices.

Large meeting clients who already have a Marriott national sales contact are not affected; they continue to work with their existing salespersons.

Michael Murphy, senior vice president of sales for Marriott International, stressed that this initiative is different from the traditional regional sales office structure, under which reps sell for hotels located in their areas to clients and prospects nationwide. Rather, "each Marriott salesperson will represent our worldwide portfolio for customers located in the same area," he said. And, J.W. "Bill" Marriott, Marriott chairman and CEO, said the new structure "allows our salespeople to create a one-on-one customer relationship and represent all our brands with an individual customer. This means our sales teams, no matter where they are, will also have access to the information about that particular customer, and our meeting clients won't have to continue to inform the latest [individual property] salesperson about who they are and how much business they give us."

The transition of sales reps to centralized offices is not absolute. Those Marriott properties that regularly host large meetings will continue to have sales reps on property. But David Marriott, senior vice president of global sales, noted that more than 80 percent of the meetings held at Marriott properties have less than 300 attendees. Giving those clients one sales contact allows Marriott to more quickly find a suitable venue among any of its brands in a chosen city. "For the customer, it's like having a personal shopper who can find the right hotels in the right location at the right price," he said.

There are reservations about the new structure from many quarters. David Marriott acknowledged that some owners of Marriott-branded properties are concerned about continuing to receive their fair share of leads once their properties have no individual reps. He countered that "the number of clients and prospects we can now call on is many times larger, so each property will get the amount of business it desires."

As for meeting planners, several put forward doubts about Marriott's problem-resolution ability and chain of command on MeetingNews' online forum, at meetingnews.com/forum. One wrote: "With no one else to turn to on site, I guess you would just have to go directly to the GM. I don't have time to go through event managers who [may not be] empowered to make decisions." Another wrote that Marriott should "expect their GMs to be a lot busier than anticipated, or perhaps the GM will leave the problems to a manager [on duty]." And a third poster noted that "the institutional knowledge of [an on-site sales manager] will be lost with a centralized sales force."

A Marriott spokesperson said that these concerns were anticipated, and the company surveyed more than 200 meeting clients, most of whom said that they were comfortable with sales and service being separated. The spokesperson emphasized, "Our sales associates are still an integral part of the hotel team even though they are not located on property. They have strong relationships with the hotels. And the director of event management at each hotel is a highly regarded member of the leadership team and will be an important advocate for the customer."

In the 1990s, Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels tried a similar initiative to Marriott's Sales Force One, calling it Hyatt Book Direct and putting reps in cities where many customers were located. The program was abandoned after a few years, but from it came a large expansion of Hyatt's national sales structure, from 19 to 80 reps. Fred Shea, vice president of sales for Hyatt, said that "the reason Marriott has a chance to make this work is that they have so many hotels in each market. So, if you call looking to book a specific property in one city but it's not available, the rep can check quickly on whether another property in that city is suitable and available for the meeting. When you have that many brands in each market, you can consolidate sales costs and productivity into one office by reducing the number of reps at the individual properties. It's an attractive possibility for a hotel company."

Based on Hyatt's experience, Shea sees Marriott's main challenge as serving planners whose meetings are far ahead in time." The further out a meeting is booked, the tougher it is to make it work. [Convention services managers] are operationally oriented—they are focused on the meetings that are on property today and next week," said Shea. In other words, planners with future meetings may not be able to count on occupied CSMs to tend to their questions immediately. "Centralized sales reps will call you back quickly, but there is a certain knowledge that sales reps acquire by being on property, and there are things that on-site reps can get done better because of their relationships with a property's department heads."

But Shea added, "With [Marriott's] initiative's focus being on meetings of under 300 attendees, most lead times won't be more than three to six months out. So Marriott is going to try to finesse things a little bit. To me, there's no clear-cut answer as to whether this is altogether good or bad for Marriott, or for the customer. They will work their way through it. "For its part, Marriott seems willing to listen to clients as the initiative progresses; the company's spokesperson said that "changes to the strategy will be implemented as needed."

Originally published January 28, 2008