“Turning a page in the history books” – Heidi Van Roon on elevating the sales profession to a new level
By Colleen Morgan
Source: ©The Moodie Davitt Report
30 March 2021
“The time to elevate the sales profession to a whole new level has come.” So says Spark Group of Companies Founder Heidi Van Roon, a recognised champion of sales and human resources (HR) excellence in travel retail.
Van Roon leads a company that is committed to meeting best-in-class staffing and recruitment requirements. She believes passionately that the role of human engagement has been accentuated, not eroded, by the pandemic.
Spark, based in Vancouver, Canada focuses on people and on engagement; on connecting brands with customers in a way that digital cannot.
Van Roon advocates the vital, and often little-recognised, role that sales personnel play in travel retail. A role, which in the post-COVID-19 ‘new norm’, she says, has become even more important.
“The sales staff is the front line team of our industry; they are the first responders and they are the ones that create that bespoke moment for the customer”
“It is time to elevate the retail sales profession and to support the role with better recruitment and retention and advancement opportunities, better education and higher expectations and more accountability,” Van Roon says.
She believes the industry is “turning a page in the history books”. And she is adamant that Spark’s new Brand Partner Program can not only enhance the role of the traditional sales assistant or brand ambassador in airport retail stores but can also help brands and retailers maximise revenues in the COVID-shaped travel retail environment.
Below, Heidi Van Roon talks (virtually) with The Moodie Davitt Report in the countdown to the Summit of the Americas – A Virtual Experience (5-9 April), where Spark Group of Companies is an exhibiting partner.
As reported, the all-digital Summit of the Americas is being organised by the International Association of Airport and Duty Free Stores (IAADFS) and Asociación Sudamericana de Tiendas Libres (ASUTIL) in partnership with The Moodie Davitt Report (which organised the successful Virtual Travel Retail Expo from 12-16 October).
Van Roon is included in the powerful and diverse line-up of speakers in the Knowledge Hub at the Summit where the Spark Group will also host an Engagement Lounge session on Optimising Sales and Promotions.
What is the major focus for Spark Group of Companies at the Summit of the Americas – A Virtual Experience?
It is our priority to provide programmes and services that best support the recovery and lead the industry into a strong future.
With recruitment, sales and promotions as our core, we are excited to expand into training. The modules stand on their own and, as a bundle, they form the basis of a most comprehensive sales and promotional initiative, the Brand Partner Program.
The Spark Group Founder Heidi Van Roon: “It is time to elevate the retail sales profession”
Essentially, we are taking the best of the temporary promoter programmes – as we knew them – and adding at least five layers of sophistication and accountability and bundling this into a one-year certificate programme that is extendable.
This Travel Retail Certification is front loaded with ten essential courses that include goal setting, sales literacy, emotional intelligence, consumer behaviour and sales reporting. The brand receives a 12-month report while, at the end of the course, the Brand Partner will be a highly trained most valuable player (MVP) and can either stay working for Spark or apply for a role with the brand or the retailer.
At the core is a great brand experience for the customer, accountability to the brand, collaboration with the retailer and stability for the staff who will be employed by Spark.
This programme attempts to check off the most important boxes while staying adaptable to retailer and brand input. I really think it is our best approach to sales and promotions for a new era of retail.
I have entertained this idea for several years, and, as the crisis gained momentum, I became more and more convinced that the time to launch it is now. The time to elevate the sales profession to a whole new level has come. This is the perfect timing because the industry is turning a page in the history books.
“This is the future of sales and promotions. The brand will be much more involved in supporting the brand experience in the store while also holding agencies and promoters accountable.”
We will also be able to offer brands key productivity measures with a made-for-purpose app. Imagine that a brand can access a dashboard and see what sales staff are doing at the key locations where they are using Spark teams. For example, staff clock in and clock out by way of the app. No need to bother retail staff to sign off on hours worked and no doubt for brands on hours invoiced.
This is a powerful differentiator and productivity measure; essentially our teams can scale to a full sales management service that is both deep and wide.
Under the Brand Partner Program employees placed by Spark will receive specialist airport retail sales training
This is the future of sales and promotions. The brand will be much more involved in supporting the brand experience in the store while also holding agencies and promoters accountable. In the immediate term, we will not be seeing activations and tastings. However, we can adapt sales and promotions so the customer still experiences royal treatment through an adapted campaign.
