Choice Canada has 85 per cent of hotels open

Brian Leon, president, Choice Hotels Canada.

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — Choice Hotels Canada currently has around 85 per cent of hotels open out of over 330 properties, reports Brian Leon, president.

After the December outbreak in Wuhan, the coronavirus began to appear on the radar for all hotel companies, and in January the concerns began to escalate.  It became an active topic of discussion at the Hotel Association of Canada board meetings in January and February. “It became evident fairly quickly that the impact on hotels and the travel industry was going to be swift and devastating,” Leon told CLN. 

“Early on, we decided who would take on certain responsibilities with regards to communications with our franchisees, as well our Choice Canada associates. 

“One of the critical needs has been to keep franchisees up-to-date with all the emerging information coming from health authorities, and the federal and provincial governments. We use various technology platforms to do this, including the Nudge mobile app, which we use to communicate to frontline associates in hotels, webinars, townhall meetings and iNN-touch, our intranet for general managers and owners, where we developed a dedicated hub for information related to the current crisis.

Choice Hotels Canada has also held weekly meetings with their franchisee advisory board, and aligned closely with Choice Hotels International with respect to travel advisories, cancellation and other policies. They continue to stay in constant touch with the Hotel Association of Canada, which is strongly advocating for the industry during these challenging times. 

Leon listed a few immediate cost relief initiatives the company announced for hotels, including:

  • Temporary suspensions or deferrals for certain fees 
  • Suspending Quality Assurance Reviews and pausing penalties for non-compliance 
  • Offering hotels the option to suspend or reduce some services and offerings, depending on occupancy 

With the vast majority of hotels open, “we have a number of hotels serving as lodging for front line health care workers and others impacted by the crisis,” Leon said. “In a few cases, hotels are being used as hospital overflow. We launched our “Choice Cares” rate for essential workers that enables them to stay at our properties for a discounted rate.

“A high proportion of our properties are still operating because of the nature of our hotels and their ownership.  We’re primarily midscale limited service, and hotels can be operated very efficiently, even at low occupancy rates. Beyond that, we’re a 100 per cent franchised business and the majority of our owners are active owner/operators, often with family assisting in operation of the hotels, which allows them to be very efficient from a staffing standpoint.

“Due to the nature of our hotels, they have been outperforming the overall market since the crisis started. So, in that sense, we have been generally lucky. Many of our hotels are in secondary and tertiary markets and haven’t been as hard hit as hotels in big city cores. Some hotels that are located close to hospitals and meet strict health criteria have been used as hospital overflow, primarily for non COVID-related cases. Other hotels have supplemented their income by providing emergency shelters for municipalities or agencies. It’s been a shift in business, but our franchisees have once again proved that they are resourceful and committed to providing industry-leading hospitality.”

“Ça va bien aller” rainbow. Quality Inn & Suites Val D’Or, Quebec. Photo: Alexandre Audet, general manager.

Leadership priorities during the pandemic

“Everyone at Choice Hotels Canada’s corporate head office has been working at home since March 17,” Leon said. “Our first priority is to ensure we could serve the interests of our hotels through this unprecedented time, and with that in mind we chose not to do any full layoffs. Hours have been reduced for some of our team based on the nature of their roles. But many, particularly those providing direct support to our hotels, are busier than ever and working at full capacity. We felt it was more important than ever to keep our team intact to better serve our franchisees through this time, especially since we have heard from franchisees that one of the things they like about Choice is having a full team across all departments here in Canada.

“As I’ve mentioned, communication is key in keeping everyone up-to-date and especially to let our franchisees know we are here for them. Our leadership team mobilized their departments quickly to provide our franchisees with the information they needed to make crucial business decisions. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of the team I work with and how they have gone the extra mile during these uncertain times to help our franchisees and each other.  I’ve frequently referred to our company as a family, and it couldn’t have been more evident, especially during the early days of the crisis.”

Communication is key

Communication is key to Choice Hotels Canada’s response to the pandemic. “We immediately called together our franchise advisory board for weekly meetings to address franchisee concerns,” Leon said. “They give us valuable owner feedback that helps inform our decisions. We’ve also held monthly national virtual townhall meetings for our owners, operators and regional teams. We had never done this before, but it proved to be a very effective and quick way to share information and insights. 

“On our second townhall, we had Susie Grynol from the Hotel Association of Canada on the call to provide some industry insights into the impact of COVID-19. Franchisees can also ask questions, so it’s really been an opportunity for an open discussion. The feedback we’ve received has been very positive. 

“We also launched a new community feed on our franchisee intranet, where owners and GMs can post ideas and best practices on how they’re dealing with the impact of COVID-19. Technology has once again proven to be very useful in bringing our community together.

“Choice Hotels has launched Commitment to Clean and Choice Hotels Canada is adopting this program in Canada.” Leon said. “We feel it’s a necessary and reassuring step in welcoming our guests back once they begin to travel again. We will be stepping up cleaning and disinfecting procedures at the hotels, including guidelines related to deep cleaning, disinfecting, hygiene, and social distancing best practices and protocols. 

Heartwarming acts of kindness

“We’ve heard from many of our hotels and they continue to amaze us with the great things they are doing in their communities.” Leon told CLN. “We have one hotel on the East Coast, collecting suitcases for vulnerable communities. They learned from a local homeless shelter that one of the most dire needs was suitcases, as many have little more than garbage bags to move their belongings. They easily collected over 250 suitcases and duffle bags, and are having them cleaned and donated. Another story is from one of our hotels in Fort McMurray, which was recently devastated by flooding. This hotel offered rooms to evacuees and even helped fed over 200 displaced people. These are just a couple acts of kindness that are happening behind the scenes.” 

The reopening — what will change?

Leon sees certain things staying the same and others changing as hotels reopen.

“From an operational standpoint, ‘grab and go’ breakfasts will stay in place, as will opt-in housekeeping. Partitions will likely stay in place at reception until a vaccine is widely available. We will also have hand sanitizer stations and will continue social distancing best practices.

“We are beginning to move into recovery mode. We’ll see a much more robust recovery in some markets, and it will be more gradual in others. I think there are some positive factors, including pent up demand for leisure travel, including families who want a vacation closer to home. Our hotels are perfect for rubber tire traffic. We may also start to see businesses that need to reconnect with their customers. We are closely watching a number of indicators, including easing of restrictions, travel sentiment and consumer behaviour. We’ve mapped out a blueprint to guide us through the recovery phase, as we layer on efforts to meet renewed travel demand. 

“I believe this time has really enhanced people’s views towards hotels. Initially, there was some question about whether hotels would be designated as essential services (they weren’t in all parts of the world), but after seeing the role that both our hotels and the industry as a whole have played, that should not be questioned.  Our hotels have been so supportive of their communities, and built stronger relationships within those communities, which we know will serve them well in the future.”