Marriott Hotels’ Michael Simon recently stepped down as chair of HSMAI Region Europe’s Sales Executive Advisory Board, passing the baton to Anant Vithlani, Vice President Sales in Nordic Choice Hotels, who is convinced that HSMAI has a lot to contribute in these times of technological development.
The new chair, with an MBA in Business Administration and Management from Stockholm School of Economics, boasts a long and varied career in sales, including printer toner sales, marketing services, health care products, banking and finance, prior to his first Nordic Choice commitment as Director of Sales at Stockholm’s Clarion Hotel Sign eleven years ago, after which he has remained in the hotel group, with the exception of a two-year break, which included serving same hotel group.
While serving Nordic Choice Hotels as an independent consultant it became apparent that his services were so invaluable that he was persuaded to return as the corporation’s VP for sales early last year.
“We are absolutely thrilled to see our Sales Executive Advisory Board chaired by such a knowledgeable resource as Anant,” says HSMAI Region CEO and President Ingunn Hofseth. “From what we’ve seen of his achievements and his passioned participation in HSMAI events, we are convinced that he will contribute much to our efforts.”
Michael Simon’s HSMAI commitment to continue
“Also, I would like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Michael Simon, who’s been sharing from his wealth of competence at our many events, and we are grateful for everything he has done and will continue to do for us as a remaining member of the Advisory Board,” she adds.
“With decades in sales in various lines of business, of which more than ten years in hospitality, how would you say the travel and hospitality differs from others?”
“I used to work for a group of companies more than 16 years ago, with operations in four different business sectors, from business development to air conditioning, healthcare equipment and occupational health service, so I had a very interesting time, as you may well imagine. In essence, however, if you look at the procedural side of sales, there’s really no difference between that and the travel and hospitality industry. It all boils down to meeting the customer’s need, and as a salesperson you are of course expected to identify that need and counter with a proposition, a price and details on what the customer may expect. That goes for any and all lines of business” Anant Vithlani says, elaborating:
“So much for the procedural side of things. The complexity is somewhat different in travel and hospitality. I mean, if you sell 100 cars to an enterprise today, that is what you’re selling. Should the purchase end at 98 vehicles, there’s room for negotiation, of course – all very measurable, right? Not so in terms of airlines and hotels, where you immediately discover a different level of complexity. A price may have been negotiated prior to the booking, but if the customer books only one day in advance there may not be any availability, or at least not enough. Another factor is that if on any given day not all rooms are booked, the opportunity is missed, so in a sense hotel rooms can be compared to fresh produce, as can aircraft seats. In other words travel and hospitality sales are a little more complex and, perhaps, harder to understand for customers as well as for sales personnel.”
Same methods, technological challenge
“Having worked with sales in other lines of business I can tell you that the sales methodology, on the other hand, is exactly the same,” says Mr Vithlani, adding “Prior to my return to Nordic Choice Hotels almost two years ago I worked as a consultant for a couple of years, providing sales development and strategies for banks, construction companies and healthcare, but even there the sales procedures were exactly the same, although the commodities and the level of complexity were very different.”
Anant Vithlani is very reluctant when we inquire information on the Nordic Choice Hotels business and leisure ratio, and understandably so, as he wouldn’t like to leak confidential data. “What I can tell you, though, without divulging any figures, is that it is approximately 50:50. In earlier years the ratio tended in the favor of business travelers, but we’ve seen an increase in the leisure segment in recent times, excluding the conference segment, of course,” he replies.
“How are sales activities today different from the way they were organized in the early 1990s?”
“The development is very fast-paced, but to give you an example, I can tell you that back when I first started out in sales in the early 1990s the sales rep was king in any company. Not so today, to the same extent at any rate. The chief difference is that when I met a customer back then, I was in charge, and actually quite omnipotent, in possession of all information in demand, knew every detail and could provide the customer with all necessary information on a hotel’s facilities. Today, on the other hand, the customer already knows all of that, forcing the sales rep much deeper into the sales procedure. The customer already knows what she is looking for. In fact she may very well be more informed than you are, in some cases. There’s no denying that the Internet has brought about information transparency we didn’t have back in the day.
“Speaking of which, where would you say we’re going, in terms of AI and robotics, for instance?”
“Clearly, that is an inevitable development, assisting us in the identification of customer demands, predicting emerging demands, and I’m confident that the future sales rep will be able to knock on a customer’s door, informing her that she will be in need of a conference for 40 attendants on the following day, with details on all facilities required, based on the account history, only to receive customer confirmation. We may laugh of the scenario today, but I’m convinced that we’re heading in that direction,” Mister Vithlani explains.
AI and good intel imperative
“We see this already now, how chatbots provide assistance and suggestions to your response, so yes, technology is destined to step in and aid us, as well as the customer, in our efforts to take control.”
