Hotel companies are racing to be the most tech-friendly, but Choice Hotels International has a not-so-secret weapon. Todd Davis, the company’s chief information officer, has been with the company for 20 years, and has promoted cutting-edge technology as an advantage over the competition for decades.
Hotels and Technology
Davis got started in technology while studying at Northern Arizona University. “My background up to college was working in hotels and restaurants,” he said. “So I was very passionate about the business in general. I studied engineering in college and they started a hotel school, so I did both.” He graduated from NAU in 1985 with a degree in business administration with emphasis in hotel and restaurant management and engineering.
As the personal computer gained traction, Davis worked at several software companies, designing global reservation solutions for Cendant Corporation. “There was a tremendous opportunity in the hospitality industry for technology,” he said. For a while, Davis was simultaneously working with Electronic Data Systems and at another major hotel company when he became interested in Choice and its forays into technology. Davis joined the Choice team as a software engineer, and became chief technology officer before being named chief information officer in 2013.
“Choice Hotels has always done a lot of firsts,” Davis said. “First to have an online booking on the internet, the mobile applications. They were the first to convert to that new-generation central-reservation system. They kind of cut the teeth for the rest of the industry on what would advance them, and so I found that very intriguing.”
When Davis joined Choice, he started developing different solutions that could apply not just to one company, but could set standards for technology across the hospitality industry. “We were focused on property-management systems at that time, because that was a growth area. A lot of people had central-reservation systems but they didn't have the electronic systems still at the hotel. They were using rack cards and real keys,” he recalled. “We had a system out there, 4,000 hotels with servers and tape drives, and you know, just a lot of technology that had to be managed, and it was expensive. And then they had to refresh everything every three years, so even more costly. So we looked at it and said that we needed to have something that ran in the cloud, so we looked for solutions that were on the market, but there weren't any so we decided to build our own.”
Davis worked on a team of about 20 experts that developed new solutions that the company could deploy globally. “We had a system called Choice Link at the time that we deployed in eight different countries around the world that actually communicated over the internet, so we were in the very early stages of that,” he said. The team worked with some major companies, including AT&T, to make sure that the system was going to communicate properly across the internet.
In the early years, Davis acknowledged, relying on the internet to manage a large business was risky. “But I still think that it was a measurable risk,” he said. “We knew the internet was going to be there and it was going to continue to grow and that was a mechanism to use moving ahead. So that was a core focus, and also helped reduce the overall cost for our franchisees.”
To transform the overall enterprise platform, Davis had to start with the foundation. “We spent a lot of time on data centers and servers and networks and just getting the foundation laid out,” he said. His team turned to the software itself when it created the choiceADVANTAGE web-based PMS in 2002.
As Davis and his team developed new products for Choice, he said, upper management was very supportive. “Everyone had an open mind and they were OK with change and newer technology was just going to continue to grow and if we didn't keep up we wouldn't be able to take advantage of it.”
With technology increasingly ubiquitous in everyday life, hoteliers now have different expectations about what can be accomplished via websites and apps. “The amount of technology needed around our industry is driving our business in a very big way,” Davis said. “You'll see more and more companies investing.”
Choice’s tech team is currently working on a new distribution platform focused on mobile access that is slated to come out this year, Davis said, and noted that his role at the company has changed significantly over the 20-year journey from programmer to CTO to CIO. “I spend more time focused on what's coming now,” he said.
And what’s coming now is alternative ways of growing and spreading the company’s technology beyond Choice. “We were able to take the choiceADVANTAGE product and spin it off into a division called SkyTouch,” Davis said. “That solution is now being sold to other hotel companies and independents.”