[pullquote]I believe that the best approach is to combine experience and high emotional intelligence. [/pullquote]Marilka Tovarac is the MICE Sales department Manager in Valamar Riviera, one of the leading Croatian hotel groups. Friendly, open and always ready to help, this lady originally from Dubrovnik is the perfect example of an excellent vendor. Knowing that people play a crucial role in the meetings industry, Marilka stresses the importance of a personal approach. We teamed up with the first lady of Valamar’s conference sales and talked about the different aspects of this dynamic yet demanding position, and even discussed some personal issues too.

Q: You have been a member of the Valamar team for quite some time now and you have held several different positions, in the last seven years having been working in the conference sales department. Can you tell us a bit more how your career has evolved over time and can you point out important moments or events in your career of which you are particularly proud?
I consider myself as a very lucky person, because throughout my whole career I always had the support of my superiors, and thus a certain degree of freedom. Considering that in my 15-year career in sales I literally worked in every possible sales sector and I believe that sticking to the MICE sector isn’t a coincidence; namely, the structure and the processes of sales in this segment are by nature very dynamic, and that is exactly what appeals to me and my character most.

I am very proud to be a part of the Valamar team, but mostly I am proud of my department in Dubrovnik! It’s hard to single out just one special moment; sometimes an ordinary day at the office can be special. Sometimes it is when we succeed in getting a new project that may not be that well known, but we needed it and it happened to be there in the right place at the right time. However, I can highlight a very important event, namely the opening of the hotel Valamar Dubrovnik 4* in 2009, when my journey into the world of the MICE industry took a more serious turn. In fact, at the same time as the Valamar hotel was built the MICE sales department was established and together with other colleagues we began to think, create and implement all our ideas for positioning the Valamar hotel as a strategic MICE partner for all the clients in Dubrovnik and all other markets too.

Today The Valamar Group can boast itself with significant MICE capacities in numerous hotels all the way from Dubrovnik to the island of Krk and Istria, but the hotel Valamar Lacroma still remains our flagship in terms of our best MICE offer, since it offers the largest conference facilities in the region – the main conference hall has a capacity of up to 1,200 people and there are another seven smaller halls and a large business centre. With professional staff, excellent cuisine and an abundance of other activities, this hotel has in a very short period of time set high standards in the field of meetings, incentives, conferences and events.

SECECQ: How specific or different is the sale of conference facilities from the sale of other hotel products?
It is often said that the only link between business and leisure tourism is actually just a hotel room. This is partially true, but I would still like to use this opportunity to emphasize the importance of each segment. The fact is that, for example, congress events are organised before or after the main tourist season, and therefore in this context the MICE segment is certainly the most important factor. However, each segment needs to eventually contribute within its own abilities, because in the end the results are evaluated in a general and annual basis. Therefore the cooperation with other sales departments is very important, as well as with other hotel operation services, because they are the ones who are responsible for the event execution. It also depends on the product you sell – in this context the hotel you sell. Our situation seems a little complicated at first, because we have so many facilities to offer, but in most cases that is precisely our greatest advantage in relation to our competition.

Furthermore, in the MICE sector we encounter a lot more “obstacles” during the process from the “inquiry to the realization.” Often we find ourselves competing with destinations like Spain, Portugal and other Mediterranean countries, with who knows how many competitive hotels from the mentioned destinations. Then we are confronted with the well-known phenomenon of the ‘destination availability’ i.e. the need for better air connections, as apparently the demand for more and better flight connections never ceases. Anyhow, the process of obtaining a congress, a conference or an incentive event is often experienced as time consuming and laborious work, but when you finally hold a contract in your hands you are overwhelmed with happiness. Also, when you lose a contract because, for example, Barcelona has several daily flight connections with England and the price of a return air ticket is negligible…you experience a little bit of disappointment, because in this particular case your hands are completely tied.

Q: What qualities must a MICE department salesperson have in order to win the trust of a client?
It is not easy to answer this question, because we cannot determine only one or the right style in a sales strategy that will have the same positive effect each time. However, I believe that the best approach is to combine experience and high emotional intelligence. From these two key qualities the most important is experience. I would like to point out that experience in our sector is not necessarily related to years of working in the sector, but rather to “the number of matches won”. By that I mean that the negotiation in MICE in very intensive – each request is a negotiation, each meeting a face-to-face negotiation, every phone call is negotiation, each view of the hotel’s a negotiation… Also, no less important is how well you know your product and how much you believe in what you are selling.

37aAnything is possible, but you have to be prepared to pay the price. 

Q: Conferences and the clients who have organised them often have special requirements that require a lot of preparation and flexibility by a hotel and its staff. Can you give us an example of when you received a really demanding request from a client?
We in sales have a catch-phrase that says: “Everything is possible, but be prepared to pay the price.” Jokes aside, in organising a MICE event the most important thing is the implementation of the event. This basically means that majority of the burden falls most heavily on our wonderful colleagues from the hotel operations department, from the hotel manager, assistants, event coordinators, heads of F&B to household services and safety sector…absolutely every department is a very important link in the chain.

