An opportunity to refresh the Choice Hotels EMEA branded guest experience, implement clearer differentiation between our brands and best meet the evolving needs of our franchisees and guests has been a great success, we speak to the CEO Jonathan Mills to learn more about this operation.
BTN: A highly successful brand with a far-reaching portfolio of properties, you recently undertook a Comfort brand refresh for your EMEA properties but what does this mean for your customers?
CH: The past couple of years have been challenging for our industry, but this gave us the opportunity to realign with our stakeholders and continue our focus on providing quality hotel choices that meet the wide variety of guest styles, travel needs and desired price points.
While gravitation toward established brands like Choice Hotels continued, there were other shifts in franchisee and guest requirements and to discover more, we carried out independent research and engaged with customers and potential customers in our key European markets.
Those exchanges created an opportunity for us to refresh the Choice Hotels EMEA branded guest experience, implement clearer differentiation between our brands and best meet the evolving needs of our franchisees and guests.
Choice Hotels EMEA is currently represented under the Clarion, Quality, Comfort and Ascend Hotel Collection brands.
Comfort, Clarion and Quality have all embarked on a refresh and the Sleep brand, which is well-established in other regions, was also introduced in EMEA towards the end of 2022.
We will start the refresh of the Ascend Hotel Collection this year. Similar to our other brands, this work includes analysing our fact-led research, which was carried out in the key markets, and using it to make the Ascend Hotel Collection brand relevant for the traveller of today. This incorporates many areas from the look and feel of the hotel to the service, experiences and hallmarks and will translate into us having a refreshed Ascend Hotel Collection portfolio in the months to come.
If we look at Comfort first and what this means for our customers, reflective of the research, all refreshed Comfort hotels will deliver for today’s value-driven midscale traveller who wants the basics done brilliantly with exceptional convenience.
Exhibiting modern design, they will provide a warm, vibrant and friendly place to stay with energising casual spaces for socialising, relaxing, sleeping and working.
Everything will revolve around the Comfort Hub - a multi-purpose space and the first area guests experience on arrival. It’s where they check-in and out and go for anything from a morning coffee to an evening drink, with quiet space for working to a lounge area for socialising.
Design concepts are underway and franchisees will have flexibility within a framework with their design choices. They will be encouraged to showcase and embrace local, cultural influences since local inspiration will be part of the Comfort brand identity.
Underpinning everything is the Comfort Crew, with a Crew member always out and about, ready to greet guests, answer queries and be the first, visible point of contact. Roaming Comfort Crew members will also provide swift and easy check-in via tablet.
Comfort aims to stand out by providing value-driven guests with much more than a comfortable and safe place for the night and will offer memorable service and all-round efficiency at a price point guests want, in locations they want.
If I take you through Clarion now, each Clarion hotel will share three key customisable elements;
The Clarion Café will be the focal point of the hotel, offering a range of options to eat, relax and work throughout the day for guests and the local community alike. Alongside an all-day bistro-style menu including local and seasonal items, the Clarion Café will offer an evolving retail range of gourmet and specialty gifts, enabling hotels to drive additional revenue opportunities. Clarion hotels will also have the option of featuring a bar and artisanal pop-ups well placed for their neighbourhood.
Each Clarion hotel will identify a unique signature item which could be a cocktail, a scone they feature in the Clarion Cafe, a historic feature of the hotel, a musician playing in the hotel, a scent, a hotel pet or even a member of staff.
There will also be one identifiable design element making a strong visual first impression as guests enter the property. This might be a piece of art, a creative sculpture, a creative ceiling light or a focal piece of furniture.
The Clarion brand framework enables each hotel to reveal its unique personality, encompassing food, art, design, local produce, lighting and music for its own local style.
Moving to Quality, our research tells us that Quality guests seek hotels with the relaxed comforts of home, complemented by a warm and friendly service.
Quality hotels in EMEA will transform into ‘Contemporary Habitats’ in great locations, characterised by modern design and facilities, high cleanliness and attentive touches, from design features to a fresh menu.
