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The International ChoiceOctober 5, 2010 By: Ruthanne Terrero Travel Agent
Choice Hotels new Sleep Inn design of a guest room
Watch for Choice Hotels International to lay strong emphasis on its Cambria Suites product in the near future. The fledgling product, labeled by the lodging franchisor as a “lifestyle all-suites brand that offers contemporary, upscale accommodations at affordable prices,” now has 22 franchises open across the country. Choice’s president and CEO, Steve Joyce, is optimistic that the growth will continue, due in large part to its acceptance by the traveling public.
“It is by far the best consumer-received brand I have ever seen,” he tells Travel Agent, noting good reviews on TripAdvisor.com and other accolades in local markets.
Joyce points toward Cambria Suites’ design, which has a contemporary feel, as part of the product’s success. “It also has a comfortable feel,” he says. “If you are part of Gen-X or Gen-Y, you are going to like it because you can get your latte and read your e-mail in the lobby or have a drink there at night. Or if you are my dad, you are going to like it because a room has two flat-screen TVs in it. It has probably the best gym in the segment.”
While initial plans to expand the brand rapidly fell short with the economic downturn, Joyce says Choice now plans to use some existing capital to encourage major developers to invest in Cambria Suites. “This is Choice’s first entry into the upscale arena, so it's a very important piece to us in the long term,” Joyce says. Once a “more cooperative financing environment” is in place, he expects to have about 70 Cambria Suites properties open.
Incentives will be given to a mix of developers who are already Choice franchisees. Others will go to developers whom Joyce forged ties with during his previous role as executive vice president, global development/owner and franchise services at Marriott International. (Joyce joined Choice as president and COO from Marriott in May 2008.)
Four-Star Product for Choice?
Cambria won’t be Choice’s only foray into the upscale sector.
“We would very much like to be in the upper upscale sector with a full-service brand—but with a full-service brand that fits our company,” he says. For this reason, Joyce feels that a four-star product with a strong value proposition would be the best way to go.
“An [upper upscale] product would really round out our portfolio and help drive a lot more business customers into our brands,” says Joyce, noting that business travel is about a third of Choice’s mix. “People say, ‘we have so many hotels in this country, how many more you can run?’ The answer is, ‘a lot,’ because we have a lot of different brands for different purposes. In addition, we hardly play at all in the upscale and upper upscale. That’s the other half of the business. So that’s where our growth opportunity is,” he says, noting that the upper upscale hotels would open in the domestic market first.
Expanding International Portfolio
Choice also has plans to seek new locations in Europe, says Joyce, namely by converting existing hotels to Choice brands.
Indeed, there is opportunity across the pond. “We see a ton of relatively small, 50 to 100-room, independent properties that will work for us with our brands. That’s a huge play and we believe we are going to be well-positioned to take advantage of that,” he says, adding that Choice has long had a strong presence in Scandinavia.
“The Scandinavians already know who we are like nobody’s business, which is great,” says Joyce. “We just need to get that kind of distribution going in Paris and Germany and the UK. Once we do that, I think we are really going to have something.”
Quality Inn Hits 1,000
While new brands and international expansion are a focus for the top Choice executive, he is also keeping a keen eye on the company’s most tried and true brands. Quality Inn, which was launched in 1941, now has 1,000 properties, with the recent addition of the 86-room Quality Inn & Suites Conference Center in Martoon, IL.
“A lot of the innovation in the hotel business happened first in Quality, such as the first telephones in guest rooms, the first TVs, the first 24-hour desk and the first 24/7 call center. So if you look at the history of the hotel business, it's the history of Quality, which is kind of cool,” he says, citing Holiday Inn’s arrival on the scene in the late 1950s as another important landmark for the industry.
Today, Quality plays a big role as a conversion brand, he says.
“We actually think it's going to be one of our primary growth vehicles for the next two to three years as the conversion market remains hot,” says Joyce.
The benefits of a Quality Inn? “We make sure they are well-run and clean and that they are great value. Consumers react well to it; everybody knows that brand and for franchisees, it represents an incredible value. Through our distribution channels, we push a lot of business their way,” says Joyce.
The Choice CEO also has faith in the Comfort Inn product, which has nearly 2,000 properties. Its sister brand, Comfort Suites, has more than 600 franchises.
“We actually think this is going to be our next power brand. The box is terrific and consumers like it,” says Joyce, who feels that a new emphasis on the brand’s design will help to propel it forward. The international architecture and design firm, Gensler, has just done a series of designs for the brand, which Joyce admits had “a pretty sterile look originally.” At 30 years old, Comfort Inn was ready to be reinvigorated, he says, adding that franchisees have played a part in its new look and feel. “It’s going to be a major boom for the existing product,” he says.
Elevating the image of the Comfort Inn and Comfort Suites up a notch will create more room in the economy niche for Sleep Inn, says Joyce. The brand has more than 400 locations. “There is no reason Sleep can’t be 1,000 units,” he says. “Consumers and developers like it and it's a very economical box.”