Choice amps up resources to re-ignite Comfort brand

A double room at the Comfort Inn in Midland

A double room at the Comfort Inn in Midland, Texas, features new design touches that balance form and function. Pictured: A double room at the Comfort Inn in Midland, Texas, features new design touches that balance form and function. 

National Report – Choice Hotels International is doing all it can to ensure that its Comfort-branded hotels are equipped to be a market leader in the upper-midscale segment. Just how will this be done? Through a new design prototype, coupled with a development incentive for new-construction Comfort Inn and Comfort Suites hotels. To hear it from Anne Smith, VP of brand strategy for Choice Hotels International, “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

While the new prototype for Comfort-branded hotels seeks to balance functionality and flexibility (Gensler was enlisted as the master architect and designer), and the development incentive looks to spur more development, the first task was to reevaluate the system. According to David Pepper, SVP of global development for Choice Hotels International, over the last three years, 20 percent of Comfort hotels have been terminated—about 300 hotels.

“They couldn’t or wouldn’t live up to the standards we were setting,” said Smith. “It’s made a huge difference in tone and the message being sent to developers and the franchisee community. Current franchisees have been enthusiastic when we take a tougher, but fair stance. You can’t just come in as any kind of conversion either; we’re very strict on PIPs we set before opening.”

Moving Forward

The plan is to replace the hotels removed from the system with the new prototypes. That’s where the new development incentive comes in. It reduces fees totaling three years of royalty value on approved Comfort Inn and Comfort Suites projects.

The exterior is shown below.Pictured: The exterior is shown below.

In addition to new construction, more than 300 existing Comfort properties (about 20 percent of the approximate 1,900 Comfort hotels operating domestically) are under major renovation. In order to help facilitate this, Choice has put forth its own capital—to the tune of $40 million—the largest such investment Choice Hotels has ever made in a single brand improvement. “You’ve never seen that,” Pepper said of Choice’s largesse. In addition, Comfort franchisees have reportedly invested more than $140 million in upgrades over the last 12 months. Pepper said renovations should conclude by September.

The groundwork for much of what is being done now with the Comfort brand was laid in 2012 when Choice unveiled its Truly Yours prototype for hotels, many of which are now coming online.

While Pepper could not divulge exactly how the new prototype might save on construction costs, he did say that costs are in line with what it costs to build a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express. “We want to be first choice for developers in this segment,” he said.

Appearance Matters

The 82-room Comfort Suites in Fargo, N.D., opened last July and was among the first new-generation Comfort prototypes.Pictured: The 82-room Comfort Suites in Fargo, N.D., opened last July and was among the first new-generation Comfort prototypes.

In terms of look and feel, Smith, who joined Choice just this past June, said the prototype is sophisticated, but contemporary. “Comfort doesn’t follow trends,” she said. “It’s contemporary, but classic, so it will endure.”

The aim was to incorporate both functionality and flexibility “so that as things need to be changed out during time, you don’t have to take down walls to do it, or redo the exterior, retile, etc.,” Smith said. Flexibility is key, particularly in public areas. Under the new prototype, the breakfast area and meeting space are divided by a sliding barn door. “The operator can decide how to use the space,” Smith said.

And what of the millennial customer, whom it seems every hotel company is looking to court these days? “We’re not going to pander to millennials,” Smith said. “It’s going to be relevant to them because of the experience.”

One of the bigger pushes Choice is making with the Comfort brand is in growing its mid-week business, a focus that resulted in upgrades to its sales efforts.

The hotel’s exterior and lobby space. Pictured: the hotel’s exterior and lobby space. 

In the upper-midscale space, food and beverage plays a major role; as such, it is not being overlooked by Comfort. Free breakfast is a huge component, particularly for business travelers on capped per diems. Comfort’s “Your Morning Breakfast” has hot and healthy options. “Breakfast is a huge driver of guest satisfaction in this segment,” Pepper said.

The Comfort brand has roots that stretch all the way back to 1981, when the first Comfort hotel opened in Atlanta. While the “Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” campaign was an earnest attempt by General Motors to recast the car brand that some had begun to see as old and stodgy, Smith sees parallels. “There is a sense of that in the new prototype,” she said. “It’s not what you’d expect of Comfort.”