Thoughtfully designed to attract guests who are creatures of comfort, hotel spaces will be warm and inviting, becoming the preferred place to relax, socialise, work or dine and brought to life by a caring team of service-driven Quality hosts.
Each EMEA Quality hotel will offer three key elements that franchisees can customise:
‘Quality Hosts’ will make guests feel at home and cared for, putting service first, process second, and all trained in the Q service Style Programme, an in-depth course designed to bring out the best in each staff member, enabling their personalities to shine.
EMEA Quality hotels will delight guests throughout their stay with ‘Quality Moments’, a collection of touchpoints that are personal and local. These will include a signature ‘Our Hotel’ personal welcome, a ‘Meet Your Hosts’ photo wall, a ‘Local Discovery’ card in every guest room, and a creative farewell mailbox.
Encouraging guests to spend ‘Quality Time’, hotels will offer a curated yet customisable Wine & Cocktail Menus at their food and beverage outlets, featuring drinks with a flavour reflective of local culture and customs. Dining menus will prioritise dishes made from locally sourced ingredients, while every Quality property will offer a ‘Grab a Snack’ concept and employ ‘Certified Coffee Gurus’ in a nod to the lifestyle behaviours and preferences of today’s guests.
The relaxed feeling that being at home offers heavily influences the design direction of every Quality hotel, with fresh and contemporary spaces enhanced by thoughtful local touches.
And finally the Sleep Inn brand which already well established in other regions is being introduced here in EMEA. The design-led lifestyle brand appeals to the growing number of travellers seeking hotels where they can escape the hectic urban environment to relax, recharge and reset.
The brand’s ethos and regional launch reflects the results of research into the preferences of travellers in the EMEA region, plus scientific evidence on optimal nutrition, fulfilling their desire to find the right balance in their lives. Sleep guests are adventurous, eco-conscious and love to discover new places, valuing socially responsible hotel brands with efficient service, personal touches, considered design, and quality food, drink and facilities.
Meeting the needs of these conscious discoverers, Sleep hotels provide a refreshing change of environment to uplift their energy throughout the day. Thoughtfully designed rooms create a restorative ambience to enhance guests’ sense of escape while the curated sleep experience, which includes the Design to Dream bed, ensures they are well rested at night. This day-night synergy helps travellers maintain an equilibrium and recharge while travelling and has been a design package for Sleep Inn in the US for nearly twelve years.
The meticulously planned Sleep Balanced Menu features dishes designed to balance energy levels using ingredients that are seasonal, organic and locally sourced where possible. Created in collaboration with an expert team of chefs, dieticians and nutritionists, the menu is a fusion of great taste and optimum nutrition.
Following our Comfort, Clarion and Quality refreshes announced last year, the launch of the Sleep brand concept in EMEA enables us to reach an even wider audience, appealing to travellers that above all, are looking to maintain a balanced lifestyle while on the road.
Looking ahead, we are continuing to work with our franchisees to develop concepts and deliver a brand training program, implement franchisee support, and look at procurement solutions that enhance guest experience whilst keeping operational efficiency in perspective.
BTN. You have a new team that were gathered together during the Pandemic and with this in mind what plans have you and this new leadership team for your portfolio of properties in the EMEA region?
CH: I joined Choice Hotels EMEA in 2020 and although the company had a vision, I was excited by the opportunity presented.
I was able to hire and build a team remotely which has brought resilience and robustness to the business.
To expand on that a little more, starting at Choice Hotels EMEA, I had the opportunity to drive forward a pan-EMEA focus on strategic growth that puts franchisees firmly at the core of our efforts.
I had the opportunity to build a completely new leadership team of functional experts with strong pan-European operational, commercial, and branding experience.
We now have offices in Paris, London, Munich and Amsterdam where my leadership team are predominantly based and this core team supports the local teams in Germany, France, Italy and the UK, for the benefit of the whole region.
We did this so our franchisees could continue to receive individual local support but at the same time we strengthened competencies across Europe to be able to proactively shape the future offers that are relevant for our customers.
We aim to transform hospitality franchising by redefining the cookie-cutter franchising we see so frequently into a value proposition that delivers for every type of franchisee.
