While most hotels are only now turning their approach into the future after a turbulent period of uncertainty during the pandemic, those that kept one eye ahead are now gaining an advantage. Choice Hotels EMEA has just announced it has commenced a refresh of its regional brand portfolio, starting with its Comfort brand. Alongside the refresh of its Comfort, Clarion and Quality brands, it also aims to launch a new brand, Sleep, which will also be introduced to EMEA.
Jonathan Mills was appointed as CEO of Choice Hotels EMEA in 2020 with a clear goal of pushing forward this brand refresh. After identifying the pandemic as a time to focus on overhauling its portfolio identity, the company now looks set to reap the rewards of its forward-thinking. Hotel Owner spoke to Mills about its direction for the future, the importance of branding, and its unique franchisee-led approach as the company enters its new phase.
Time for a refresh
A brand refresh was Mills’ mission from the start, after being appointed mid-pandemic specifically to “execute a strategy for growth, with one of those pillars of strategy being the brand refurbish” after the company had “highlighted that EMEA was an area best placed for a strategic opportunity for growth.”
So what led the company to focus on the long-term, at a time when most hotels were almost entirely focused on the short-term during the unpredictable two-year period of lockdowns? It felt they had spotted a “gap in the market”, and that it could get ahead of other companies by thinking proactively during the pandemic, rather than reactively.
Choice Hotels’ approach to its strategy was feedback-led, as Mills Explains: “We talked to franchisees, talked to customers, we did a fact-based analysis on our brand presence, opportunity, rates etc., and the feedback we got from led us to where we are today, which is relaunching refreshing the brand, so very much a fact based result, taking us where we are today.”
“We did a lot of desktop work with BDRC, and they looked at the European landscape for opportunity and then we did virtual customer workshops,throughout the pandemic in France, Germany and the UK,” he adds.
Its main focus was to concentrate towards a franchisee-led approach, after its research revealed it to be an underexplored area for growth. Currently, Choice Hotels EMEA claims to be the only international hotel group that “chooses to focus exclusively on franchisees and their success”.
Mills also outlines how crucial this was to its approach and that “the company was there to support friendships with franchisees throughout the pandemic, so continued to be an immediate focus for the company. We had a very clear strategy to continue on after the pandemic that this was a region for growth.”
He continues: “The industry continues to evolve at pace, and one of the most significant things we’ve seen in recent months is increased interest in franchising as we witness a new generation of energized entrepreneurs looking to more deeply engage and ‘upgrade’ their passion for hospitality and manage their own business.”growth, and they’ve continued to invest in people invest in the research to get us to a place where we are today that we’re ready to go to market.”
Choice Hotels’ commitment to supporting a franchisee-led approach ties in to its other main angle in its approach – a focus on the importance of branding. It believes that this approach allows them the best of both worlds: the overarching reliability and security of the Choice Hotel brand, whilst also maintaining the individuality and community-based outlook afforded by each individual franchisee.
Mills says: “What was really interesting to hear was the importance of brands. Customers really wanted security; they identified that brands offer protection, cleanliness, and safety. They obviously want to have this coming out of the pandemic.”
If the Choice Hotel brand aimed to offer this, then its franchisee led approach allowed this to be complimented by a bespoke and local feel to each of its outlets. On the benefits of this, Mills adds: “What they can do is customise to local needs, and then be able to offer their hospitality and their customization in that hotel market. And that to me is a big value proposition versus some of our competitors, who are far more prescriptive with their standards and processes and are less able to customise.”
“What customers were also asking for was evidence of support for local companies, produce, entertainment and things to visit”.
Another customer-led initiative for Choice Hotels is attempting to find the balance between home comforts and the luxury of hospitality. With remote working offering opportunities for hotels to cater to a new bracket of potential consumers, catering to those who might be after a blend of work and leisure is high on the company’s priority list.
Mills outlines the reasons behind their approach, and explains that customers “wanted comforts of home, but one of the one of the things that really came out was the need for hospitality. People wanted to be welcomed, and craved that customer experience of being cared for. They want that comfort of home, but the customer doesn’t want a home away from home.”
As part of its refresh, the company’s decision to split its available options into separate categories – Comfort, Clarion and Quality – the customer allows to select which one it prefers based on their preferences. For catering to those looking to combine leisure with remote working, Mills says its Clarion release, which will be complete within the next two months, was launched especially with that in mind as a “definite key focus for us, because that is a full service very much tailoring to that working-leisure preference.”
Mills believes its emphasis on hospitality will allow customers to “use the time that they’re away to integrate work time and leisure time, and therefore maximise their productivity”.