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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 6, 2013 4 years ago

Tour of duty

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Kelly Defebo sells Sarasota County to a large, and global, target audience. She's scored some big successes.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The theory that sales success relies heavily on building relationships is more than academic to Kelly Defebo, who runs the Visit Sarasota County sales department.

Even when Defebo receives a rejection, she considers it a chance to keep the relationship going. Like the time John Deere executives drove 130 miles to tell her in person that the company decided to move its annual dealer conference from Sarasota to suburban Orlando. It was a punch-to-the-gut dismissal, says Defebo, given the $34 billion forest and agriculture equipment firm normally brings 3,000 visitors to town over three weeks. The conference was the largest single piece of meeting business in Sarasota County, and it was held locally for a decade.

But two years later, Defebo still maintains a friendship with the John Deere executives who make the conference location decisions. She will send them an email with an inside joke. Or she will clip and mail a newspaper article on something they have in common that might have nothing to do with business.

“They sat with me for three hours that day and said they wouldn't have done that if we didn't consider you a friend,” Defebo says. “This is very much a relationship-driven industry.”

The good news is most of Defebo's relationship building has led to a string of successes, not rejections, at Visit Sarasota County, where she's director of sales. The economic impact the agency generates, which counts meetings and hotel nights booked, is up 19.4% since 2011, from $7.2 million to $8.6 million in 2013. Total room nights sold countywide are up 51.4%, from, 7,328 in 2011 to 11,096 in 2013.

An individual victory, meanwhile, was with the U.S. Sports Congress. The group, senior-level executives who represent sport-governing bodies, recently held a conference in Sarasota.

So too did the Atlantic Caribbean Chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers, an 85-member group that held its annual professional development meeting at the Lido Beach Resort last year. Defebo and her team took many of those guests on FAM Tours — industry lingo for familiarity tours, where guests see and eat at local hot spots. The tours paid off: The Canadian chapter of the society recently decided it would hold a meeting in Sarasota, too.

Defebo doesn't book hotels or flights for clients in her role at Visit Sarasota County. But she's the face for Sarasota's tourism industry in the effort to woo hospitality business, from family reunions to corporate meetings to international tour groups.

Defebo has an advertising degree from the University of Florida. She compiled obituaries and sold newspaper ads for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for six years before she joined Visit Sarasota County in 2007. In 2012 Defebo earned a Certified Meeting Professional designation, one of the highest recognitions in the field.

A Port Charlotte native, Defebo considered a career in advertising writing copy, but she didn't want to move to New York City. She instead focused on sales, which has become her passion. “It's not heart surgery,” says Defebo, “but we are helping to create and sustain jobs for this area.”

One challenge in her work is sheer competition, given Sarasota isn't the only Florida locale that sells sunshine. Defebo, in response, pushes Sarasota's strengths, not what it lacks — though she admits a downtown convention center and more nonstop flights from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport wouldn't be bad. “We try to sell only who we are, which is a great small-to-midsize market,” says Defebo. “I believe in what I sell, so I don't go around wishing for new things.”

Sales Tips
Always follow up: Kelly Defebo with Visit Sarasota County says time and effort in follow-up calls is never wasted. “Clients see so many salespeople promising the world and then they disappear and are never to be heard from again,” she says. “Every single client thanks me for following up. That tells me it's a rarity.”

Quality over quantity: Spend the most time with people you have already met. Those are the clients, says Defebo, “who have already given you their time. What they are telling you is they want to do business with you — it's your job as a salesperson to uncover what is holding them back from booking the business with you and try to resolve it. That takes more than one meeting or phone call.”

Stay organized: “My job would be impossible to perform without the ability to be organized,” Defebo says. “It's crucial to success.”

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