For us, it is about being focused on offering a strong value proposition for franchisees that provides them with tools, systems and services that support their revenue-driving capability, drive brand premiums and provide portfolio growth that further powers the loyalty programme.
To add some more colour to that, we offer a customised approach, relevant and valuable to each franchisee and are really working to take a more consultative, 360-degree approach to our franchisees’ business to maximise returns on investment for our franchisees and for us at Choice Hotels.
My team and I are prioritising supporting our franchisees to ensure that their hotels reach the new brand standards on guest experience soonest and on the hard refurbishments required by the end of 2023.
For us it is really all about building a partnership offer that enables performance and brings meaningful value to Choice Hotels, franchisees and guests.
We think that we are easy to do business with and its important our franchisees feel that to – we aim to be the go to franchisor for our business partners - driving meaningful contribution with a focus on performance and reputation, delivered with a personalised and tailored service that truly connects and adds value.
If I look at where we are now, it is firmly at the implementation stage of our EMEA strategy which is focused on enabling strategic unit growth.
We will remain focused on the priorities for our existing portfolio and will continue to focus on the core pillars that support short-term revenues as we work to drive long-term equity gains for the portfolio.
BTN: Delivering on customer satisfaction and therefore retention appears to top of the list for hotel brands this year, in a highly competitive market, what can your customers expect for your hotels regarding customer service?
CH: Our guest profile has changed during the pandemic, what they are looking for has changed and our brand refresh targets that.
In terms of the Choice Hotels EMEA proposition, we have 4 midscale brands for every guest need with a distinct individual positioning which provides the maximum opportunity for growth in core and emerging markets right across EMEA.
What sets us apart from competitors is the fact we are the only international hotel group that chooses to focus exclusively on franchisees.
We have relevant brands that provide clarity and definition, with a focus on customer experience and our proposition provides the opportunities to drive revenue whilst maximising operational efficiencies.
More so, we offer brand experiences and other services designed within a framework enabling franchisees to customise for asset type/size, segment mix and location.
In terms of customer service, we know from everything that we have done that our customers of today are looking for genuine hospitality that delivers personal service with the basics done brilliantly in addition to embracing and supporting local provenance. This is key in our brand portfolio and while tailored to varying audiences is a constant that guests will come to know and love when visiting Choice Hotels across EMEA.
BTN:I appreciate that franchising is important to your company and its portfolio of properties; do you intend to build upon this, are you actively seeking new franchise partners in the EMEA region and if so how are you to attract these?
CH: Here at Choice Hotels EMEA we are the only international hotel group that chooses to focus exclusively on franchisees and their success, and we have no managed or owned properties to support in EMEA.
We empower our owners to be in business for themselves - but not by themselves.
The fact we are exclusively for, and designed for, franchisees with a franchisee-first focus drives every decision we make.
This remains important to us as we move forward to offer relevant brands that are designed for the evolving needs of guests whilst delivering hallmarks that are created to drive additional revenues.
We are focused on supporting both performance delivery and operational excellence to enable both revenues driving focus and long-term performance gains.
Having a franchisee-only model enables us to offer a more flexible proposition within an agreed framework.
My focus is to continue to place our franchisee’s needs first, focusing our franchisee value proposition on strategic growth in challenging times for the hospitality industry.
It is about ensuring the team is all working together to drive strategic unit growth through existing and new partnerships, conversions and new entrants in our core markets of France, Germany, UK and the Nordics. We are also open to growth opportunities in Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Middle East and Africa.
Franchisees are looking for strong brands that evolve to the needs of the customer. They are looking for a strong value proposition that drives performance and that is our absolute focus. They also want brands like us that have a strong, robust history and offer a worldwide network of connectivity. The Choice hotels franchisee of today really benefits from the depth of expertise we have in the industry.
We know they need flexibility within a framework so they can implement their own entrepreneurial hospitality which is why they chose Choice Hotels. They can stamp their own mark on things and have the support they need from us to deliver.
