Know the local hidden gems and have a connection. The key to this is that the hotel’s staff needs to be trained on everything from unknown hotspot to dive spots, then visit those spots and start a relationship that gives the guest a perk if you send them to one of these local businesses. This will help make guests feel cared for and give them an enhanced experience.
As part of my series about “How to Create a Travel Experience That Keeps People Coming Back for More”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa DelBuono.
Melissa DelBuono is a Director at Travel Funders Network (TFN), a wholesale distribution company dedicated to helping hotels attain a consistent, reliable source of revenue. Throughout her career, she has worked with leading global brands including IHG and Marriott. Melissa attended Rochester Institute of Technology and holds an M.B.A and an M.S in Business Strategy.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
This industry has been in my blood my whole life. My father would always tell the story of when he owned a restaurant, and I was a baby I refused to leave his side. He had to bring me to his restaurant and put me on the prep table to get his work done. So, I was always comfortable in a hospitality setting.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In my industry there is no lack of interesting stories. The most notable would be the time I was running the Sales Department at a Holiday Inn and got a group inquiry call from this company that wanted to book 25 rooms for three weeks in the middle of the slow season. In my industry it’s what we call a “White Whale.” Something we never see but always dream of booking. Two weeks later we got a call from the Secret Service for President Obama. Turns out the company they mentioned was not the company name for obvious security issues but in fact was a Presidential Visit! Yes, I hosted President Obama at my hotel! The most amusing part was overseeing the president’s hotel room set-up. They brought a team of cleaners with their own linens, an office set-up for his room and décor, and they were very careful to clean the room after he left. During his visit he even crashed an engagement party.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made in my career happened early and during my first General Manager position. I had been promoted to the position before I was ready, frankly. A General Manager needs to know every position and all the employees. I decided to start with housekeeping thinking I knew something about it since I kept my own home clean. Boy, was I wrong. I failed to realize what that incredible group of people did day in and day out. I couldn’t keep up. I did this with each department — participating as best I could and learning the ins and outs of their jobs. It didn’t all go smoothly and the main thing I learned was humility. I also was able to find ways that I could help them by streamlining certain processes and making sure everyone was compensated appropriately for the work they did to make the hotel a success.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have two people to thank for helping me get to where I am today, my Mother Jean and Father Frank. I have been strongly influenced by their work ethic, honesty, morals, strength during adversity, and drive to succeed. A prime example of this is when I was diagnosed with cancer at 19, they found me the best care and advocated for me within the medical system to make sure that I was receiving all the treatments that were available. It was not a good prognosis, regardless they together gathered their strength and went into solutions mode. They taught me an invaluable lesson, which is to never give up and that you need to work for what you want while you prepare for the next step.
Thank you for that. Let us jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?
At TFN, we’re changing the conversation around building revenue for hotel owners by hiring the top industry professionals, forming relationships with our clients, and understanding the markets in which they do business. The approach helps us provide strategy-driven recommendations to boost revenue.
Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation and how do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?
The biggest pain point is trying to help others understand that a mutually beneficial working relationship can be a little give on each side but in the end is very profitable and effective. Then showing the clients that work with us that TFN is there to improve upon their existing business model. It is all about showing what we can do and educating our clients about how to strategically maximize our program to aid in growth.
As you know, COVID19 changed the world as we know it. Can you share a few examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers will prefer to travel?
Covid 19 changed the world as we know it for sure. One positive for the industry is that the past year we’ve seen tremendous recovery and made the approach to obtaining business more creative and innovative. The loss of corporate and international business was a huge blow to the bottom line. The recovery over the last year is revealing how talented industry professionals can in adapting to experience growth. The biggest adjustment over the next five years is going to be finding and communicating your unique point-of-view as a business, enhancing the guest experience, and attracting travelers to additional destinations within your brand’s portfolio. I also believe we will see a shift in travel destinations from the major city markets to more suburban markets/smaller cities that offer more of an authentic cultural travel experience.
You are a “travel insider.” How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?
Being in the travel industry for the better part of my life has made my travel standards higher. When traveling I go to a place where I can be enveloped in the culture, have a great experience, learn something new, and enjoy the surrounding areas. I tend to take public transportation and visit local restaurants that make me feel like I live there. The perfect vacation is to a destination that makes me comfortable enough to do that.
Travel is not always about escaping, but about connecting. Have you made efforts to cultivate a more wellness driven experience? We would love to hear about it.
I seem to never travel to escape, I live an incredibly happy and balanced life. The most recent trip I am planning is a group trip to Italy with my husband, parents, and aunts to visit where my grandparents lived. We found a place to stay in Palermo that is walkable to local shops and restaurants to experience life as our ancestors did. My wellness experience will be more spiritual than physical.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a travel experience that keeps bringing people back for more? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Know the local hidden gems and have a connection. The key to this is that the hotel’s staff needs to be trained on everything from unknown hotspot to dive spots, then visit those spots and start a relationship that gives the guest a perk if you send them to one of these local businesses. This will help make guests feel cared for and give them an enhanced experience.
2. Be personable with your guests. The hospitality industry is known for diversity and for staff with big outgoing personalities. Let your staff be themselves, while remaining professional. This will make your hotel a meaningful part of your guests’ experiences and go a long way in making them feel good about their trip overall. Also, when you make a guest feel comfortable, they are more likely to come to you with any issues that arise during their stay. This gives you a chance to resolve them before they leave and ensure that even with a small issue, they’ll rate their experience positively.
3. Understand who stays at your hotel. Understanding your guest is the biggest tool in the toolbox. It helps with pricing, product selection, décor, and team training. This helps provide the best guest experience possible. Knowing your guests helps the management team make smart, effective, revenue-enhancing decisions while adding value to the guest experience that will result in future bookings.
4. Have a great product that is appealing. The major issue with hotel stays besides service is cleanliness. Even aged properties that are clean can have an appearance that says otherwise. It is essential to maintain and update the rooms and public spaces as they age. Making your guests feel comfortable that their lodgings are clean and up to date will guarantee the guest returns to that location or others within the brand’s portfolio.
5. Make everyone feel like a VIP. Since most travel these days is for leisure or a hybrid of business and leisure, expectations for lodging are higher. Making guests feel special can be as simple as including a handwritten note in their room, upgrading a room to a higher floor without being asked, or providing a welcome basket with snacks and other small amenities.
You are a person of profound influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement that I would start is a movement focused on growth, diversity, inclusion, women in leadership, and company culture in the hospitality industry. The movement would focus on employee growth by setting goals from day one of employment and tracking progress through a clear set of KPI’s. It would foster a positive work environment, celebrate milestones, and pave a clear path to advance their career goals. This would help improve culture and may even alleviate the significant turnover common in the industry.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My success has given me the opportunity to offer my knowledge to help others. I put this to use during the pandemic by starting a nonprofit called Project Save Hospitality. When so many in the industry were losing their jobs, I created a program that offered help to leverage transferable skills to obtain employment in other areas. We helped with interview skills, resume writing, job placement, and held a virtual career fair that placed thousands of people into jobs outside of the industry. I was able to contact companies that I worked with and educate them on what each person in each position in hospitality actually does.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!