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Wyndham On Its Way

December 10, 2007 By: Ruthanne Terrero Travel Agent

Multi-brand hotel company strengthens ties to the travel agent community

Wyndham Hotel Group is about to launch an online initiative that will make it easier for travel agents to sell and receive commissions on its 10 hotel brands. The move is part of an effort to promote a unified portfolio of brands that were joined under one umbrella when Cendant Corporation—which owned such companies as Wingate, Ramada, Howard Johnson, Days Inn and RCI timeshares—purchased Wyndham Hotels and Resorts in 2005. Cendant named the entire group Wyndham Worldwide Corporation and spun it off as an independent entity in August 2006.

The spin-off allowed Wyndham Worldwide, which had been part of a corporation that was also in the travel distribution and car rental business, to focus solely as a hotel player, from the full-service Wyndham properties at the top of the ladder down to the limited-service Knights Inns. This new company formed three divisions: Wyndham Hotel Group, which includes 10 hotel brands and the TripRewards program for repeat guests; Wyndham Vacation Ownership, the timeshare division; and Group RCI, which offers members and rental customers access to more than 60,000 vacation properties around the world. Wyndham added the famous Rio Mar resort in Puerto Rico earlier this year

Travel Agent was curious about what's been going on behind the scenes of this new conglomerate, so we caught up with some executives, who outlined how the company's strategies have been progressing.

Greg Land, senior vice president of global sales for Wyndham Hotel Group, tells us that over the past year he's developed a global sales organization that sells all of the group's brands. He's also been hard at work implementing a travel agent web portal. Wyndham Worldwide Business Units

Land was well aware of the value of the agent distribution channel before he took on his global leadership role at Wyndham Hotel Group 30 days prior to the spin-off of Wyndham Worldwide from Cendant. He had worked for seven years at American Airlines and then for 11 years at its GDS, Sabre—experience that was vital to Wyndham, whose goal is to raise its profile in the travel agent community.

"Some of the former Cendant brands really hadn't leveraged the business-to-business channels like they should have," Land tells Travel Agent. "A lot of small agencies and a lot of home-based agents had the perception that we didn't even pay commission on some of our economy and mid-scale brands." On the other hand, those properties under the former Wyndham hotel company had been extremely focused on the travel agent, tour wholesaler, group, meeting planner and incentive sectors because of their full-service product, he said.

Uniting the Sales Force

These conflicting strategies spurred Land to create a sales force that combines the best from Cendant and the best from Wyndham. Now, instead of separate groups that sell each brand, Land has an organization divided into six geographic divisions that sells all brands in a portfolio of hotels that provide every level of service. Each division has a vice president supported by teams with expertise in selling to groups, corporate meetings, associations, incentives and government/military. Business-to-Business Efforts Already in Play in Rental arena

"We also have a team that focuses just on the travel industry within each of these geographic divisions," says Land. "That's the group that works with the leisure travel agents, the consortia, the tour operators and the wholesalers."

Part of Land's strategy is to free the front-line sales team from any administrative burdens so they can be 100 percent customer-focused. "I centralized all the sales planning and operations under one organization, and I centralized all the sales communication under a separate organization," says Land. As a result, Marilyn McHugh, senior director, global sales, has established the "Just in Time" web portal for the sales team, providing it with standard collateral and templates that can be downloaded and used in sales presentations so they're providing a common message globally.

"It's nice because we really do have something for every price point and every type of traveler and every type of trip," Land tells Travel Agent. "It makes it very easy for my folks to go in and do discovery with a client; they may be a target for Wyndham, they may be target for Wingate, or they may be a target for Super 8. So it really gives them a broad portfolio with a broad product line to sell from." The new Wyndham Cozumel Resort and Spa is the company's 24th property in the Caribbean/Mexico region

This infrastructure lays the groundwork for Wyndham to present a unified message to the travel agency community as well. The big news is that Wyndham, in the first quarter of 2008, will launch a business-to-business web portal that will enable travel agents to easily book and receive commissions from its 10 hotel brands. Following the introduction of this marketplace will be a loyalty program that rewards travel agents for selling the brands; it will be launched in the second or third quarter utilizing the shopping engine from TripRewards, the company's consumer loyalty web site.

"The foundation is there, we just need to re-skin some of it to make it a loyalty program for agents," says Land, noting that Wyndham already has a loyalty program for meeting planners. "I definitely believe that having that agent loyalty program can move the needle. So I now want to take what they had, pull it into the TripRewards platform and expand it to be a full B-to-B loyalty program. That's one of my big initiatives for next year."

Finding Wyndham's Space

Travel Agent also spoke with Peter Strebel, president of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, which has been undergoing changes of its own. The subsidiary of Wyndham Hotel Group has 92 properties in operation; another six will open in the U.S. and Mexico by the end of 2007 and nine more are under construction (including four in New York City). Within its inventory are Wyndham Grand Collection, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, Wyndham Garden Hotels and Wingate by Wyndham.

"When you buy something, you get to mold it and decide where you're going to take it," says Strebel. "We spent 2006 understanding what Wyndham had, who Wyndham was and getting into the head of the customer to find out where Wyndham should be going. We also spent a full year analyzing where there was open space in the market for us to be successful, because I believe today it's all about differentiation. 2007 now is our year where we're really implementing all of our strategy."

Here's how Wyndham found its space: It's just launched a marketing campaign targeting Gen-X travelers that spotlights the company's "Be Well" philosophy, which is "all about being free and being yourself," says Strebel. "It's a message to not only our customers but to our employees."