They also want good communication and we have focused on that throughout the pandemic. The loosening of global restrictions is now enabling us to do that face-to-face more frequently which is great and certainly something they welcome.
BTN: 2022 was a year where we saw a return to some form of normality post-Covid, how do you see 2023 shaping up for the hospitality sector in the EMEA?
CH: It has been encouraging to see a resumption of travel at higher levels as we have seen unrestricted travel across the EMEA region.
Hospitality and travel itself is important– whether this is meeting family and friends, going on holiday or staying overnight for business – it is a core component of our lives.
Our research has told us what the post COVID consumer is looking for and we remain focused on what those evolving needs are and delivering them.
Looking to the future, and what 2023 holds, I hope the pent-up demand for travel continues to be realised and further translates into significant bookings across the industry.
I think the industry will continue to evolve at pace over the coming months as brands work to really understand what the consumer of today wants and needs for their journeys.
It’s certainly an exciting time to be in the industry and witness the growth and change that will occur and the future here at Choice Hotels in EMEA is hugely exciting.
With the brand refresh that is underway, I am working to build a franchisee partnership proposition that’s fit for the future, developed on our understanding of today’s franchisee and evolved consumer. Seeing that come to fruition will be fantastic.
As we continue to evolve our brands this year and develop solutions and services that enable performance in a way that is relevant specifically to franchisees, we want to be the partner of choice, for current and future generations of European hotel franchisees, supporting the success of their hospitality business journey.
We know our franchisees have their own vision for how they want to deliver a great hotel experience, whilst also driving investment performance. They seek a partner to collaborate with them for success.
I am excited about that and supporting both performance delivery and operational excellence by providing the commercial and operational support, systems, and tools to balance revenue-driving focus with understanding where performance gains will come from long term.
My goal is for franchising to be more than an audited compliance to a long list of brand standards. It should be a valued and trusted partnership that enables easy-to-access knowledge exchange for the small and not-so-small business entrepreneur, the experienced multi-asset group or an independent first-time hotel owner/operator.
For me, it is about offering a more tailored approach, relevant and valuable to our different franchisees, taking a consultative and 360-degree approach to our franchisees’ business to maximise returns on investment.
What really excites me when I think of the future is becoming the preferred hotel performance-enabling partner, exclusively for franchisees, by offering our hotel partners the opportunity to customise our services for their individual needs.
Together with our franchisees and their hotel teams, we have a combined wealth of hospitality, technical and local market experience and I am enjoying using that to drive revenue through relevant brands, optimised connectivity, systems and tools, and operational efficiencies.
BTN: Are you looking to increase your reach through technology to future customers and will sustainability be a key focus in future plans?
CH: Technology will be at the core of what we do this year as we champion technology initiatives that enhance our performance, support our growth and enrich our value proposition.
Through improvements in connectivity for EMEA hotels this year, we are working on greater access to inventory and operational efficiencies that will reduce friction for guests and hotel teams.
Overall, 2023 is about generating growth momentum that leads to a scalable network of hotels across EMEA to be a truly regional and global branded hotel company.
Turning to sustainability this has been and will continue to be a focus for us as it should be for the entire industry.
We are committed to reducing our carbon footprint and require franchised hotels to join our efforts to promote environmentally friendly practices.
While Choice Hotels International has a well-established programme of sustainability initiatives, here in EMEA we are working towards having similar for the region and expect to announce more on this later this year.
With multiple countries and franchisee owners in the region, it is fair to say there are different consumer and government factors at play that we need to factor into our CSR efforts.
Last year Choice Hotels International appointed Megan Brumagim to the newly created role of vice president of environmental, social and governance (ESG).
She is leading Choice Hotels sustainability and corporate social responsibility initiatives, championing the pillars of environmental sustainability, human rights, diversity and inclusion, philanthropic and community engagement, and corporate governance.
We are working closely with Megan on the EMEA regional plans and have also appointed someone to lead on the work in this area in the region.
Additionally, as part of the brand refresh, we have ensured our franchisees can strengthen ties and collaborations with their local communities and they are encouraged to support the ‘buy local’ philosophy with artisan pop-ups and similar options in their hotels.