I believe that an intentional sales and promotional programme will outperform the recovery trend. We will still showcase our usual offers, such as recruitment and staffing for sales and promotions but the Brand Partner Program is the initiative that I think will be the game changer for the recovery because it is all encompassing.
We need to understand the key brand and retailer objectives and align with great Human Resources (HR) that supports sales and promotions for this new era in retail sales.
Last, but certainly not least, we know that the pandemic has dramatically affected the sales model, as we know it for all categories, and especially those that are high contact such as beauty and any form of activation or promotion. Our sales style needs to be adapted to the recovery as it changes because our consumer behaviour has also dramatically changed. The Brand Partner Program will be key in delivering on this long list of goals.
While digital has become increasingly important through the COVID-19 crisis, you and the Spark Group of Companies have been a strong advocate for the importance of sales staff in airport stores. How do you perceive that human v digital mix in the industry’s recovery?
It is true that digital has moved into a prominent place due in large part to lockdowns and pandemic protocols that are anti-social. The prominent status of the digital role as we see it today is, therefore, not an accurate picture for the future; it is skewed by the situation.
We only need to look to Hainan to observe the critical role physical retail still plays in the industry.
“I have seen tremendous investment go into every aspect of the value chain such as research and development, production, marketing, distribution, logistics and installations. It is time to hold a magnifying glass over the last function in the value chain, namely where the brand meets the customer in a live conversation”
Adding a personal touch to brand activations: Spark sales staff support a joint promotion by Godiva Chocolates and Wayne Gretzky Icewine at Vancouver International Airport
Travel retail has a tremendous reputation for well-supported promotions, activations and retail theatre. The significance of great sales staff will only increase because it is directly tied to the unique selling proposition (USP) of the travel retail channel.
The sales staff is the front line team of our industry; they are the first responders and they are the ones that create that bespoke moment for the customer. It is time to elevate the retail sales profession and to support the role with better recruitment and retention and advancement opportunities, better education and higher expectations and more accountability.
I have seen tremendous investment go into every aspect of the value chain such as research and development, production, marketing, distribution, logistics and installations. It is time to hold a magnifying glass over the last function in the value chain, namely where the brand meets the customer in a live conversation. This moment is the moment for reinforcing the brand ethos and supporting the lifetime value of the customer.
How do you think industry stakeholders can strike a balance between humanisation and digitalisation in the post-COVID world?
Digitalisation and humanisation are complimentary channels as opposed to competing channels. The customer is fully integrated across all retail channels because, as long as we are human, we are both hard wired and soft wired. Social selling is directly tied to the travel retail USP and if we hope to build out the sales model that supports a globalised customer, then that plan will include a strong in-store sales plan and a vibrant sales culture.
“Humanisation and digitalisation are comparable to the two pedals on a bicycle, they work in tandem; one depends on the other and thereby builds momentum”
In-person encounters create great branding moments. It is the emotional and social connection that deepens the brand recall more than any digital agenda can.
Committed to supporting brands in North American travel retail: Heidi Van Roon (centre) and six of her Spark frontliners
Experiential sales that include taste, sight, sounds, touch, smell and a human connection are all inputs digital cannot offer. In addition, in-person selling adds skills such as intuition, tone, presence and the moral and ethical commitments that are perfectly suited to customer-facing industries.
Our shop floor sales training will be much more focused on the unique factors that have supported the success in travel retail so far and that build out the model to succeed in the future. I think stakeholders have no choice but to strike that balance, because the customer already has and the future of physical retail depends on it.
Humanisation and digitalisation are comparable to the two pedals on a bicycle, they work in tandem; one depends on the other and thereby builds momentum.
Sales in the time of COVID-19: A Spark assistant in a Bvlgari sales area at Vancouver International Airport, without the use of samples and sporting PPE while promoting
With an eye to the Summit, how do you view the continuing impact of COVID-19 on Americas travel retail and the wider industry?
At first glance, the impact of COVID-19 on the Americas travel retail industry is devastating. It is unprecedented for our generation to experience lockdown, closed borders and government issued travel restrictions over such a long period. If the industry stranglehold is the focus, then that’s all we will see.
Sparking smiles: Heidi Van Roon and her team featured in a special Moodie Davitt Stars of 2020 salute to frontline workers as they continued to lift spirits for retailers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic
Spark employees Shannon (left) and Jenny, ready to share treats on the shop floor at Vancouver International Airport
However, I have experienced setbacks as gateways to unprecedented opportunities. These unexpected events can hold a promise that otherwise could have never surfaced. So, I view the current situation as a way of setting the industry right for a vibrant future.
