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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | August 22, 2011

Victoria PorterLast month, when Silver Spring, Md.-based Choice Hotels announced it had entered into a preferred partnership agreement with HelmsBriscoe, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based third-party site-selection company, my interest was immediately piqued.

Preferred hotel partnerships are nothing new in the third-party world. In fact, HelmsBriscoe forged two in the last eight months: one with Spanish hotel company Meliá Hotels International (formerly Sol Meliá Hotels & Resorts), the other with the Global Hotel Alliance, a marketing consortium of 12 independent brands, of which Omni Hotels & Resorts is the only U.S. member.

Could it be that Choice Hotels, long a solid player in the mid-service segment with its Sleep Inn, Comfort Inn and Econo Lodge brands, was finally making a deliberate and targeted play for group business?

In an exclusive interview, Choice's Victoria Porter, regional vice president, global sales, USA, and field sales support, Cambria Suites, talked candidly about the company's new business strategy and its plans to grow its upscale Ascend Collection, which made its debut in late 2008.

Does Choice Hotels have preferred partnerships with other third parties, such as ConferenceDirect, or is this one with HelmsBriscoe the company's first?
No, we do not. Choice has not previously taken a proactive stance in going after group business. We made a concerted effort in exploring and choosing a partner that we felt best aligned with our brands, and HelmsBriscoe met those needs. They have the largest number of clients worldwide, along with the highest number of group opportunities that do not even involve meeting space -- 17 percent of their group business is "rooms only" business, which allows more of our hotels to be eligible to take that business.

The Xona Resort in Scottsdale, ArizonaIs this partnership part of Choice's strategy to be more of a player in the groups/meetings arena?
Yes. Choice's first and second growth strategies are to improve our corporate client base and activate our proactive efforts to gain more group business. This is the first step to being able to do so. We have limited resources and reach as it relates to group space, and HelmsBriscoe has such tenure and depth in this space, it is a perfect partnership.

Which of your brands are more geared toward group business and stand to benefit from this partnership?

The beauty of this relationship is that all of our brands will benefit. However, we believe that Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Cambria Suites, Mainstay, Clarion, Sleep Inn and the Ascend Collection will all benefit greatly, because these brands and hotels have more value to offer with their large array of amenities and food and beverage opportunities for group travelers.

What plans do you have for the Ascend Collection, in terms of growth and positioning?
We are commited to the growth of the Ascend Collection, which is a membership for upscale, independent hotels that fall into one of three product classes: historic, boutique or unique. It is positioned in the upscale segment and is actually our fastest growing membership. Our goal is to have a minimum of 100 properties open and operating in the U.S. by 2014. We just signed our largest deal, the 431-room Xona Resort in Scottsdale. We will have two resorts opening in the Caribbean by year's end, one in Anguilla and one in Dominica. The beauty of Ascend is that each hotel offers a local flavor; no two are the same. The one thing they all have in common, though, is exceptional guest service.