I have worked for one hotel or another (or several at a time) since I graduated from the University of Central Florida in 1997, always in a sales or marketing capacity. For a while, my friends and family weren’t really sure what I actually did from day to day. My grandmother used to think I made reservations for guests. For about eight years, I was responsible for soliciting and contracting group business; usually that meant arranging for some sort of conference, tradeshow, or seminar to be held at my property. It sounds pretty simple, but at times these contracts could represent millions of dollars for my hotel employers, and it was in their best interest to make sure that the self-assured, overconfident, young person I was understood exactly what I was negotiating.
Since I began my career almost 18 years ago, the process of contracting in the field of hotel sales has become increasingly more sophisticated and contentious. In 1997, we weren’t much past the days when contracts between a meeting planner and a sales manager were written on a napkin in the hotel bar after many a libation had been consumed. In fact, a typical contract was only about four to five pages in length, and consisted of a few basic clauses outlining the responsibilities of both parties.
Over the years, corporate America began to hold more meetings and conventions, new hotels popped up, and existing hotels added convention centers and meeting space at a rapid pace. Competition to book these conferences grew more heated, and meeting planners found themselves in a position of advantage to not only ask for and receive their “needs,” but negotiate many of the items on their “want” list as well. The usual give-and-take became very one-sided, and contracts grew in length as clauses were added that reduced liability on the part of meeting planners. As sales managers were sent to contracts classes and seminars, meeting planners took legal courses at industry conventions by attorneys who gave them just enough legal knowledge to slow down the negotiation process, but not enough to truly understand the important issues they were confronting.
In the early 2000s, the convention business was booming, but the boom would not last forever. Dips in the economy are almost always mirrored by dips in the travel and hotel industry. The economy’s ups and downs simply mean that the bargaining power pendulum swings from one side to the other. In recessions, companies are sometimes forced to cancel meetings; even if they continue to hold events, attendance may fall significantly short of expectations. In 2004, we experienced such a recession during the Iraq war. Without contractual protections, hotels were left holding the bag and losses to our industry were tremendous.
The meetings industry has always survived, but as we fast forward to today, hotels find themselves in a better bargaining position. The economy had enough stability to level the playing field for a while, directly affecting my business. While contracts remain complex, we are able to agree to stricter clauses governing attrition, cancellation and performance.
To counteract what was happening, many companies began a new strategy. Once the sales manager and the meeting planner decided to enter the contract phase, agreements were sent straight to procurement (a/k/a the lawyers). I began to see 20-page contracts come across my desk, and the clients with which I had developed such a great rapport were relegated to a position on the sidelines, watching me duke it out with the legal team. This new world was a huge concern for hotel companies. Whether we were young sales managers or experienced veterans, the ante had been upped, and none of us were truly prepared to handle negotiations with a trained legal professional. The only solution was better education for the sales professionals, and, admittedly, I loved every minute of it.
I decided to enter law school after seven years in hotel sales because I loved that part of my job–contract negotiation. It had become a huge part of my everyday work life and the complex legal issues… well, in a strange way they made sense to me, and I found I had a real affinity for the law. Naïve and enthusiastic, I entered law school believing I would eventually become a successful hotel attorney.
By the time I had graduated and passed the Florida bar exam, I had transitioned into a marketing position and was now immersed in the world of advertising, website design, email marketing and, eventually, social media. With my bright and shiny status as a new lawyer, my company was delighted to increase my involvement with the sales team where I could teach and assist the sales managers in closing difficult contracts or at least educate them on how to explain, defend and negotiate the hotel’s position to their clients.
At the same time, I learned that marketing had its own set of legal issues. When I wasn’t drafting a promotion for the next direct mail or email campaign, I was paying attention to spam laws and ensuring we were limiting our potential liability or I was challenged to protect our rights as they related to our digital collection of photo and video assets. Then there were the intellectual property issues and, of course, the fascinating and ever-changing world of social media. Being able to work with outside counsel to quickly handle legal issues as they arise has helped save our company money and time. Having a basic grasp of privacy laws and personal rights has helped me collaborate with our senior management team to craft our social media voice and policy as it relates not only to our guests, but to our employees as well.
I find I use my training almost daily and it is extremely satisfying to be able to provide the answer to a question that no one else in my company can. I ask myself: would a non-lawyer be able to do my job? Of course they would. But would they find it as interesting and challenging as I do? Probably not.
Perhaps I will one day use my legal qualifications in a more traditional way, but for now, I can highly recommend the hotel industry as an alternative workplace for someone who enjoys daily challenges and working with a variety of interesting people.
About the Author
Elyse Cottle is director of promotions at Caribe Royal and Buena Vista Suites in Orlando, Florida.