LAS VEGAS — After three days of intense meetings, workshops and a little Las Vegas flair, Choice Hotels International wrapped up its 56th annual convention at the Mandalay Bay Resort last week.With more than 4,000 delegates in attendance, including 300 hotel owners and developers from around the world, Steve Joyce, president, Choice Hotels, welcomed the crowd by recapping its solid year. “Last year tested all our resilience and our strength,” said Joyce. “We could have easily followed our competitors and cut training and education, service and amenities. We could have looked the other way on our property and room conditions. But that’s not what we chose to do, because we are leaders not followers.”
Themed “Right Here, Right Now,” the conference was a study in optimism, focusing on the various initiatives introduced by Choice over the past year while examining the post-recession future. “Through our joint efforts, we increased RevPAR index by 20 basis points in 2009 — our highest RevPAR index since 2006 when times were booming,” Joyce told the audience, which burst into applause. The company’s biggest brand, Comfort Inns, experienced one of the largest RevPAR index gains of 180 points.
The company’s two new brands — the Ascend Collection (upscale properties in urban destinations) and Cambria Suites (an extended-stay upscale brand) — are doing well. “We have 21 hotels open, seven of which came on line in the past year, and consumers love the brand,” said David Pepper, senior vice-president, Global Development, referring to Cambria Suites. In fact, the company is set to open three more of the brand’s units in 2010. Pepper also told the crowd that Main Stay Suites and Suburban are opening two hotels in Canada this coming year in Winnipeg and Edmonton, respectively.
Choice Hotels has also redesigned its Sleep Inns brand to provide a simple, stylish, reliable experience. “We’re looking for a new direction for Sleep,” said Mike Varner, director, Brand Planning. “It’s a new prototype. Our franchisees were asking us for years to do something.”
The company responded by introducing new lobby designs with warm, natural finishes and redesigned guest rooms with accented walls, new media boards and sleek furniture. Properties will also feature spa-like baths and a redesigned exterior with natural stone finishes, low-roof profile and broad overhangs. “Simply Stylish was a brand promise to customers to provide a highly consistent reliable product and to ensure they were well rested,” said Varner. Renovations are currently underway across the system with 80 per cent of properties due to be renovated in the first three years of the program, with the remainder following two years after. The new rooms will cost owners $5,500 per key.
Recognizing the importance of room cleanliness, the company also launched a new integrated compliance program, which will roll out in 2011, blending early-warning performance notifications with support and resources to help hotels improve. “Along with great staff service, this will help us maintain and strengthen the loyalty we’ve earned from customers this past year,” said Joyce, who pointed out that 300 hotels exited the company because they didn’t live up to standard levels.
From a Canadian perspective, Choice Hotels has always had a deep affinity for the Great White North, choosing to open its first international unit here in the 1970s. Today, the company boasts 280 units. “We had 19 new deals in 2009, which makes us the second largest pipeline in Canada,” said Brian Leon, managing director, Franchise Growth and Administration, Canada, at the Canadian business session held during the conference. There are 22 hotels under development in Canada — 15 conversions and seven new builds.
With a global portfolio of 1,100 hotels in more than 35 countries, Choice is targeting continued international expansion during the next few years with particular focus on India, where the company boasts 28 hotels. “We’re excited about India,” said Pepper during a media roundtable. “With one billion people, there’s a huge opportunity to grow in India.”
Choice has also invested a great deal into its website. “Visits to the site are up by 11 per cent through the first quarter of the year, and it has already experienced more than 20-million visitors since its redesign. The site now contains many new features, including pre-paid advance purchase rates, searchable hotel deals and expanded content to differentiate each brand,” said Mary Beth Knight, senior vice-president, e-Commerce and Global Distribution.
The company has also built a new smartphone app designed to drive business to hotels. “It will allow visitors to take a tour of the hotel, email and find out what’s located around your hotel,” said Chris Kornmayer, senior director of Brand Strategy.
And, while many hotels companies have struggled with rate discounting, Choice has been working to keep rate integrity, choosing to focus on value promotions such as the Amex cardholders’ ‘Stay Twice, Earn a Free Night’ promo. “We’re about building loyalty to our brands, staying in control of how we sell — and most important, safeguarding profits,” said Knight.
Finally, in an age where customer loyalty comes with a cost, Choice Privileges continues to grow in popularity, ranking fourth on the list of most popular loyalty programs with 2.5-million members. The company’s spring promo, ‘Stay Twice, Earn a Free Night,’ generated $109 million in Choice Privileges revenue in March. Choice Privileges accounted for nearly 26 per cent of gross room revenues in 2009, compared to 22 per cent in 2008.