For example, many capital expansion projects that include travel retail square footage across the US and in Canada have been advanced and will be completed ahead of schedule. Vancouver International Airport (YVR) had a goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Thanks to the pandemic, these climate initiatives have been advanced by a full 20 years and a recent announcement has confirmed that YVR will reach net zero emissions by 2030.
I like to think that with the right focus and the right initiatives we will take years off the recovery period and that over the long term our industry will be better off.
How important is the Americas region to Spark Group of Companies’ business today – and where do you see the growth opportunities in the region?
Brands have been asking us for years if our services are available in more locations across Canada and the USA.
In response, we incorporated a US subsidiary in 2019 and ran pilot projects at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that year. These projects have substantially informed what we are able to offer today.
The reality is that much of travel retail has outgrown the former sales and promotional model. We are in a new era of retail that also needs to be much more resourceful, so efficiency and outcomes are big items on our agenda.
“When I look at the role models in my life, I find myself most inspired by those who have made a difference in their industry and in their community”
Our growth opportunities are fully dependent on brand requests and retailer approval and our current market situation requires stability for staff, brands and retailers for at least one to three year terms. If I could send a wish list to Santa for permission to be in the most requested airport locations, these would be: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, JFK, Newark, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Just as a start.
We are not just advocates for great sales programmes. We are also very committed to best HR practices. My hope is that this pandemic brings an end to agencies that supply independent contractors. The independent contractor status for airport promoters does not pass the test set by Labor & Industries in the US and employment standards legislation in Canada. The playing field has long been inequitable for agencies that are committed to applicable labour standards, wages and government remittances for earnings, benefits and insurance.
The Americas are mission critical for Spark. It is where our services most logically fit into the market opportunity. Here we can comfortably offer guarantees and return on investment (ROI) targets. Europe may be a strong future market for us because I grew up there and am bilingual and bicultural. We are also very well positioned to be in Asia because of Vancouver’s (and Spark’s) cultural ties to the region.
It is important to highlight that our growth is not just defined by size and locations. The most important growth objective, regardless of size, is to provide the best-quality services and hopefully the most comprehensive suite of services.
When I look at the role models in my life, I find myself most inspired by those who have made a difference in their industry and in their community. To see our location managers become owners and all our staff benefitting from profit sharing would be a dream come true. It is my vision to be the WestJet of staffing firms, because having staff committed to their careers and recognised for their contributions is what creates vibrant societies. I am a big proponent for win-win collaborations.
“The sales staff is the front line team of our industry”: Spark underlines the importance of recognising the efforts of sales personnel
How do you think the channel can and should engage with travelling consumers to ensure a sustained recovery?
Our customers shop global brands and they are globalised. The more that travel retail can deliver a consistent brand message to the customer, the better.
The opportunity that I see for the global retail industry is a message to the customer that says: “You are important to us in every retail channel, anywhere in the world and at any time”.
Travel retail has an opportunity to better define its USP in this message and to deliver a travel exclusive experience through engagement, exclusivity, special projects, entertainment and promotions.
How would you like to see industry partnerships evolve as we enter this new era ?
I think we will see a decade of less competition and more collaboration. We are in this together and interdependent. With the world on its knees, it has brought out the softer side of our humanity. Society is much more focused on shared values and therefore morals and ethics have become more important.
Our complementary skills and experience combine to offer exponential value. Airlines, cruise lines, airports, retailers, brands and associated businesses need to think and act as peers if we hope to chart a recovery that best serves the industry.
I am anticipating strategic partnerships and alliances that are committing around social, environmental and economic goals and who partner around shared goals as an investment into long-term success that we all desire.
These alliances and partnership will form strong relationships that are mutually respectful, sustainable and accountable and thereby outperform the industry economically by virtue of shared beliefs and equitable goals.
NOTE: As mentioned, Spark Group Founder Heidi Van Roon is included in the powerful and diverse set of speakers in the Knowledge Hub at the upcoming Summit of the Americas – A Virtual Experience. The agenda and line-up and agenda can be found here.
Spark Group will also host an Engagement Session on Optimising Sales and Promotions. The presentation will highlight the role sales play in delivering the travel retail USP to customers and ensuring the best possible sales recovery for brands and retailers.
Register here: https://www.bigmarker.com/SummitoftheAmericas/SPARK
Tuesday, 6 April 2021 at 2:00 PM | Eastern Time (US & Canada) (GMT -4:00)