Tim Oldfield: The new look of Comfort

Tim Oldfield

Tim Oldfield

MISSISSAUGA, ON—It’s an important time for the Comfort brand as
Choice Hotels Canada continues to execute its “improve or remove” strategy.
Over the next two years, Comfort will undergo a $65-million facelift at 85 properties,
and it’s already underway. It’s definitely the largest scale renovation program
in the history of Choice Hotels Canada, Tim Oldfield, managing director
franchise performance told CLN in an interview last month.

“We’re fortunate, owners of Comfort branded assets are
engaged and see value in improving the guest experience,” said Oldfield.
“Specifically our largest franchisee InnVest, by the end of 2014, expects to
renovate 61 hotels—approximately 30 in 2013 and the balance in 2014—at a cost
of about $45 million.”

That means that more than half—58 per cent—of the 147
Comfort hotels open in Canada will be renovated by the end of 2014.

More than $750,000 will be put into each property that is
scheduled for upgrades, Oldfield said.

These renovations are quite separate from the $40 million in
funding Choice Hotels International president and CEO Steve Joyce announced at
the brand conference in May.

That was an exciting announcement for U.S. franchisees
but we’re starting from a different place in Canada,” said Oldfield. “And while
the $40 million investment that Choice Hotels International is putting towards
U.S. Comforts is not available to our properties, the investment that we’re
talking about will significantly update the Comfort portfolio in Canada.”

By the numbers

More than 8,000 rooms will be renovated over the two year
period. And while renovations have just started in earnest, the early results
from the first few completions are encouraging. “We’re seeing a bump in
occupancy and almost 10 per cent lift in rate,” Oldfield said.

Deciding which properties should be renovated was a
collaborative process and Choice has been talking to its independent owners
about their long-range plans. “We used a lot of data to help guide the process
but at the core of our business are guests and frankly, their feedback set much
of the course,” said Oldfield.

“On the public ownership side, InnVest undertook a
comprehensive review of its portfolio to identify core long-term holdings in
stable markets, which showed favourable growth opportunities from capital
investments,” said Oldfield. “They shared their plans with us and with only
minor tweaks, we were able to enthusiastically support the plan.”

About nine years ago, InnVest took over more than 100
former Journey’s End properties, and they still have almost 80. As part of the
Comfort transformation, InnVest is looking to sell 15 or 16 hotels. A partial
list of those properties appears at left.

Direction for the brand

Development of what Choice calls the Truly Yours Design
Package was based on in-depth feedback from more than 1,500 guests and
developers. Consumer research already indicated overall intent to stay at
Comfort hotels nearly doubles in response to the new look. Research also
indicates guests are willing to pay more on average per night compared with the
current design, Oldfield noted.

Changes to the free Your Morning Breakfast program, which
was a major feature of the first phase of the refresh, were made in response to
the comments of more than 10,000 respondents.

“Guest response has been overwhelmingly favourable of
breakfast enhancements that are now available at most hotels, which include the
addition of a flavoured waffle, and the new design concept’s warm and inviting
look,” Oldfield said.

Types
of changes depend on the hotel and at what stage they are at in the lifecycle.

For InnVest properties, this is a comprehensive makeover,
with new carpeting and underpad, as well as updated wall vinyl and draperies.
Old sofas and mattresses will be replaced and beds will be refreshed with Truly
Yours bedding, said Oldfield. Lighting and artwork is also set to be updated,
case-good hardware is being replaced, and they’re adding clothing wardrobes and
new ergonomic chairs.

Guest bathrooms will include granite top vanities with new
sinks, faucets, mirrors and vanity lights will be installed. “Plus, as you’d
expect, we’re addressing wall vinyl, and floor tiles will be replaced, as well
as the shower heads and hair dryers,” said Oldfield.

Appealing public areas

Oldfield is particularly excited about the addition of
breakfast rooms to most hotels. “Typically, what you’ll see is two guest room
bays knocked out to create a breakfast room adjacent to the lobby. This will be
visually appealing on entry to the lobby, be a great spot for breakfast, but
also have the capacity to serve as a lounge area for our guests at other times
during their stay.”