The message will be found in traditional marketing materials as well as in less conventional venues such as The Wall Street Journal Business Network (which airs news and advertising on video screens in office buildings), on top of taxis in Chicago and New York and on the Times Square Jumbotron. The brand is also targeting Gen-Xers with children by adding VTech video gaming systems to more than 3,000 Wyndham Hotels and Resorts guest rooms and suites.

In addition, Wyndham is putting special emphasis on families at its Bonnet Creek Resort, a mixed-used project being developed by Wyndham Vacation Ownership that is about to break ground inside the Walt Disney World Resort. One-quarter of the rooms will be designed to sleep up to six people comfortably.

"Generation X is the group we really need to be penetrating, and right behind that is Generation Y," says Strebel, noting that a recent Travel Industry Association study found that those two age groups account for 43 percent of travel spending.

"When we bought Wyndham, we found that its customer base was younger than most of its competitors, giving us a jumpstart on that market," Strebel says, adding that Wyndham also had strengths in niche marketing with its initiatives for women, gay and lesbian travelers, and ethnic markets.

To maintain its momentum in attracting Generations X and Y, Wyndham in the past year added to its product and service offerings.The brand's look has been refreshed through a partnership with Michael Graves & Associates. Graves (whom consumers may know through his work for Target) has designed a series of amenities for Wyndham, including a bed ensemble, coffeemaker, ice bucket and tray, alarm clock/radio with MP3 player/iPod adapter, and energy-efficient lamps, all of which will be installed in Wyndham hotels by December 31.

In 2008, the Wyndham Smart Chair—which has built-in electric outlets and Internet ports (as well as an ottoman)—will be placed in all hotels. Furthermore, all Wyndham Hotels and Resorts properties have upgraded their bath care products with the Bath & Body Works True Blue Spa line. Meanwhile, the company is launching a new spa and fitness concept called Blue Harmony, with a "green" strategy in terms of furnishings and equipment and plans for energy-efficient certification.

Also new for Wyndham is an all-day "eat, relax and live" dining area, comprising a café, bar and food mart; it has debuted at the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort on St. Thomas. "You can get a cup of Starbucks coffee in the morning, and then at night it turns to a wine bar," says Strebel. "We've realized that Generation Y is into socialization. That's why the design of our lobby is more like a living room's. So if you want to relax, you can lounge here. We've created our lobbies with different spaces where people can hang out." Wyndham has also begun serving signature healthy breakfasts.

Rewards for Loyalty

The Wyndham ByRequest loyalty program, which debuted in 2000, will be relaunched later this year. The innovative program was an early upstart in the trend of hotel companies' "remembering" guests' preferences through the use of a database system that could record, for example, that a client likes a Russian River Valley pinot noir (not Molson) upon arrival or that guests prefer to have the temperature in their room at 78 instead of a chilly 65 degrees. This year, Wyndham will add a points-based platform to the program so that members can earn and redeem points for free stays and merchandise through TripRewards.

"The ByRequest program really was a strong culture with Wyndham and we like that program," says Strebel. "It's all about personalized amenities, but we've now added the TripRewards currency to it so people can get points. Our customers told us they love ByRequest, they like the personal recognition, and they like getting their special pillow. They like getting their bottle of soda, but they wanted free nights. So now it's a very competitive and aggressive loyalty program."

Wyndham has spent time this year building up its portfolio and will get that message out to agents and consumers. The focus is on top-tier cities across the country and in the resort sector. Expansion is global in scope, with a hotel in Xiamen, China, slated to open in 2008.

"When we purchased Wyndham, we lost a lot of our resorts in the transaction," says Strebel. "But now we're back, and we have 24 resorts in the Caribbean and Mexico. So we now have the distribution to back up that resort message." Strengthening that strategy is Wyndham's alliance with Viva Resorts, which gives it eight properties in the Caribbean and Mexico. Another nine properties in Mexico come via a relationship with Mayan Resorts.

Wyndham's recent addition to its portfolio of Puerto Rico's iconic Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa is significant because the property belongs to a new product line, Wyndham Grand Collection. Other hotels in this upscale segment are the new Wyndham Grand London Chelsea Harbour, London; Grand Bay Hotel, Isla Navidad Resort, Manzanillo, Mexico; and Veneto, Panama City, Panama. Also in the Grand Collection are hotels in European destinations, including Prague, Budapest, Lisbon, St. Petersburg and Malta. They fall under Wyndham's domain via a joint venture with the Corinthia Group of Malta.

"The brand promise is one, that these properties are uniquely special," says Strebel. "They make a statement. The second element is their service standard. Even though we're not saying these are true luxury-tier hotels, we've implemented AAA five-diamond service standards, so they have 24-hour room service and doormen."

With all these developments under way, one can't help asking Strebel what it's like to represent a subsidiary that carries the moniker of the entire corporation.

"It's stressful, but my passion has been in the hospitality business since probably the day I was born," he tells Travel Agent. "So I feel it's a great challenge. When I go someday, I want somebody to say, 'He was one of the driving forces behind Wyndham, which is a great company.'"

Land is similarly enthusiastic about his efforts; in fact, he's bullish about the prospects for Wyndham overall during the next year. The foundation of the new sales structure is in place, which means there's room and energy for more growth and innovation.

"Now that we've just made it past our first year, the dust has settled on all that disentangling from our prior parent company," says Land. "Now that that's been done, I think we'll be able to run much faster next year."

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