Moderated by Stefani C. O’Connor, “CEO Executive Forum—A View From the Top,” included panelists Geoff Ballotti, president/CEO, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts; Heather McCrory, CEO, North & Central America, Accor; and Pat Pacious, president/CEO, Choice Hotels International.
The Choice CEO pointed out some of the positives the industry is currently experiencing.
“Less expensive is working—the economy, extended-stay and midscale segments are really back to 2019 levels, or better; upper-midscale is almost there; and upscale is not that far behind,” he said. “Limited-service is working, so if you don’t have large meeting space, restaurants and those types of things where you have high fixed costs, that’s working. Leisure is working. Those are the things that have held up during the pandemic and have also been the first to recover.”
He also is confident business travel will recover. “When you look at business travel coming back, it’s not as strong as we would all hope, but it will come back,” he said. “Whether it will come back fully to 2019 levels is really everybody’s question. So, when you think about our industry, while there might not be as much business travel, there will be more business travelers just because of economic growth that we’re seeing here in the U.S., Asia and Europe.”
McCrory noted that luxury and group business travel is struggling, but, “I was actually pleasantly surprised that the big hotels in September held on to leisure. We had a little bit of a lull in our forecast, but it was actually higher than we anticipated and I’m very hopeful to see that continue for October and November. It won’t replace the remainder of the businesses, but it’s actually continuing to build in a very positive way.”
Pacious was impressed at the speed the company was able to pivot during the pandemic.
“I just was in my office—it was not my first time back—but I finally was like, ‘I need to start cleaning up all the piles,”’ he said. “I started going back and there was a bunch of material on my desk from March 2020. So, it was really a trip back in time as to what we were working on before the pandemic took over. The good news was the way we reacted. We said, ‘What are we working on that is going to have long-term strategic benefit?’ We said, ‘Let’s accelerate housekeeping on request. Forget about piloting it. let’s do it.” So, we moved at a faster speed.’”
New brands and prototypes also moved forward once the height of the pandemic was in the rearview mirror. “We had a new extended-stay brand and a new prototype for our Comfort Inn brand that we went forward with,” he said. “Those are things where you look at the long term and you say this business is going to be around for a long time.”
Ballotti said that it was important to provide cost-effective services for his company’s owners, and provided an example.
“Our most successful service right now is taking those phone calls off of that front desk guest service agent who’s trying to check somebody in, or check somebody out to our central call centers,” he said.
The three CEOs were asked the lessons they have learned going through the pandemic.
“I think our biggest lesson was speed matters. If I think about how long it took us to launch a brand, housekeeping on request or digital check-in, we spent too much time highlighting things and trying it here and there,” said Pacious. “One thing I just learned through this whole thing is: If you’ve got a good idea, push it out there.”
Ballotti noted, “The one thing we learned, and we’ll continue to abide by, is we can’t over-communicate. Communication was just so important with our senior team and our field team, and that’s something that I know we’ll stick with.”
For McCrory, the resiliency of the industry really stood out to her.
“We can get through this, and we’ll come back stronger,” she said. “The industry is so resilient and it’s so ready to bounce back. It’s been a long haul, but it is incredible to me how people are so resilient. We got kind of run over but we’re bouncing back up and going forward, and it’s inspiring for me in terms of our industry and how fast we came back.”
BY ADAM PERKOWSKY