While still in the present, we asked Anant Vithlani what it takes to succeed as a sales executive in today’s travel and hospitality industry, and again tech-savviness seems to be the operative word:
“Well, we’ve touched on several elements already, such as our ability to handle technology in the industry, but I’d say that we’re on schedule, although at a very high speed. As an executive you will need good intel on the surrounding environment and the technological development, with a fine-tuned ability to adapt. The procedures may very well be as before, but we need to stay abreast of the development. The learning curve may be steep, but if we fail to tag along we may soon find ourselves among the not-so-attractive old-school operators.”
“With a demanding job like yours, what made you accept the position as chair in HSMAI Region Europe’s Sales Executive Advisory Board?”
“That is closely connected with what I just explained, namely the need to keep up with the surrounding environment in an analytical way. Personally I joined HSMAI to stay up-to-date on industry developments. As part of a large corporation I’m sure that I could obtain some of it there. The problem with that approach is that it only provides an inside looking out perspective, but I decided to go for both angles, and HSMAI gave me that. I find the congregation of fellow hospital professionals most satisfactory, be it hotel or airline execs, lending an ear to their take on the industry’s challenges. I find that highly rewarding, with ample opportunity to contribute to discussions on a wider scope of subjects than I would have, fraternizing with in-house colleagues alone,” he says, adding:
“So when I was asked to take the position as chair of HSMAI Region Europe’s Advisory Board for Sales Executives, I though ‘why not?’. After all, sales is my forte and to be honest with you, I’m actually quite good at facilitating meetings and dealing with various subjects – and I like it! Besides, the advisory board will be discussing topics that I’m passionate about.”
Important to retain the young
“Any thoughts on the advisory board’s immediate agenda?”
“It is early days yet, and I’m sure it will evolve as we go along, but we’ve already entered into thorough discussions. The current board members are very motivated to acquire a better understanding of today’s sales personnel and their future demands, so we’re in agreement that we need to develop a profile determining the requirements they’re expected to meet. Once determined we can help the industry to develop in that direction, simply because we think it will benefit from it. But of course we would be amiss if we ignored sales as a craft, B2B sales and HR matters. As for the latter we are interested in retaining the excellent sales forces already onboard, but there’s no getting around the fact that many of today’s young candidates see themselves as fully trained after a year, at which point they feel themselves ready for advancement. Of course that isn’t the case, which is where HSMAI stands to play a vital role. And there are several other areas in need of the advisory board’s attention, which we will delve into as we advance, Anant Vithlani explains, adding:
“But again, like the rest of the industry we need to keep an eye on trends and developments, so I’m sure a lot of topics will emerge as we go along.”
“What do you consider to be your personal strengths?”
“I am of a highly analytical persuasion, and unlike most I consider the sales trade as a branch of science in its own right. Everything is quantifiable and I think I have a lot to contribute to the advisory board in that respect, and maybe bring a holistic view on things to the table. That is, by the way, why Nordic Choice Hotels wanted me as VP for sales, I think, with my ability to act on facts, as it were, devoid of the happy-go-lucky approach, but rather a fact-based take on things. Which brings us back to big data and artificial intelligence, both of whom very applicable in our line of work, in my view.”
You may be under the impression that jobs like Anant Vithlani’s are all about the fun, but as he explains, there are those who wonder if the efforts are really worth his while:
“Typically I get up at four in the morning, heading for the nearest airport to visit one of our destinations for a day filled with meetings, but I rarely sleep over, simply because I value family life, so I usually tend to take the four or five o’ clock plane back, just in time for dinner with my family between six and seven. While I attend a lot of meetings I think it’s safe to say that they are varied, depending on destination and topic. Today, for instance, I completed a two-day education program on negotiation techniques and tomorrow I’m off to Oslo at six in the morning, to attend a Nordic management team meeting, followed by the opening of the Quality Airport Gardermoen hotel, and then off again, for a flight back home, since I rarely stay overnight. But I always try to finish off as early as possible on Fridays, to secure a long weekend.”
“What I like the most about my job is the freedom and, above all, to be given the opportunity to make my own fantasies come true, if you will. Working for a large corporation, cost is much less of an issue than would have been the case in a small company. To be able to carry out large projects is very satisfactory, I can tell you. Along with the opportunity to see the company and my colleagues evolve on the way.”
When asked if there’s anyone he’s been looking up to, Anant Vithlani is quick to respond “Dalai Lama! I have made it a habit to study his writings, teachings and opinions, which is something I do as often as I possibly can,” he concludes.
“I’m confident that HSMAI Region Europe and its membership will be pleasantly surprised by Anant Vithlani’s contributions, and we’re really looking forward to work with him and the rest of the Advisory Board in the immediate future,” says Ingunn Hofseth, adding:
“In fact we will do a pre meeting in Oslo on September the 4th, followed by a conference call with the whole Advisory Board the following morning in addition to a cross-disciplinary Advisory Boards gathering in London during HSMAI Region Europe Leadership Day on September 12th.”
Photo: Anant Vithlani