• Selling points

    Tsogo Sun Hotels’ National Sales Manager Lindelwa Isabelle explains why relationships are so important to what the sales team does. By Mark van Dijk
    Selling points

    With gorgeous properties such as Palazzo, Beverly Hills, Beacon Island, Sandton Sun, Southern Sun Elangeni & Maharani, MAIA, Garden Court Mthatha, and so many more, you may think the Tsogo Sun Hotels brand sells itself. The reality, however, is that the sector in which we operate is changing every day, bringing new challenges, new dynamics and new pressures.

    ‘A lot of new players – some of them international players, with recognisable brands – have come into the South African market recently,’ says Tsogo Sun Hotels’ national sales manager, Lindelwa Isabelle. ‘So, today, everyone in the hospitality space is fighting for their piece of the pie.’

    However, Lindelwa believes that Tsogo Sun has something that those other brands do not. ‘We have strong relationships with our clients, built over many years of service excellence. We have consistently focused on building those relationships and on making sure that our hotels and our service levels are excellent. We are also not a “cookie-cutter” company – we have a variety of brands under our portfolio and each one offers something different, something new and something fresh.

    We pride ourselves on the variety of experiences we offer for different clients at different times, whether they are travelling for business or pleasure. So, where some clients may experiment with new products, we’ve found that they always come back to us saying, “You know what? When I go to a Tsogo Sun hotel, I know what to expect because of your consistency and delivery”.’

    The sales team, in turn, also knows to pay attention to clients. ‘That’s one of the advantages of nurturing our long-standing relationships and having quality service: Eventually, you get to pre-empt what your client wants before they even ask for it,’ Lindelwa says. ‘But those relationships are built on trust, and we know we can’t take advantage of our clients just because we have relationships with them. They are our partners in the business. We’re constantly engaging with them, reinforcing our relationships and offering some flexibility when they need it from us, while at the same time sourcing new business and developing new relationships.’

    Listening to her speak, you may get the idea that Lindelwa is a hardened, long-serving member of the sales team. She seems to know the market and the brand inside-out. So it comes as a surprise then, for those who don’t know, to learn that she only recently moved to sales, in April 2018, after spending more than a decade heading up Tsogo Sun Hotels’ marketing team.

    ‘I thought I knew Tsogo Sun until I moved to sales!’ she laughs. And she’s right: Sales is a big team, with a complex structure and different needs, strategies and plans.

    ‘We have just under 65 people in the team, and the bulk of us are at head office at Montecasino, where we take care of all market segments including government, state-owned entities, parastatals, NGOs, corporate, international and sports,’ she explains. ‘Then there’s a team in Cape Town that looks after the Eastern and Western Cape, and a team in Durban taking care of KwaZulu-Natal. In Sandton, we have a team supporting the Sandton Convention Centre and our hotels in the Sandton node, including Rosebank and Hyde Park. Finally, there’s shared services – a team that supports all of us – looking after travel management companies (TMCs), associations, professional conference organisers (PCOs) and everything else in between.’

    Lindelwa explains that the team takes care of key accounts and partner accounts, with clients in each group determined by the level of support they give, the revenue they generate, and the rates that have been negotiated. ‘Groups and conferences, as well as the MICE segment – which is meetings, incentives, conferences and events – continue to be some of the key drivers of our business. The sports portfolio is hugely relationship-based, as we take care of various sporting codes, including some of our national teams, such as Bafana Bafana and the Springboks, to name but two.’

    For Lindelwa, it can be challenging having to understand – and juggle – those different market sectors. ‘It’s not a case of “one size fits all”. What we do for sport is different to what we would do for government or corporate or our international clients,’ she says. ‘Our relationships are very important, so we have to understand what each partner requires, and tailor our offers to suit them. Having said that, we believe that rate parity is of utmost importance. It’s a constant juggling act.’

    Relationship-building is important for reasons that people outside the sales team don’t always realise or appreciate. ‘We rely heavily on our partners to assist us in terms of onward selling,’ she explains. ‘A lot of our partners help us to manage other relationships, as we cannot be everywhere. An example is on the international-leisure side, where our focus is business-to-business, as opposed to business-to-consumer. We do not directly target the individual traveller. Instead, we work with local and international destination-management companies (DMCs), and rely on those brokered relationships to work for us.’

    So while Lindelwa sometimes jokes that the sales team’s job is to make sure everybody gets paid, she’s completely serious when it comes to taking care of customer relationships. ‘Our clients are our employers,’ she says. ‘Our business is based on relationships and partnerships, and we simply would not be able to do what we do without them.’

    As Lindelwa begins to introduce the Tsogo Sun sales staff, you quickly notice something about the demographics: the team is mostly female. ‘Our heads of department (GMs) and our regional sales managers are all female, and about 80% of the team is female too,’ she confirms.

    So, how does that gender weighting play out in the office? ‘It helps because women work!’ Lindelwa laughs. ‘Seriously though – women are generally very passionate and tolerant, have the ability to multitask, and can be persuasive.’

    What’s certainly true is that the team also boasts a dynamic blend of new staff and people who have been with the group for a long time. ‘We’ve got new blood and tradition, and it’s a perfect mix,’ says Lindelwa. ‘It means we learn from our history as much as we learn from those who come in with new ideas, new perspectives and new challenges. We have people who know how things have been done in the past, but we also have people who are coming in and asking how we can change, challenge and improve on what we’ve done previously.’

    Lindelwa herself offers a combination of experience and a new set of eyes, and she knows how heavily sales relies on marketing as a support service. ‘My background and training is in marketing, although I did a lot of sales too in my previous life. I have the benefit of both worlds: the creative flair, living the brand, relationship-building, persuasion, negotiation, the pushing back and making sure the deal is signed.’ 

    Now that she’s settled into her role, what does Lindelwa think the future holds for Tsogo Sun Hotels’ sales team? ‘More changes!’ she replies. ‘Our industry is evolving, and – to cite just one example – we need to continue developing our understanding of the disruptors in the online space. We can’t shy away from technology. We need to see how we can embrace it, take advantage of it and make it work for us.’

    What does that mean for Tsogo Sun Hotels? How do we innovate? How do we use our hotels and services differently? How do we differentiate? How do we make sure that hotels are not commoditised? And how do we achieve our revenue targets while maintaining the partnerships we have had and building new ones for further sustainability and growth?

    Lindelwa, together with her colleagues in sales, can’t wait to answer those questions.

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