by Dave Gardner
Despite differing business plans, varied sales advantages and assorted operational challenges, successful vendors in the Northeast Pennsylvania event planning industry understand that, above all, they are players in the hospitality arena.
More than 470 events were hosted at the sprawling Mohegan Sun Pocono complex during 2018, according to Michael Slivka, director of sales and catering. These were made possible by completion of facility’s three-phase expansion program that included construction of a hotel and convention to generate non-gaming revenue, plus evolution of the overall business plan.
“We now go after businesses within a three-hour drive of the facility,” said Slivka. “The area includes Harrisburg, Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley.”
According to Slivka, cold calling as a sales tool for events is fading, as the Mohegan Sun operation receives better responses with targeted emails directed during formal gatherings such as corporate meetings and association trade shows. If the email is favorably answered, the Mohegan sales person will create a one-on-one appointment to discuss hosting an event, thereby not wasting time on weak prospects.
For success, he urged all operators within the hospitality industry to customize every event for each customer after completing the necessary homework about event expectations. This must be coupled with the ability to create networking and relationships that effectively sell, using modern tools such as virtual facility tours.
“The partying, dining and golfing days are over for sales people to use because most business prospects are too busy and budgets are too tight,” said Slivka. “Often the prospective customer has a strict limit what they will spend for an event, and we therefore may customize the food options we offer.”
He also reported that, to close a sale with event planning, truthfulness to the customer is paramount. If a facility operator can’t offer something, they must admit it during the sales negotiations and never lure the customer onto the property thinking something is going to happen that simply is impossible.
“You must know the group and what they expect,” said Slivka. “Using this plan, we’ve achieved a 75 percent return rate for event customers.”
Operational challenges that the Mohegan management must face are often related to the time of year in which an event occurs. The facility maintains an on-call workforce list, usually of college students, who can be counted on to appear if needed.
Tenure with the management staff is also vital.
“Employee management and the creation of a strong staff also goes to relationships,” said Slivka. “Management must be visible to the event guests, see how the event flows, and immediately deal with surprises when they occur.”
A unique marketing advantage for events is available at Shadowbrook Inn and Resort, as the facility is surrounded by the spectacular beauty of the Endless Mountains. A ballroom, private dining room and restaurant accompany the resort’s golf course, poolside pavilion and outdoor meeting spaces, creating one of the most visually pleasing locations in the region.
Ralph Del Prete, general manager, explained the facility is family-owned by local people who seek to encourage repeat business, making it ideal for corporate events. In addition, the business plan recognizes that a natural chain of personnel events can be tapped into for virtually anyone, starting with a wedding and proceeding to a baby shower, school events and graduation.
“Repeat business is also crucial for our restaurant,” said Del Prete. “Studies have shown a second successful restaurant visit must go well to create and long-term customer, so we are always committed to strive for this.”
In the sales arena, Del Prete described an ongoing challenge that involves development and maintenance of a strong prospect base to mine customers. Shadowbrook uses information from chamber of commerce groups and other events to generate sales leads, but also focuses on the power of word-of-mouth communication.
“Yes, we also do some cold calling with groups that use event space,” said Del Prete.
To curb operational challenges, according to Del Prete, facility management must adhere to set of policies and procedures. Only with this tactic can a facility develop a well-trained staff that is disciplined and cooperative with continuous training and improvement efforts, as well as successful team building.
“It’s vital to set expectations for a new employee, as well as the need to display soft skills from the moment of the first interview,” said Del Prete. “We therefore outline the need for qualities such as punctuality and communication to see what the applicant’s reaction is, and this system avoids a lot of problems from the beginning.”
A historic facility plus a keen delivery of guest hospitality are the “sizzle on the steak” of event sales at the Regal Room, which opened in 1952 and during 2018 hosted approximately 125 events. George Pachucy, co-owner and sales manager, explained that the inter-generational family operation offers three rooms for events such as weddings, confirmations and funerals, and a business plan that is achieving a sales closing rate up to 88 percent.
Pachucy aggressively advertises with television, radio, newspaper and online mediums, and he has recognized that sales are delayed from the time an advertisement airs to the time of booking. Lately he has developed a comprehensive focus on smaller events, coupled with “encouragement” to customers to remember the success of past Regal Room service.
He has developed a realistic business expansion plan calling for the facility to increase its gross sales by 25 percent within six years. This plan recognizes that off-premise catering is a highly competitive business, while availability dates with weddings are also a big consideration.
Pachucy explained one of the keys to successful event sales involves getting the prospective customer in the door and developing a relationship. He added an owner must never forget that a facility’s staff must first be cared for if they are to deliver the level of hospitality Pachucy strives to offer.
His sales strategy may also include a second meeting with a still-reluctant customer where a “flexible event date” is penciled into a contract. Some phone closings do occur, but Pachucy prefers face-to-face meetings due to the need to firm up event details and educate the customer about the specifics within his or her wishes, such as costs of a cash bar versus an open bar.
“We work hard to never, ever lose an event over a small amount money in the pricing,” said Pachucy.
From an operational standpoint, once an event room is filled, the Regal Room staff strives to stay cool and organized no matter what surprises occur such as a bride arriving late. Pachucy has learned that customers can sense anxiety within a staff and management, with the result casting a pallor over the flow of the event.
“It’s is vital to be up front with the customer,” said Pachucy. “Remember, any customer request is legitimate.”
A somewhat unique marketing situation with special events is a reality at the popular F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts. Drew Taylor, director of operations, and Paul Rodella, front of house manager, deal with a situation where the facility’s stage presentations occupy top priority, with corporate and private events, business functions, weddings and parties scheduled for times when the auditorium is dark.
The Kirby therefore does not formally advertise use of the facility for special events such as weddings and corporate gatherings, even though the complex offers a unique setting. Some information about booking events is listed on the Kirby’s website, but demand consistently outpaces the supply of available dates when the facility is available, and once business leaders attend one of these events, word-of-mouth approval spreads quickly.
“The Kirby is now listed among the top theaters in the world for ticket sales, and considering this busy theater business, availability for special events may be limited to weekdays on Monday through Thursday,” said Taylor. “We also cannot control the scheduling for the main shows that travel, so if events wind up being back-to-back, our relatively small staff and volunteers may wind up working a very long week or even a month.”
The Kirby is also unique in that it has no kitchen facility for special events. Instead, events are served by preferred caterers that do all of the food preparation, serving and cleanup.
However, an alcohol license owned by the Kirby is maintained to allow the facility to serve adult beverages. This process is self-contained by the facility, right down to the operation of the needed bar and serving processes.
“When we are working to book a special event within this very unique setting, it’s become important to show the potential guest that everything they may have in mind has a monetary cost,” said Rodella. “Once people see these costs, it all becomes real to them. And helping them to save money is part of the sales process.”