Each month, ExpertFlyer sits down with an executive in the travel industry to provide insight to changes in the landscape and how it affects the way you do business. It’s another way ExpertFlyer is providing additional information to empower the business traveler.
This month, ExpertFlyer sat down with Greg Brown, VP of Loyalty, Promotion & Relationship Marketing for Choice Hotels International, Inc. (NYSE: CHH). Choice Hotels is one of the largest lodging companies in the world. The company currently franchises more than 6,000 hotels in the United States and more than 35 countries and territories. With ten brands, ranging from limited service to full service hotels in the economy, mid-scale and upscale segments, Choice Hotels properties include Comfort Inn®, Comfort Suites®, Quality®, Sleep Inn®, Clarion®, Cambria Suites®, MainStay Suites®, Suburban®, Econo Lodge® and Rodeway Inn®. Additionally, Choice offers its Ascend Collection®, a network of independently owned, historic, unique, or boutique hotels.
“The economic downturn has driven a value focus for both leisure and business travelers. We expect this to continue to be the case for the near-term. Beyond value, leisure travelers are researching their hotel stay via the Internet more than ever before…”
– Greg Brown, VP of Loyalty, Promotion & Relationship Marketing,
Choice Hotels International
As a largely value-oriented lodging company, how has Choice Hotels weathered the travel industry downturn?
This was the worst lodging industry downturn in years and had an impact on the entire industry. We did see some degree of trade down from travelers who typically stay at upscale hotels. They gravitated toward our brands due to our value-orientation and price point.
Recently, given the public statements by upscale brands about the willingness to raise pricing, we would be surprised if we aren’t capturing some level of business and government trade-down, as well as mid-week leisure travel as the upscale brands displace that business with group/transient business demand.
What are the perks or value benefits that you offer clientele that has served you well over the past two years?
From a value-based benefit, our brands are well positioned in this environment as our hotels offer an array of complimentary amenities and services with locations and products to meet consumers’ travel needs: free breakfast, free Internet and free parking. Our loyalty program members enjoy express reservations and check-in, extended check-out upon request, and a fast track to great rewards, like free nights worldwide, gifts cards for over 200 national retailers and airline miles. The investment we have made in improving our choicehotels.com website has significantly upgraded the reservation booking experience.
Choice Hotels brand properties have traditionally catered more to leisure travelers. Are you looking to grow the corporate travel business and which of your lodging brands would you say are best suited to a business traveler?
We are certainly interested in growing our share of the business travel market. Our Comfort Suites brand is implementing a special set of features and amenities designed specifically for the business traveler. The brand currently offers an array of business-friendly services, including an oversized room with a designated work area, free high-speed Internet, an in-room refrigerator and microwave, and a complimentary hot breakfast. Our full-service Clarion brand is ideal for individual business travelers, as well as meetings and training events. Clarion properties feature business centers, fitness facilities, restaurants, meeting rooms and catering services. Our new upscale Cambria Suites brand offers all the amenities and services a modern business traveler needs. The brand offers complimentary high-speed Internet throughout the hotel; in-room media hub technology for a guest’s laptop, MP3 player, game console and digital camera; a business center with Internet, fax, copy and printing services; and meeting space.Do you think that the needs and values of your leisure and business customers are currently the same or different? Do you see that difference widening or narrowing?
The economic downturn has driven a value focus for both leisure and business travelers. We expect this to continue to be the case for the near term. Beyond value, leisure travelers are researching their hotel stay via the Internet more than ever before, with peer reviews becoming an increasingly important factor in the lodging decision. Many business travelers, who travel more frequently, already understand brands and rely less on reviews. They are more interested in leveraging the evolving mobile technology to stay connected with the office, friends and home.
As VP of Loyalty, Promotion & Relationship Marketing, what are you most focused on?
I lead an organization responsible for driving the further growth of the Choice Privileges® rewards program, one of the fastest growing hotel rewards programs. Our focus is on increasing guest engagement and loyalty, expanding internationally, and enhancing our Elite program to deliver more benefits and recognition for our most valued and frequent guests. I also oversee our enterprise-wide relationship marketing initiatives, as well as promotional strategies to drive both leisure and business travelers to our hotels.
How has the Internet and travel technology in general affected how you market to and gain new and keep existing customers? What role does social media play in that?
For some time now, we have offered complimentary high-speed Internet access in recognition of how important this service has become to our guests. For our business-traveler focused brands, we have made and continue to make investments in our business center technology. We highlight these services and benefits in our multi-channel marketing, which is increasingly digital, from online display ads to search, and of course mobile web where we are devoting extras efforts to ensure a mobile experience that is effective and efficient. We are also testing a variety of social media initiatives, including geo-location applications.
Can you elaborate on trends you are seeing in the travel loyalty and rewards area?
Refreshingly, a recent survey of our Elite members indicated 40% will be traveling more in 2011 than in 2010. Over 75% of our Elite members tell us they will book their stays at choichotels.com this year. Free nights continue to be the favorite redemption item of our membership. We have added several new options over the past year, such as free music downloads, that are ahead of our projections. We are looking to add more digital content as redemption options in addition to our comprehensive roster of gift cards.
How is your Choice Privileges rewards program improving and how can frequent flyers leverage your program?
For 2011, we have upgraded our Elite program. Our program now offers one of the quickest ways to top tier in the industry and rewards a 50% point bonus in addition to several appealing benefits. Frequent flyers can chose to earn airline miles with our 15 US and International airline partners (including Southwest), or redeem accumulated points for airline miles. Airline miles are one of our most popular rewards.
How do you envision competing against the large business hotel operators and their existing popular loyalty programs?
Our loyalty program stacks up fairly well with the larger companies, as evidenced by how we rank in various frequent traveler reviews. A unique aspect for our loyalty program is our upscale hotel and resort free night redemption option through our partnership with Preferred Hotel Group and Barceló. In addition, we have 16 hotels in Hawaii marketed under our Ascend Collection brand. This has been very attractive to the business travelers who may have stayed with us for the first time during the recent downturn.