Posted in Business, People on 12 October, 2022

As Choice Hotels undergo a brand refresh, Jonathan Mills talks so SPACE about the evolving needs of the hotel guest and why loyalty to the Franchisee is key to their success. 

What are you responsible for as CEO (EMEA) and what is currently your main area of focus?
As CEO, I’m responsible for running Choice Hotels EMEA – a division of the world’s largest franchising hospitality company and second largest hotel group by rooms, Choice Hotels International, Inc.

Above: Clarion Congress Hotel Prague. Top: Jonathan Mills, CEO Choice Hotels EMEA

I currently have four brands here in EMEA including Comfort, Clarion, Quality and Ascend Collection and with those I am focused on delivering value for our franchisee hoteliers and offering relevant brands that are guest-centric and designed for the evolving needs of the ‘quality value-seeking’ guest. 

Arriving in your post in 2020 must have been quite a challenge. What did the landscape look like then compared with now?
Choice Hotels International had long had a vision for the EMEA region and that was in place even before the pandemic – I was excited by the vision the company had for EMEA and embraced the opportunity to lead it.

COVID itself presented some additional personal challenges, none more so than having to relocate from Singapore to Amsterdam. It was tricky trying to find a house via zoom, move thousands of miles across the world while trying to home school my kids and start a new role!

Clarion Congress Hotel Bratislava Room

Although the company had a vision, COVID meant that once I was settled in Amsterdam, I couldn’t meet the team or go to the office which was tough. However, it also presented new opportunities and I was able to hire and build a team remotely which brought a 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.

The Hardiman Deluxe Suite

Today, our industry looks vastly different compared to 2019 but encouragingly recovery is well underway, and we are embracing the changing face of our industry.  One of the most significant things we’ve seen in recent months is increased interest in franchising as we witness a new generation of energised entrepreneurs looking to more deeply engage and ‘upgrade’ their passion for hospitality and manage their own business. While franchising has been a successful business model for years, in recent months we have seen an increased interest in franchising as a business format as many people look to franchising for the first time. 

Did the pandemic change Choice Hotels plans for future growth?
Despite challenging times for hospitality, Europe and the Middle East have remained important growth markets for Choice Hotels and we maintain a firm focus on strategic growth that will drive brand preference and customer loyalty. Growth here in EMEA is core to my strategy for the region – it has been 50 years since the first Choice hotel franchised in the region in Ratingen, Germany – and our growth continues at pace.

The Hardiman Oyster Bar

We have signed a range of deals this year and extended long-standing partnerships.

Our master license agreement with SEERA Hospitality, a fully owned subsidiary of SEERA Holding Group, the largest publicly listed travel company in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, will see us realise at least ten hotels in the Kingdom within the next five years.  The first two properties, Clarion Jeddah Airport and Comfort King Road Jeddah opened at the beginning of this year.

This year we have also continued our strategic agreement with CPI Hotels, the leading hotel operating company in the Czech Republic and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) Region, as they opened their 14thChoice hotel – the Clarion Congress Hotel Bratislava in February. We have a long-standing relationship with CPI Hotels that has been in place since the 1990s and with the opening of the Clarion Congress Hotel Bratislava, CPI Hotels now has fourteen Choice hotels across the Czech Republic and Slovakia, including the recently renovated Clarion Congress Prague – one of the largest conference hotels in Europe. CPI Hotels is also working on the opening of the Comfort Hotel Budapest, expected to open towards the end of this year.

Shoreline Hotel, Ascend Hotel Collection bedroom

Additionally, a couple of months ago we welcomed The Hardiman, Ascend Hotel Collection in Galway, Ireland, in collaboration with our master franchisee in Ireland, Choice Hotel Group, Ireland.

Just recently we also renewed our partnership with 4C for the Comfort Hotel Victoria in London for the next 20 years – they have been our trusted franchise partner since 2002.

Looking ahead, we continue to actively seek new properties, both conversions and new builds, in the midscale hotel segment.

Our focus remains on our core markets of the UK, France, and Germany; however, we are evaluating and seeking investment opportunities across EMEA where hotel owners are excited by the range of Franchisee support Choice Hotels offers. The most recent examples of this are CPI and Seera as detailed above. 

The Hardiman lobby

Choice Hotels are currently going through a brand refresh. Could you tell us what this involves and which of your brands it includes?
2021 was a challenging year for our industry but it 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, changing franchisee and guest requirements were apparent and in consideration of that, we carried out independent research and engaged with customers and potential customers in our key European markets to best understand their evolving needs.

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 are embarking on a refresh and the Sleep brand, which is well established in other regions, will be introduced in EMEA later this year. Plans for our Ascend Hotel Collection will be revisited later this year.

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 a quiet space for working and 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 iPad/tablet.

With regards to Clarion, 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 sculpture, a ceiling light or a focal piece of furniture.

I’ll be announcing further details on the specifics of Quality and Sleep later this year.

I understand as CEO (EMEA), you are keen to understand guests’ requirements and are committed to independent research. What did the feedback tell you about post pandemic guest requirements?
The research showed our guests today want a trusted brand who does what they promise. They want a quality stay that isn’t too basic, they want to know what they will get before they arrive and when they do arrive, everything is just as they expect. They are looking for home comforts and well-being is a significant priority for them. With regards to our staff, they want to know they are looked after and that they love what they are doing. 

What do you believe the evolving requirements of your franchisees are?
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.

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. 

How do you see the future of travel and the hospitality industry as a whole?
It has been encouraging to see a resumption of travel at higher levels as we have seen less restricted travel across the EMEA region.

I think the industry will continue to evolve at pace over the coming months and years as brands work to really understand what the consumer of today wants and needs for their journeys.

I certainly think it is an exciting time to be in the industry and witness the growth and change that will occur. 

What excites you most about the future of Choice Hotels?
With the brand refresh 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 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.

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