HSMAI aims to expand in the Middle East

HSMAI President and CEO Bob Gilbert

The Hospitality Sales and Marketing Association International Middle East (HSMAI ME) wrapped up its 5th Annual ROC Commercial Strategy Conference, with 28 keynotes and 8 panel discussions covering a wide range of topics aimed at accelerating recovery in the hospitality industry.

The event took place on November 28 and 29 at the Conrad Dubai with over 275 attendees gathered to hear keynotes and panels exploring.

TTN’s Kim Thomson spoke to HSMAI President and CEO Bob Gilbert about industry challenges, opportunities and the role of travel agents. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation:


What are the key challenges faced by hoteliers these days?

Particularly for those brands and management companies that have hotels in different markets, the recovery from the pandemic has still been very spotty per market, per product/product type, per price tier, per origin market, there are a lot of variables. I think, the word that was used repeatedly was – agile.

People are dealing with this dichotomy of hotels that have recovered very quickly in certain markets and others that are still struggling. I think you must peel the onion back as commercial leaders to look at the nuances per hotel asset to say what is it we best do to optimise those revenues and those margins. And that is what the HSMAI mission is all about.


There was a panel of hoteliers that highlighted collaboration of all departments whether it be revenue management, sales force. What are your thoughts on this?

One of the silver linings to the pandemic has been the significant amount of companies that have really embraced the commercial organisational structure to break down those silos marketing, revenue optimisation – anything that is customer facing or drives top line revenue. While every one of those disciplines is a science in itself, unless there is alignment from a leadership perspective, to make sure they are all heading in the same direction, you are not going to have efficiency.

The other challenge that also came up several times, not just in the region, but globally, is the talent issue, and this is not just at the front line, it is at the mid management and management level. Again, Covid put the industry in a bit of a paradigm shift because many people started asking the question, do I need more balance in my life? I have other choices I can make and other things may be more important than just working an 80-hour week. A lot of companies have had to focus to make sure they really ramping up their efforts to attract, to retain and engage talent.

For the time we are seeing globally, HR departments that are engaging marketing departments for help in the recruiting process. Job description and posting being re-written to focus on not just what the tactics of the function are, but the benefits of working in hospitality. We need to remind ourselves more often than not, that we work in a fantastic industry and those that have a passion for it, they know it, and even some that left during the pandemic are now coming back, realising they really miss it, so we are seeing a rebound which is encouraging.


How does HSMAI manage to remain a non-profit?

We are like many associations globally, we are a membership-based organisation, so there is no owner, the members own the association, and that is part of what makes us a non-profit. The non-profit status is that we are incorporated in the United States, which basically means we don’t pay any income taxes. Like any association, we operate on a mix of membership dues, registration fees for educations programmes and sponsorship. 


What led to the formation of HSMAI in the first place and how has it evolved since?

In four years, the association is embarking on its 100th anniversary and we are already making some of the plans for this milestone. In 1927, there was a group of hoteliers that got together in Chicago to talk about this issue called sales promotion and the ethics on how hotels were being promoted. This is before there was the word, Sales Manager in a hotel, it was called hotel promotion. So out of that, HSMAI at the time, started developing a code of ethics for hotel salespeople so the name changed from hotel promotion to hotel sales managers, hotel sales and marketing, hospitality sales and marketing, the focuses basically stayed the same.

The biggest change that we have had in the last 20 years has really been the embracing of revenue management as another discipline that is vital to be integrated with sales and marketing.

What is your goal in the next five years?

We operate globally but the Middle East is a relatively new region for us. Most of our members are here in the UAE where we have several events. We are doing executive roundtables for key peer groups, we also have online learning programmes, we have brought our certification programme to the region and for the social side, we have the Thirsty Thursday.

Our goal in this region is to grow in the other markets. We have started doing events in Saudi Arabia with a power breakfast in Riyadh and Jeddah. We have started a new partnership this year with the Egyptian Hotel Association where we are doing educational programmes on a regular basis. In other parts of the world, we have the same expansion plans. In 2023, for example, we have aggressive expansion plans in South America. We are producing conferences in four new markets there. We currently have a successful chapter in Brazil, and they do several events annually and we are talking their strategy conference and expanding this to Lima and Bogotá, Santiago, and Mexico City.


Can you highlight what you feel the role of the travel agent still plays?

I believe travel agents are a critical part of the ecosystem. Where the intermediaries get a bad rap sometimes, the online travel agents  have gotten aggressive in their fee structures, and hoteliers’ relationship may be more contentious than the more traditional travel agent.

Hotels definitely value the traditional travel agent, particularly when it comes to guest experience and specifically in the luxury market or in unique destinations. The level of expertise and sophistication that a travel agent provides makes the whole experience seamless and it is a critical part of the infrastructure.