by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | December 1, 2010

Jeff Wagoner, wyndham hotelsA chance encounter a few weeks ago during the American Hotel & Lodging Association's annual convention in New York City led me to snag a one-one-one telephone interview this week with Parsippany, N.J.-based Wyndham Hotels and Resorts new president, Jeff Wagoner.

Frankly, the last time Wyndham had entered my radar was in August 2006. Parent company Cendant had announced the spinoff of Wyndham Worldwide, its hospitality division that spanned 12 brands, and it was anyone's guess how the then unwieldy hotel company, whose portfolio ran the gamut from luxury spa resorts to tired urban hotels, would fare.

A 25-year hospitality veteran, with six of those years spent at Wyndham, Wagoner had been tapped in late 2009 to lead a global strategy for all Wyndham-branded hotels, which include Wingate by Wyndham and Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham. In talking with him the other day, I found his enthusiasm for the brand's development sincere -- and downright infectious.

Q. I'll be frank. I've never been able to get my arms around the Wyndham brand. It always seemed all over the place. How has that changed?
A. When I came back to Wyndham in 2009, I wanted to focus on the clarity of the brand. Some of the hotels were truly grand in their own right and some were just great, but you certainly wouldn't call them grand. We felt that it was important to narrow that distinction. We developed three tiers to clarify the brand, and I think that has caught a lot of people's attention: There's the Wyndham Grand Collection, which is the upper-upscale segment; Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, upscale; and Wyndham Garden.

Q. The Wyndham Grand Collection was launched in 2007, but I never heard of it until a few weeks ago when I read a news item about a new build hotel in Colorado Springs joining its portfolio. What defines them?
A. The properties in that collection offer a truly luxury product, but they are also very individual, with a strong sense of destination. Some are historic, like the Mining Exchange in Colorado Springs, which is in a 110-year-old building, and others, particularly those in China, are very modern. We are not trying to be like Four Seasons, but I think any of those hotels certainly can rival them. And, we are getting ready to launch a new website for them, so they are going to be getting a lot more visibility.

Q. How is this collection different from Marriott's new Autograph Collection? Those hotels also are luxury independents looking to leverage the advantages of global sales forces, operations and marketing platforms.
A. Well, there is one major distinction. The Autograph properties don't carry the Marriott name, because each wants to maintain its independence. Every hotel in the Grand Collection carries the Wyndham name, either as part of the overall name or in a tagline. They want to be identified with and associated with the power of the Wyndham brand. Plus you have the benefits of the largest loyalty program in the business, Wyndham Rewards, which has more than seven million members.

Wyndham Graves 601 HotelQ. Are these properties being positioned to capture group business?
A. Throughout most of the collection, meeting business represents 40 to 50 percent of overall revenue. For some properties, it may be even higher; as much as 60 percent. If you look at the individual properties in the collection, many are not large but they have tremendous meeting space for their size. Take the Graves 601 Hotel in Minneapolis, which is connected to the Target Center -- it has 20,000 square feet of meeting space.

Q. Are you growing this collection by acquisition or new builds, and what destinations would you like to be in?

A. Right now the collection stands at 28, and most are conversions. This year we added three in North America [the 225-room Graves 601 Hotel; the 119-room Mining Exchange, which is scheduled to open during the second quarter of 2011; and the 713-room Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh, formerly the Hilton Pittsburgh]. Obviously we would like to have a presence in all the major gateway cities, but we also want to maintain balanced growth both in the U.S. and internationally. That said, we would like to be in cities likes Boston, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.