Sekers Sales Director, David Lawton and FR-One General Manager, Olivier Delhomme discuss the challenges COVID-19 has had on the hospitality industry, and how this has resulted in an adaptation in the company’s approach to sales.
How has the contract market and hospitality industry fared through the disruption caused by COVID-19?
Delhomme: I’ve always seen these industries as untouchable because I always thought that no matter what was happening in the world, people still want to enjoy life. Suddenly that was taken away from us. But with the relaxation of rules and fewer lockdowns across Europe this summer, it was great to see the hotels in many tourist hotspots fully booked.
The idea of a ‘return to pre-COVID’ is still far off. We are talking about 2024/2025 to be back to where we used to be. However, it is promising to see the hospitality industry begin to recover and welcome guests back for some rest and relaxation.
Lawton: It is unfortunately common knowledge that the contract and hospitality sector has been one of the most heavily hit industries throughout the UK during the pandemic. And whilst after the lifting of restrictions we saw a huge demand in ‘staycations’ and rising hotel demand with inflated accommodation costs, the sector is still in recovery. This recovery period has seen an obvious lack of investment in new build and refurbishments and cannot be questioned. As a leading UK supplier of fabrics and wall coverings to this sector we feel it is simply a matter of time before the market returns along with the long awaited investment. We are confident of a strong recovery and are prepared for when this happens.
Before COVID-19, roughly how many days did you spend on the road visiting customers and how many nights were spent staying in hotels?
Delhomme: I was trying to slim down towards 200, but I think in 2019 I was closer to 250 nights away. So, basically, my home was a plane.
We are now noticing that the hotels that mainly serve business travelers are the ones that are struggling. Especially in terms of travelling abroad, there is much less business travel now that companies have learned to communicate over the internet and face to face meetings have been largely replaced by video calls. We must now question whether we need to travel great distances at all? I believe that we will see the answers to these questions arise in the years to come.
Situations like this show that people are ingenious. They find ways to continue to run their business and it is great to see an enormous amount of creativity coming out of this situation, which at the same time is running parallel to this enormous constraint. Innovation is the natural human response to any distressing phenomena, and a pandemic on a global scale like this one could be the catalyst for great changes in the hospitality industry going forward.
Lawton: Unlike Olivier, I did not live on a plane, however I did travel within my local area frequently. My working week is dependent on client demand, product launch dates and travelling with my team of field sales representatives. A typical week would see me on the road 4 days a week and an average week would see me staying away in hotels twice a week. During the pandemic we have not really slowed down with the number of fabric launches we make on an annual basis and with our new exclusive UK partnership with FR-One Contract Fabrics the team are as active as ever promoting the ranges to our valued clients.
COVID-19 is not going anywhere any time soon, how have and will salespeople continue to adapt in terms of their skillset?
Delhomme: I think it’s more on the communication side that the skills are being required. Salespeople by their nature are flexible: they have to be. They have always needed to make that connection with their customers, and that isn’t changing. Salespeople have a dedication to get where they need to be, no matter what happens. This is their strength.
Lawton: Any sales person within any field must be able to adapt, we cannot be rigid in our approach to the market, flexibility is key. During the pandemic we have worked as closely as possible as a team inspiring and encouraging each other, suggesting different ways we can approach, communicate and target the market. The answer is within your question, we have had to adapt and challenge our skillset.
How have the Sekers sales team changed the ways that they communicate with and ‘see’ customers?
Lawton: Initially as most did, we explored the online zoom/teams type presentations with our design clients. This, unfortunately by the nature of the product we supply, provided it’s own difficulties. Not so much tying clients up to a date and time to meet but rather when presenting fabrics which are essentially selected on their colour and texture.
For the majority of the pandemic clients have been, rightly so, unwilling to have physical face to face meetings but there has still been a real appetite for new product regardless of how the market has been affected. Therefore our sampling department has really proved its value and we have sent out a record number of pattern books, sample cards and cuttings to studios but more importantly we have been flexible and supported all of our designers who have worked remotely from home. This is also where our Sekers and FR-One E-Binders have come in handy, for those that have worked at home but do not have the space to store our collection of binders, they have been able to access our full binder range on our website. This feature imitates flicking through a physical binder and allows our customers to view our drapery and upholstery collections individually.
We also received an overwhelming reaction to the three new Sekers branded, FR-One binders that have been placed with clients, this has been reflected in a large number of sizeable orders. Since the restrictions have eased, we have also tried our best to maintain face to face meetings with clients where possible, we are lucky to be returning to some kind of normality and my team is now out on the road on a daily basis having meetings in person rather than over the phone. Building relationships with our customers and providing excellent customer service have always been our top priorities and we feel this is done best in person rather than over the phone.
Our Sales Team look forward to reconnecting with the industry in person at the upcoming HIX Event (Stand Number 19). We will have a number of striking, new collections on display which are launching in 2022 and are well suited to the hospitality industry. We are excited to get some feedback about them. We will also have the FR-One RE-Invent range on the stand for visitors who are looking to complete their design with an inherently fire retardant, washable fabric that is constructed with recycled polyester.
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