Of course the main objective in the selling business is to sell, but personally I think my job is more about how to best sell a good product. When you have a well-coordinated team of people supporting you and you have their full confidence, my part of the job seems easier, because I believe 100% in our product, and I stand behind it 100%. When a customer notices this you are already halfway to the contract.

The Valamar group is known for providing extremely high level services in accordance with international quality standards and is recognized as one of the best employers in Croatia. The thing that Valamar is particularly proud of is the unique and innovative corporate training system that ensures the continuous development of employees and thus contributes to overall business success. Generally, you can have a luxury hotel, but if you don’t have a top-quality service and a flexible team, cooperation will not be achieved. The primary goal of every retailer should be a long-term partnership with clients.

Q: Up to now you have participated at many international fairs, tradeshows and workshops. In the framework of the congress segment which of them have been the most important ones for and your company? How do you usually begin the presentation of Dubrovnik at B2B meetings – what do you emphasize?
We generally prefer the B2B meetings and in my opinion I think these types of meetings are the most effective ones and provide the return on investment no matter the initial cost. Of course, every year we co-exhibit with the Croatian Tourist Board at IMEX and IBTM. It is very important to present ourselves as part of a national institution, as Valamar is not an international company, but nevertheless it represents two key destinations in our country: Istria and Dubrovnik. Among other tradeshows we choose those that are most effective in terms of what markets they cover, and what also interests us is the quality of invited clients and the number and duration of prescheduled meetings.

When participating at a similar meeting we primarily aim to present Valamar and all its facilities that are related to the sector, but also Croatia. The beginning of the presentation usually starts in this manner, we talk about the historical and cultural heritage of our country, with an emphasis on Istria and Dubrovnik and generally present Valamar Riviera as one of the most important factors in the hospitality and tourism industry in Croatia. I usually have a Croatian flight timetable, a small map of Croatia, my tablet and a pile of business cards on my table in front of me. I try to highlight the best of what both of our destinations have to offer for organising meetings or incentives. This implies a good general knowledge of all key aspects of the destination and the knowledge of the majority of the Valamar facilities.

Marilka TovaracDubrovnik – a “value for money” destination

Q: How would you rate the competitiveness of Dubrovnik in the global congress market and how does its general image as a tourist destination help or hinder its positioning on it?
I believe that Dubrovnik is definitely recognized as a quality destination, but of course there is always room for growth and improvement. What makes Dubrovnik a stand out destination, besides its cultural reputation and geographic location, and what are its advantages in relation to its competition, is that the general impression of Dubrovnik, as well as Croatia, is as a “value for money” destination.

Although the main source markets have emerged from the recession, I think that awareness of “reasonable” budget still remains somehow an imperative for all customers, so this is definitely our current advantage. However, I think we should give greater focus, and by that I mean Croatia in general, on future projects i.e. on the strategies and visions of conference and incentive offers.

Q: In addition to traditional scientific conferences, in the past few years Dubrovnik has become known as a host for film production and automotive events. Should the city position itself as a destination for these special events?
I see no reason why not, but at the same time I am a strong supporter of sustainable development of all forms of tourism and of keeping the balance between these same forms. I guess because I grew up in “a small city” I developed a guiding principle of keeping all things in the “right measure” and in harmony. I think that all tourism industry players from the public and the private sector have to work on mutual respect and coordination and should primarily take into account the public interest and long-term prosperity of the city and its inhabitants!

Valamar Riviera has been operating successfully in the tourism sector in Croatia for the past six decades, and corporate social responsibility is part of our tradition. Our facilities have earned many international certificates and awards in the field of sustainable development, which represents a part of our business that we are particularly proud of.

Q: Besides your career, the most important thing in your life is your family. How difficult it is to have a private life and thrive in a corporation such as Valamar? We know that working in the tourism industry sometimes demands working overtime, traveling…
Anything is possible if you have a reliable and always available grandma! Indeed, in addition to traveling and being absent from home, the most important thing is to have a person that you can fully trust, and who else if not your own mother or your mother in law! Of course, if you have that luck. Anyway, a dynamic business environment definitely affects the quality of private life, but I try as much as I can to make up for the lost time and I spend it with my family.

Q: You have a very unusual name that we believe is one of your attributes that clients remember you by. So, who is Marilka Tovarac?
Marilka actually comes from the name Mare – hardly anyone calls me by my name. I like to think of myself as a reasonable and down to earth person who appreciates the little things and loves happy people. At work I am a perfectionist and I try to maintain my professional approach in order to most efficiently transfer my knowledge and skills onto my team and other colleagues. Therefore, in addition to my daily tasks, I take time to read and learn about the novelties from the industry, I work on different projects, I investigate the competition and currently I am working on some new ideas. All in all – I’m always on the move!

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A long-time meetings industry addict, Gorazd is the Founder and owner of marketing and event agency Toleranca Marketing. He has many years of experience in planning, preparing and carrying out large international meetings and exhibitions. As the founder of the "Power to the Meetings" methodology, he still firmly believes in the power of live events and human to human communication. He is also the author of numerous articles and editor-in-chief of the meetings industry magazine Kongres Magazine.