Hospitality Icon Cindy Novotny on Sales, Leadership, and ‘Never Letting Somebody Say No’

Cindy Novotny loves hospitality. She started out working at a resort outside Chicago when she was home from college for the summer — “I was a lifeguard because I was a phys ed major my first year in school,” Novotny said, “which clearly we moved on from that” — before taking a job helping run the theater at The Second City.” After college, she had her own events company in Chicago, then sold that, got married, and moved to Houston, where she produced special events at the Woodlands Resort and Conference Center. From there it was over to Westin, serving as director of sales and marketing for the Westin South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California.

In 1989, she went back out on her own, founding Master Connection Associates (MCA), a customer service, sales, and leadership training firm. About 60 percent of MCA’s business is in the hospitality space, including brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, and Ritz-Carlton, whose sales and leadership training Novotny and her team ran from 1994 to 2006. Oh, and Novotny also owns a restaurant in Southern California. “I’m truly a hospitality girl,” Novotny said in an interview with HSMAI.

Never one to do things halfway, the hospitality girl will play a dual role at HSMAI’s Sales Leader Forum in Dallas on Nov. 5–6, serving as both emcee and a keynote speaker. Her topic: “Sales Imperatives for Today’s World.” “Hotel sales — that’s where I really cut my teeth,” Novotny said. “I became a superstar in hotel sales. I was really good at filling hotels.”

What was the key to your success when you worked in hotel sales?

The key to success for me as a director of sales and marketing is the same key to success for me today with my training business. My success is all about hunting for new business. To be successful you are always selling, and I seriously mean that. I never let anyone just say no. There must be another option. My sense of urgency, my commitment to my team to help them close a piece of business, my ability to communicate, motivate, inspire — it’s all been a big part of my success.

How did you end up moving into sales and leadership training?

When I was with Westin, we had sales training, and it was okay, but it wasn’t taught by somebody who knew the industry at all. My father was the vice president of learning and development for Shell Oil Company, so I was very in tune to training and organizational development. Even though that’s not what I went to school to do, I definitely had a knack for it. I’m very good at developing people, and I’m very good at coaching and giving feedback.

So, I went to my boss and said, “I want to go into training with Westin.” And you can imagine, they’re never going to take a results-producing director of sales and marketing out of the field and put them in HR, especially back then. But Westin was phenomenal. They gave me two years, so I kept my job [in sales and marketing] and also did all the training for them. They already had a curriculum, and I would fly in and I’d do it. After that, I said, “Okay, now I’m going to do it on my own.”

The first big, big account we landed was Ritz-Carlton, and for almost 15 years I ran the Ritz-Carlton Learning Institute. I did all their sales training and leadership training. That’s all I did — I traveled around, doing all the openings for Ritz-Carlton, and that’s what really put us on the map because, when RCHC [Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company] won two Malcolm Baldrige awards. Then we were asked to travel around on behalf of RCHC to law firms, accounting firms, hospitals, all these other companies that wanted to benchmark our processes, because no other hotel company has ever won the Malcolm Baldrige award.

How has hotel sales and leadership training changed in the 30 years you’ve been doing it?

Digital persuasion has become very, very big, but we believe strongly that it’s still B2B, B2C, and, we say, H2H — human to human. Especially in luxury hospitality, it’s never going to always be just online. People want to look online, they want to find things online, they want to be able to interact online, but at some point, you need high touch. Our training of course has evolved to show salespeople how to find new business via the digital resources that are out there, so no matter what you’re doing, your persuasive skills are allowing you to sell smarter in this digital world, but we’re finding that there’s a kind of digital overload right now, where people are liking to talk again. Some of my millennials are actually the ones saying, “No, I actually like talking to that person,” where some of the ones that have been hiding behind emails so long are salespeople that have been doing the job a while.

But what’s changed is how we actually go after the business and capture someone’s attention — the storytelling, the competitive advantages. It used to be, don’t ever talk negatively about the competition. Well, it’s not about talking negatively, but you should be able to share exactly the competitive advantages between you and your comp set, and if you can’t, you’re not that strong of a salesperson.

Is that part of what you’ll be discussing during your keynote at the Sales Leader Forum?

Yes. It’s about how you sell smarter in this marketplace, and selling smarter means that it’s not just all about digital. It is a combination. It’s no longer just B2B or B2C, it’s H2H. Those that are going to successful and stand out in hotel sales today are not going to let anything drag them down — recently, I worked with a team and we used the acronym DRAG, meaning dates, rates, availability, and guidelines. When you’re selling, you are selling holistically to a customer, so they become a customer for life and not just a transaction. You really are building your personal book of business for the particular hotel that you’re in, so that client should be able to go with you no matter where you go. Although that doesn’t sound good for the particular hotel, you take the fact that there’s less and less big brands and then all these different management companies out there, you’re going to be more valuable when you actually have your black book of business, as if you were a stock broker.

What are some of the opportunities that hotel salespeople have in today’s environment?

Because the business has become so much more complex, it’s actually more exciting and more fun, because we have so much more flexibility of where we work, how we work, how we sell to our clients. For example, before they had to come in for a site visit. They don’t have to come in for a site visit — we can grab their attention in a completely different way.

That said, as I always say, your past success guarantees you nothing when the rules change, and the rules change daily, so you think to yourself, “Okay, what do I personally need to work on?” It is shocking to me that you hire salespeople that come to work and literally don’t understand that their job is going to be to go out and find new business. The brand alone will bring in business, but no one’s going to give you anything. You’ve got to go out and find it.

What is it that’s kept you in hospitality all these years?

I love hospitality. I am a hospitality girl through and through. I love food and beverage. I love traveling. I love being out on the road. I love the experiences. In all these years of having this company, I’m close to 10 million miles of travel, and I love it. I love not being in the same spot every day, every week. I love being in a different city. I love working with different people.

And that’s what hotels are like. You never have the same customers in. You’re always dealing with different groups. You’re dealing with different events going on. It’s not static. If you work in a law firm, you go to the same office every day in the same city in the same cubicle. In hotels, you never have that.


Categories: Sales, Sales Strategies
Insight Type: Articles