Igniting the future of Choice Hotels the focus at annual convention

LAS VEGAS—Choice Hotels International's convention here at Mandalay Bay is its 60th annual and celebrates the 75th year of the company, which was founded in 1939 by the late Stewart Bainum, Jr. A long history, for sure, but the focus remains the same as it always has been: driving revenue and profit to and through its stable of brands and franchisees. 

The only thing that has changed is the way they are accomplishing it. "We have the tools to thrive on change, drive reservations and position all brands for growth and profitability," said Choice Hotels International CEO Steve Joyce.

The convention drew 6,000-plus attendees and carried the tagline of "Igniting the Future," which means refreshing the brands, focusing on mobile, driving traffic and expanding into upscale markets.

But first, Joyce looked back on 2013, which he called a record year. "We set new highs in performance," he said, specifically in reservation contributions through its own channels. "We drove more than $1 billion through Choice.com," Joyce said, adding the site accumulated 160 million visits in 2013—up 16 percent from 2012.

Toward that, the focus was and remains on mobile, as guests continue to adapt to the technology. In 2013, Joyce said that Choice received 60 million visits through mobile devices—up 75 percent from the year prior.

"We are doing a lot to help your performance," Joyce said. "All tools are designed to drive more guests to your door."

The timing to do so is "great," he added. "The outlook for the industry is good. People are traveling again. Job growth is helping." Joyce pointed to data that say unemployment is down to 6.3 percent. "A better job market drives demand for your hotels," he told the audience.

That said, Joyce has his disagreements about the Affordable Care Act; specifically, the definition of a full-time work week, which stands at 30 hours right now. Joyce said it should be 40. "Where else but D.C. could 30 hours be full time?" he said.

He also implored the crowd to support the JOLT Act, which modernizes the visa process "so more foreign travelers can come and spend money," Joyce said, adding that in 2013 $143 billion was reportedly spent by overseas travelers. "They stay in our hotels," he said.

One of Choice's bigger pushes this year is driving more mid-week travel, particularly business travel. "Delivering mid-week travel is a company-wide initiative," said Anne Smith, Choice's VP of brand strategy.

Another huge focus for Choice is its Comfort brand, which is undergoing a refresh that includes a new developer fee incentive equal to three years of royalty for new construction. "Its already driving new construction," Joyce said. Choice also committed $40 million toward Comfort renovations.

Driving loyalty continues to be top of mind. In fact, Joyce said that Choice Privileges, the company's loyalty program, will hit 20 million members next month. And that's where the importance of brand comes in. "If we compete only on value and price alone, it’s a race to the bottom," Smith said. "It encourages disloyalty. Loyalty is based on emotional benefits, putting the guest at the center of the universe. What makes them tick?

Not to be left out was the millennial traveler, who continues to be a focus for Choice. "Millennials don’t buy without reading a review, said Choice COO Pat Pacious. Choice's launch of Verified Reviews plugs into that. "Eighty percent of our reviews are 4 or 5 star," Pacious said, adding that the conversion rate lift is 2 percent.

"Millennials are here and are the future," Joyce said. "They are the next influential generation, and will outspend baby boomers by 2017. But they have the least established brand loyalty and make buying decisions differently."