Three hotel & travel franchises have beaten the odds, coming out of the pandemic stronger than ever
By Kym Wolfe
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated travel-dependent businesses without warning, including three Canadian-owned franchises: Choice Hotels, Realstar Hospitality, and Uniglobe Travel. But bouncing back from closures and restrictions, the pent-up demand for both business and leisure travel led to 2022 being a banner year for all three franchises.
And representatives from all three brands say that as we head into 2023, there’s no sign that demand is going to slow down any time soon.
Even though staffing continues to be a challenge, especially for brick-and-mortar businesses like hotels, there is growing recognition of the value that a franchise system can provide, including tools for on-boarding and training, ongoing coaching and education, and a built-in support network of peer owners who can share strategies for attracting and retaining staff.
Businesses around the world have embraced technologies that enable meetings to be conducted virtually, but there is still a need for some business to be conducted face to face. After being confined to virtual communication for so long, more and more companies are finding it valuable to meet with clients in person, to establish and strengthen working relationships.
Increasingly, these three franchise systems are seeing a blending of business trips with leisure (bizcations or bleisure travel), meaning longer stays, a demand for more amenities and services, and opportunities for existing franchisees to expand or for new franchisees to enter their franchise systems.
Choice Hotels Canada
From Victoria, British Columbia to St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador, hotel guests have come to expect a friendly, affordable, and comfortable night’s stay with Choice Hotels Canada™. A global franchise with Canadian roots that go back to 1955, Choice provides high-value lodging options ranging from limited to full service, in the economy to mid-scale markets.
With more than 330 hotels in Canada, Choice offers domestic and international travellers rooming at several price points through its eight different brands, including Comfort™ hotels and the Ascend Hotel Collection®. Guests have their choice, ranging from economy to upscale, including extended-stay suite accommodations.
For franchisees, Choice offers a portfolio of well-segmented brands optimized to deliver results for owners.
“We’ve had excellent growth, both leading up to and through the pandemic. We’ve opened or signed agreements for 68 new locations since 2019: 58 conversions and 10 new builds,” says Graham Marsh, national director, franchise development for Choice Hotels Canada. Choice has a presence in 207 markets across Canada, and Marsh says there are always opportunities for new franchise locations from coast to coast.
With respect for each franchisee as a business owner, Marsh says Choice’s Canadian team works closely with owners to give them personalized guidance and tools to enable profitability. “There is a lot of ongoing support, from orientation sessions and Choice University (a personalized learning system of online training modules), to easily accessible digital marketing tools, revenue-generating resources, regional meetings, and a diverse national corporate team, with a dedicated help desk to answer any questions.”
During the pandemic, a number of independent hotel operators explored conversion, as they were experiencing supply chain issues, and recognized the value of the support and education a franchise system could provide. When a prospective franchisee wants to convert an existing property, Marsh and his team will analyze unique opportunities specific to the location and its rebranding as a Choice Hotel.
“We want our new franchisees to find the right hotel brand for their property and geographic location, and we provide guidance about what we think would be the best fit for long-term success,” says Marsh.
Some of the proprietary tools available to franchisees are ChoiceADVANTAGE, an innovative, cloud-based property management system; ChoiceEDGE, an industry-leading global reservation system; ChoiceMAX, a mobile-first revenue management system; and Choice Privileges®, an award-winning loyalty program.
Revenue is driven by both leisure stays (typically sports tournaments, weddings, and other personal events) and business trips (typically workers whose jobs take them away from home on a regular basis). On the business side, Choice regularly responds to national requests for proposals from government and corporate accounts, giving its franchisees a competitive advantage for those reservations.
“We strive to help owners capitalize on both the short- and long-term opportunities in hospitality,” adds Marsh. “With the cyclical nature of our industry, it’s important for us to constantly evolve to support the needs of our hotel owners and help grow their businesses.”
With more than 145 properties operating under three different brands, Realstar Hospitality caters to both leisure and business travellers, and offers economy, premium economy, and value-focused extended-stay accommodations. The company is currently expanding through both new builds and conversions of existing properties that are looking to rebrand.
“Typically, conversion is substantially less costly than new-build construction,” says Irwin Prince, president and COO of Realstar Hospitality. He found that during the pandemic, franchises became more attractive because of the guidance and support they could provide, as well as offering assistance with procurement, while other hotels dealt with supply chain issues.
Prince sees two main factors that continue to drive conversions. “With a brand comes the kind of discipline that means consistent and uniform standards that work to enhance the value of a hotel,” he says. And secondly, “Travellers tend to be especially cautious of the unknown. Brands deliver instant recognition; guests know what they can expect.”
Prince cites brand awareness, loyalty programs, and proprietary reservation platform as three of the company’s greatest strengths, along with the corporate support team, “our full contingent of dynamic, Canadian-based hospitality professionals.” Because Realstar is focused solely on Canada, Prince says “We know the market. We provide guidance and assistance to our franchisees in all areas, including training and quality assurance, global and national sales, marketing and advertising, operations support and purchasing excellence, and revenue management and e-commerce.”
The pandemic accelerated the use of technologies that continue to be used today. That includes customer-facing tools to provide remote access to customer service, and mobile and self-service apps that help personalize guest stays and provide cost-effective management of operations. It also elevated cleanliness from being an invisible expectation to a very visible certification, says Prince. “Health and safety, and the welfare of our guests and our hotel team members is important. We now have our housekeeping staff working where guests can see them, so they can see our commitment to provide high-quality standards of cleanliness.”
A family-owned travel management company that first opened in British Columbia in 1981, Uniglobe now has a presence in 60 countries across six continents. Since his father, Gary Charlwood, founded the business, Uniglobe’s purpose has remained the same, says Martin Charlwood, current president and COO: “To drive our clients’ success through better travel. When our customers are successful, we are successful.”
Traditionally, two-thirds of Uniglobe revenues come from small-to-medium-sized businesses, while the remainder is made up of individual leisure clients. This year, with an uptick in travel for both business and leisure, there have been inevitable glitches for travellers to contend with, and dealing with an agency like Uniglobe brings peace of mind. “Now more than ever, travellers want to know there is someone to call, and that someone is there to help,” says Charlwood.
If there was a silver lining to the pandemic, for Uniglobe it was the time provided to re-engineer its systems so franchisees can run and manage their businesses more efficiently and with fewer resources. Technology certainly played a part in that, says Charlwood. But there was also a shift in mindset for employees, many of whom continue working from home or have moved to a hybrid schedule, combining home and in-office work. “Going forward, there will be less brick-and-mortar, which typically will result in lower overhead costs,” says Charlwood.
Charlwood describes his father as a pioneer in Canadian franchising and says that over time, Uniglobe has developed “industry-leading technology and methodology, comprehensive training, marketing tools, ongoing PD [professional development], and guidance on the best way to conduct business.”
New franchisees may come through the conversion of an existing travel agency; they may be trained travel agents who want to work from home as independent contractors (those can also be attached to an existing Uniglobe centre); or they may be aspiring entrepreneurs looking to get into the travel agency business, says Charlwood. “They don’t have to be hands-on in the business as a travel agent, so long as they hire licensed agents to work for them, but they ought to be sales and marketing oriented, focused on attracting new customers to the business.”