I've become something of a surrogate wedding planner within my little group. I'm at that age when the engagements are coming thick and fast, and no sooner is the rock on the finger, and the mother of the bride's hat planned, than I get the inevitable call. 'Can you recommend somewhere?' I am always asked when the newly engaged tear themselves away from the champers and turn their attention to setting the date.
'Well, what kind of wedding would you like to have?' I begin, before trotting out then names of a few places that might suit their description.
It doesn't surprise me therefore when Conor Kenny, head of Conor Kenny & Associates, the marketing consultants and sales trainers, shares his secrets for boosting wedding busines. He runs a number of mentoring workshops for Fáilte Ireland and has also written a highly popular programme on 'How To Sell More Weddings'.
'Many hotels and venues make a simple mistake when they first meet with couples,' Conor notes. Ask them what their opening questions is, and most will say "how many guests are you having?" "what date are you looking for?", "when did you get engaged?", but that's not what you should say. Your very first question should be "can you tell me before we start what's really important to you about your wedding reception?" It could be something as simple as "we'll need a bedroom on the ground floor for my granny" or "there are 16 vegetarians coming, can you do something nice for them?". Their answer will tell the sales person how they should be selling to them.'
Sales is a skill which has been lacking for sometime in the Irish hospitality industry, Conor acknowledges. 'The level of salesmanship in Irish hotels is awful. If a sales person behaves like a sales person when they are talking to the customer, then they will look like one. If a sales person looks at things through the customer's eyes then they'll get the sale.'
We relate the story of a friend who had her heart set on having the reception for her dream wedding at an Irish country resort. She travelled two hours on a Saturday morning to meet the hotel's wedding planner, only for the planner not to be there as arranged when she arrived. She then learned from the colleague who stepped in to cover that the date she had been promised - and to which she had a sentimental attachment - was not available.
The real humdinger came, however, when she and the groom were informed that they were not entitled to a wedding tasting. 'We have full confidence in our chef and we expect the couples booking their wedding here to have the same.' the disillusioned bride was told. Not only is this incredibly arrogant, it does not take into account people's personal taste. Food is subjective. How will the couple know if they prefer the tian of crab to the goat's cheese salad if they don't get to try it? And how mean is it not to provide a free tasting for two, if the couple is promising to deliver business worth upwards of €10,000? Adding insult to injury, in the fine print on the reception terms and conditions, the couple was warned that if any of their party disturbed other guests staying in the hotel then they would personally be charged for their rooms.
Conor Kenny rolls his eyes skyward. He's seen and heard it all before.
'The first thing people fail to understand about weddings is that a wedding sale is emotional. Quite often customers get the same show-around if they are booking a wedding as they would if they were booking a conference. Salespeople tend to sell weddings based on what they want, rather than on what the bride and groom wants. Couples are bound to think, "okay, you are doing this 100 times a year, but I'm only planning on doing this once".
Try and create an idea of what the wedding will be like, Conor hints. 'The salesperson's job is not to sell, but to inspire. Remember that when couples are getting married, they're under pressure, they're stressed and they're looking for somewhere to hold the reception of their dreams. If you can't show them the suite made up for a wedding, then show them pictures. Give them options. Tell them about the pub up the road that the families could go to for a steak the night before the wedding or the activities that their guests could do in the area.'
Perfecting the Show-around;
There's no consistency in show-arounds, and there's one heck of a lot of winging it,' believes Conor. 'Salespeople aren't experts in everything, and they shouldn't try to be. They need to involve the key stakeholders. Get the couples to meet with the chef, the GM, the conference and banqueting manager, even the head of housekeeping. What bride ever said, I can't wait to make a decision on a tender?'
Once you have completed the show-around, don't forget to follow up. 'How often have you heard "I've sent them a proposal, it's up to them to call us back"? , asks Conor. the follow-up is incredibly poor. After the show-around, the salesperson sends a template email full of industry jargon, and never calls again. When you're putting a wedding proposal together you should show the bride and groom a few ideas about how to do things, include pictures, innovate, show them what you can do outside the wedding reception.' And above all else, he urges, 'don't forget to call'.
'Most hotels don't have a wedding strategy, it's all reactive,'says Conor. 'They can tell you they have x amount of weddings booked but they can't tell you what their target is for future weddings. Ask yourselves how many show-arounds did you fail to convert to bookings and then find out why. Many businesses would rather be damned by faint praise than saved by criticism. Maybe there is a problem with the way the salespeople are conducting the show-arounds. How are your people doing? How often do you check?'
Checking is well worth it, says Conor, who points to one hotelier who had invested significantly in beautiful gardens. 'We got three of his team to give us show-arounds. Only one gave us a tour of the garden.'
While the economy is challenging there is still much to play for in the wedding business, and it pays to sharpen your team's sales skills. 'what people don't always understand is that weddings are valuable busines, not just because of the revenue brought in for the reception, but because of the marketing opportunities that they deliver. You will have 100 guests coming into your hotel that may never have been there before and this is your opportunity to market to them and show them why they should come back in the future, explains Conor.
And while customers everywhere are tightening their belts, couples are still willing to invest in their big day. 'Research reveals that couples will spend three times as much on their honeymoon as they will on a normal holiday. This shows that people are still willing to spend. Infact, a lot of places we work with have increased their prices and they've managed to increase their volume at the same time.'
Conor's advice? Try the opening question and ask your next newly engaged couple what is more important to them at their wedding reception. 'Anyone who has used it has said that they make more sales. One hotel even told us that they converted 40% more weddings as a result. It's not rocket science, it's just common sense. The busness of hospitality is about relationships more than anything else. Stop selling the facilities and sell them the experience.'