The big interview: Jonathan Mills, CEO EMEA, Choice Hotels

by | 12 Oct 2022 | Interview, People

While Choice Hotels’ acquisition of Radisson Americas may have taken the limelight of late, Choice’s European, Middle Eastern and African (EMEA) division has been motoring along, already recovering its pipeline to pre-pandemic levels.

TOPHOTELNEWS sat down with the firm’s CEO for EMEA, Jonathan Mills, to get the lowdown on development in the region.

Major player

The group’s EMEA division is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and Mills framed this in light of the major buyout. “The acquisition of Radisson in the US confirms the significance of Choice Hotels International globally, and that it is acquiring and growing. It helps us with repositioning ourselves as a major player in this market.”

Pre-pandemic, Choice identified EMEA as a huge growth market. Mills detailed: “Our presence in this market pre-pandemic was a reasonable size but the opportunity to increase this was significant. Throughout the pandemic, Choice executed their strategy and used the time very wisely to build a pan-European team.”

He was tasked with creating that team and did so, with a headquarters in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, plus regional offices in London, UK; Paris, France; and Munich, Germany.

Another strategic strand was to team up with research firm BVA BDRC to undertake an internal study on customer feedback, to define what guests were looking for from Choice’ hotels coming out of the pandemic. The data found that the company’s key markets are UK, France and Germany, as well as demand growth in the Middle East, and accordingly, Choice now has sites in Saudi Arabia, including the upcoming Clarion Alula, delivering 215 rooms in 2024.

Brand refresh

As a result of the research, Choice carried out a comprehensive brand refresh. Mills revealed: “One key thing that resonated was the importance of brands, which gave guests a sense of security in a post-pandemic environment. They believe brands give them reassurance of safety, health consciousness, cleanliness and wellbeing.

“The other thing they wanted was a home from home in hotels, and experiencing the local elements of the areas they are staying in.”

Choice took all the feedback into consideration and correspondingly re-aligned its brands in EMEA, starting with the relaunch of the Comfort brand earlier this year to exhibit modern design, providing a warm, vibrant and friendly place to stay with energising casual spaces for socialising, relaxing, sleeping and working.

The programme moved onto a relaunch of the Clarion strand in spring, to include touches that bring out the hotels’ personality, offering a richer experience that caters to guests’ sense of style.

Quality launch

Now the group has overhauled its Quality midscale marque in the region, transforming the sites into ‘contemporary habitats’ in great locations, characterised by modern design and facilities, high cleanliness standards and attentive touches, from design features to a fresh menu. Mills added: “Quality is a classic full service comfort of home brand that embraces the local community and produce.”

Next up, Sleep, which is a popular brand in other regions, will be introduced to EMEA from November. And in the early months of 2023, the refresh will culminate in the overhaul of Choice’s Ascend collection brand.

Renovations and newbuilds

Across all brands, the refresh means both that existing sites in the region will be renovated, as well as deploying the new touches in any upcoming newbuilds. Mills cited one Choice franchisee, 4C Group, saying: “They’ve just signed a 20-year agreement for two London properties in Victoria and on Edgware Road to embrace the Comfort brand. They’re using the time to refurbish the hotels and put the new hallmarks in.”

Recent openings featuring the updated brand identities include a Saudi Arabian pair and one in Ireland, with a few more internationally on the slate by the end of this year.

Doubling target

Choice’s EMEA division has a high target for expansion, aiming to double in size from its current 50,000 keys in the next five years.

While Mills wouldn’t put a precise figure on the current regional pipeline size, he did report that it had returned to pre-pandemic levels, describing it as strong and growing by 10% in a recent three-week period. Developments comprise a mixture of independent sites and multiple property investors and owners.

As well as in Choice’s key focus countries of UK, France and Germany, Mills also revealed that Choice is receiving a number of enquiries from continental European countries surrounding France and Germany.

Franchise-only model

Mills believes that Choice’s franchise-only model is attractive to a new generation of entrepreneurs emerging post-pandemic. He underlined: “We’re a pure franchisor, unlike other colleagues in the market who blend franchising, managing and owning. Our value proposition is providing services to franchisees with refreshed brands which have hallmarks and standards. It drives revenue and operational efficiency.

“Franchisees want to stamp their own mark on their business and they can customise the offer with our refreshed brands. They can customise the offering depending on their location.”

He noted that when compared to going into business alone, franchising has a significantly lower failure rate with, on average, over 40% of standalone businesses failing, compared to less than 5% of franchise businesses. “They want the reassurance of a brand and a distribution platform that is going to support their business, knowing they can rely on a global organisation with regional expertise, but they want to own the business themselves,” he said.

Investor appeal

Mills reported that Choice is an attractive proposition for investors interested in the EMEA region. “Investors have really liked what they’ve seen over the past two years because we have been really transparent about the company strategy of growth in the region and of our brands’ value proposition of customisation. We’ve delivered what we’ve said.

“They may have an asset that’s 250 or 60 keys and a brand needs to be flexible to that asset. They can adapt our brand hallmarks to their local market without compromising on quality, cleanliness or service. Investors like that approach, which makes Choice a strong investment opportunity.”

Adaptive strategy

In terms of what factors are currently influencing Choice’s development strategy decisions, Mills commented: “We have to be agile. In every scenario we’re faced with there’s some external influence that is impacting a decision. It’s about making sure we’re supportive and to partner with an individual or investment organisation to get the right product to the market for the customer. Ultimately it’s about the customer, making sure they receive the right service and experience.”

And as regards to the group’s supply chain, Mills confirmed it is a mix of local and international suppliers. One item Choice will be specifying is a mattress in its new Sleep sites. “We’ve just secured a really good partnership with a mattress company for Sleep,” said Mills. “That brand is designed around the hallmark of a great night’s sleep, so this supplier will provide all of the mattresses for our Sleep brand. But there are other hallmarks within that brand where we would encourage the hotel to work with local companies.”

Asked what success will look like in the coming years, Mills replied: “I hope that the refreshed brands are in the market and that the franchisee and customer have fully embraced them. And that we’ve delivered our growth of 100,000 keys across EMEA and we’ve got a growing pipeline. I want the brands to be recognised and that we’ve got absolute awareness out there as to what we do and deliver, and that people continue to want to use us.”

Many TOPHOTELNEWS articles draw on exclusive information from the TOPHOTELPROJECTS construction database. This subscription-based product includes details of thousands of hotel projects around the world, along with the key decision-makers behind them. Please note, our data may differ from records held by other organisations. Generally, the database focuses on four- and five-star schemes of significant scale; tracks projects in either the vision, pre-planning, planning, under-construction, pre-opening or newly opened phase; and covers newbuilds, extensions, refurbishments and conversions.

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