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Business Observer Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 12 years ago

Puttin' on the Sales

A Gulf Coast hotel hit by the recession blanketed half the region in an all out sales surge. Results have been surprisingly good.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A Gulf Coast hotel hit by the recession blanketed half the region in an all out sales surge. Results have been surprisingly good.

Late 2008 and early 2009 were dark days for Patricia Lascano, the new sales and marketing director of the Ritz Carlton, Sarasota.

The Columbia, South America native had just moved to Sarasota from Washington D.C., where she ran the sales division at a Ritz in the nation's capital. She arrived on the Gulf Coast just in time for the beginning of what many hoteliers nationwide now refer to as the “AIG effect” — the scores of businesses and companies that were shying away from trips, junkets and anything that could be perceived as ostentatious in the current political climate.

“It wasn't just a matter of money,” says Lascano. “Our customers just didn't want to be seen” in places like the Ritz or hotels with the word resort in the nameplate.

Ditto for dozens of other hotels on the Gulf Coast, such as the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club in St. Petersburg, the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort on Longboat Key and a pair of Ritz-Carltons in Naples.

Alas, there is some good news, at least for the Sarasota Ritz: A massive sales effort to recruit meetings business is beginning to pay off, Lascano says. “It wasn't just a sales blitz,” adds Lascano. “It was an ambush.”

In fact, Lascano recently broke the hotel's 20-strong staff of catering, events and general sales personnel into two-person teams. Their mission was to blanket the northern half of the Gulf Coast in a flurry of in-person sales calls.

The teams went out the last week of July and hit businesses in Clearwater, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota.

The sales calls were diverse, from banks and financial firms to medical and retail businesses, hitting more than 150 potential customers. The mission was to pitch the Ritz as the best place to hold a meeting, even if it's just a one-day company retreat.

The sales calls wrapped around the Ritz-Carlton's corporate push to get businesses back to holding meetings and away from the 'AIG effect.' The theory, what the hotel calls “meetings within reach” is to still sell the luxury and top-notch service of the Ritz while also pushing the recession word of the day: value.

Separate from the sales effort, the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota was bolstered even further with this flash of good news: The hotel was completely sold out for at least seven nights in late July and early August, hotel spokesperson

Suzanne Willis says, a rare accomplishment in the middle of the summer off-season.

A few other Gulf Coast hotels, anecdotally at least, are reporting better than expected summers. Lido Beach Resort General Manager Shannon Burdge says weekend business has been picking up during the summer months, although she acknowledges the hotel hasn't raised its rates since last year and will keep the 2008 prices through 2010.

And Jim Gunderson, general manager of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, says this summer has been better than last year. One reason for that, says Gunderson, is leisure business has made up for some of what has been lost with the decline in meetings and events.

Lascano realizes that a few weeks of aggressive sales calls are just one punch in an ongoing fight. But she also says she can see the beginning of a turnaround, a marked improvement from when she came to the hotel last year.

“We had gotten to the point where the phone just didn't ring,” Lascano says. “But now the calls are coming back.”

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