The Comforts will be outfitted with the right equipment,
including a breakfast counter and pantry, to provide guests with the brand’s
complimentary Your Morning Breakfast. The breakfast rooms will also benefit
from new flooring, wall vinyl, draperies and lighting. And guests will be able
enjoy the table seating and new LCD TVs.

Lobbies will see new flooring, wall vinyl, drapes,
furniture and LCD TVs. Front desks are also being refreshed to help make sure
our guests feel welcome as soon as they step through the door.

Corridors will be updated with new carpeting, wall vinyl
and lighting.

Sense of arrival

Choice has worked with an architect to develop a new sense
of arrival for those Comforts that started life as Journey’s Ends.

This optional renovation raises the porte-cochere by four
feet, adds complementary stone cladding and brightens the approach with new exterior
lighting.

Choice is also suggesting some low-maintenance hardscaping
for visual appeal.

At a minimum, the InnVest Comforts will see new outdoor
lighting, parking lot repairs and landscaping upgrades. Some locations will
also receive new signage with electronic reader boards.

“The renovations are
transformational for the brand,” says Oldfield. “We’re seeing some very
positive early results and guest feedback is phenomenal.” 

General manager Michelle Weber and Melissa Keillor, front desk. They’re holding cards guests can pick to win prizes. The hotel lobby’s rock wall is behind them.

General manager Michelle Weber and Melissa Keillor, front desk. They’re holding cards guests can pick to win prizes. The hotel lobby’s rock wall is behind them.


Case study:
Newmarket Comfort Inn’s $1.6 million reno

NEWMARKET, ON—Guests who call the Newmarket Comfort
Inn get an enthusiastic message welcoming them to the newly-renovated property.
When they arrive, they see a freshly-paved parking lot. And inside the front
lobby, there’s a striking rock wall with recesses that hold candles and other
decorative elements.

Tim Oldfield, managing partner at Choice Hotels Canada, sees
the Newmarket property, at Highway 404 and David Drive, as a prototype—an
example of what Comfort Inns will look like once the Canada-wide renovations are
complete.

Michelle Weber, general manager, came to the hotel in
January, after 20 years at the Comfort Inn Orillia. But even in the few short
months she has been there, the hotel has changed.

The renovations to the 100-room property began in July 2011,
and included the lobby, breakfast room and hotel exterior—those renovations
were done in four weeks. The results—particularly in the lobby— are stunning.
The lobby was totally redone with new vinyl, lighting, flooring, furniture, a
desk area with granite and the rock wall. Curtains, paint and pictures were all
changed.

There is now a business area for guests, and a two-sided
fireplace for what Weber calls “that warm, cozy stylish feeling.”

“Your morning breakfast is new. We now have a full hot
breakfast for our guests to enjoy with eggs, bacon, sausage, waffles, toast,
cereal, tea, coffee, juices, and a selection of fresh fruits daily,” Weber
said.

In March 2013, they started to renovate the guestrooms,
bathrooms and corridors.

Renovations to date have cost $1.6 million, and there are
still some items to complete.

“We will be building a barbecue and picnic area, along with
a gazebo in the next year or so,” said Weber. “Some landscaping has started
outside to beautify the hotel. We also built a horseshoe pit for our valued
guests to enjoy.”

The hotel stayed open throughout the renovations. The front
desk operations moved to a guest room, and business went on as usual, Weber
said. Rooms were taken out of service 20 at a time, and fully renovated before
they moved on to another part of the building.

The most challenging part of the renovations was the parking
lot, Weber noted. “The entire parking lot was ripped apart and repaved. We
actually did a section of the parking lot at a time. We are located on a side
street, which allowed our guests to park curbside adjacent to the hotel.

Guests are enjoying the renovations, Weber said. As one
guest wrote: “Wow, I wasn’t expecting a Comfort Inn to look like this. Really
love the feel of the lobby and the two-sided fireplace sure makes it feel warm,
cozy and so inviting.”

Weber says the renovations have improved the hotel’s market
share, and there are other benefits as well.

“We have seen a huge increase in our Choice Privileges
loyalty program since we started the renovations. We won $1,000 from Choice
Hotels for being a top enroller and we donated it to the Special Olympics,”
Weber said.