AmericInn leader shares bumps, big breaks for brand
 
AmericInn leader shares bumps, big breaks for brand
20 APRIL 2018 8:19 AM

Going from a small, regional brand to a national player under Wyndham Hotel Group so far has been a boon for AmericInn, said SVP of Brand Operations Nasir Raja, who added he sees greater things to come. 

LAS VEGAS—“No breakthrough happens without some bumps,” but the transition of the AmericInn brand to Wyndham Hotel Group has been relatively smooth, according to Nasir Raja, SVP of brand operations at AmericInn.

The scope of that transition was massive, he said. Wyndham completed its acquisition of AmericInn in October 2017, and the deal brought AmericInn’s 200 hotels and nearly 12,000 rooms under the Wyndham Hotel Group umbrella.

Within a few weeks’ time, the brand “not only was plugged into a brand-new (central reservations system) and the very complicated distribution system … we also changed 200 (property-management systems),” he said. “We had a brand new website … we had to train people, to get them comfortable (with the new systems). … And we did it without any systematic disruption. Zero.”

The only bumps, Raja said, were “single-property issues, and most were manageable.”

Early on Raja said he had concerns, particularly because the company was going from a small brand with a small management team and “very close-knit relationships with franchisees” to a much larger playing field.

“Being a small standalone brand … when an acquisition is announced, especially by such a large, global company, the first question is always, ‘How will we fit? Will we lose our importance being a small fish in a great pond?’” Raja said during an interview at Wyndham’s 2018 Global Brand Session.

He said those fears were quickly quelled by the level of involvement from Wyndham President and CEO Geoff Ballotti.

“From day one, having Geoff spend time with me, seeing Geoff interact with franchisees, observing the questions he asked, what he focused on as the concerns … really that tells you a lot about the Wyndham culture, which is it is all about the time; it is all about the franchisee,” he said.

“Early on, the second thing that really got me into a good place was a feeling that Wyndham is acquiring AmericInn for what it represents: Quality, consistency, engaged owners, passionate GMs. The whole idea is you take that good, solid foundation, and now you can feed it into the machinery that Wyndham brings us. Not to take a brand and make it into something that it’s not.”

All of that was on display throughout the brand conference, as Ballotti and other Wyndham executives touted the AmericInn brand for its quality standards and held it up as an example for the company’s legacy brands to emulate.

Creative identity change
Passion for the AmericInn brand was evident when, during a brand session, Ballotti polled the audience of franchisees and owners on a plan to re-evaluate the brand’s creative identity. A vast majority of audience members raised their hands in favor of retaining a semblance of its current logo—streamlined in monochromatic blue and with the addition of the “By Wyndham” endorsement—over making another change in the near future.

What that tells Raja is “this is a proud group of owners and GMs,” he said. “They have lived with that sign and are very proud of it outside their properties.”

He said he thinks some, “but not most,” of the owners’ concerns with changes is about the cost—of updating everything from physical signage to stationery.

“The first natural reaction is ‘We love our brand. Don’t mess with it.’ And we’re not going to. What we are going to do is review what we need to do to make the change that’s necessary because the brand is evolving,” he said.

“Our (Generation 4) prototype is very contemporary. Although we are a midscale brand, it’s a very upper-midscale product. You look at our Gen-4 prototype, and you go inside it, look outside it; that feeling it gives you is different. Our marketing has changed; our guest has changed. So we have to stay in line with those changes as well. What eventually the creative identity will look like, I think we have to allow the process to take its toll.”

The reaction to the informal poll at the brand session doesn’t change that process, Raja said.

“Really just because we had a show of hands with one option versus another, that doesn’t change the path we had decided on,” he said, “which was going to follow a very robust, specific process with very specific steps to analyze what the current logo and creative identity is, get feedback from the owners’ advisory board, get feedback from some engaged GMs and owners, look in the marketplace.”

That feedback, along with data from an extensive guest research study, will help AmericInn’s marketing team envision what the next creative representation of the brand should be, he said.

What came out of the brand session polling was “a sneak peek” of the process, and it wasn’t surprising.

“When we ask (owners) to get engaged, they get engaged,” he said.

What won’t change, Raja said, is “our brand voice, which is ‘America’s welcoming neighbor’ … and the elements that really make the brand what it is: genuine, patriotic and care.”

Immediate results
Through the transition, Wyndham has proven its dedication to maintaining the best of what AmericInn has to offer, Raja said.

“Actions speak louder than words, and in the last few months, we have delivered on the promises we made,” he said.

“Simple example: We rolled out our brand standards … and basically nothing has changed. Design standards have not changed; guest-facing operational standards have not changed … breakfast standards, high-speed internet access, the things my franchisees are proud about, my GMs are proud about, those things have not changed.”

With the new website, AmericInn saw its conversion rate almost double from 4.5% to 8.9%, Raja said.

“Another metric I love: Out of two months of revenue, 16% came from cross-selling opportunities,” booked either through Wyndham Rewards or other Wyndham brand websites,” he said.

That demonstrates the power behind the brand’s increased visibility with Wyndham, he said, as well as the benefit of having a competing brand in a market suddenly become a sister brand.

“I’ve talked to a lot of GMs and owners (about that), and their perspective is that at the local level, nothing changes,” Raja said. “Why? Because you still have to run a good quality hotel; you still have to deliver a good experience to the guest; you still have to be dynamic in pricing, and follow the basic steps to be a player in your market. It doesn’t matter whether a Super 8 in your market is competition of a sister brand. It’s still the same.

“But having that visibility matters. When that Super 8 is full, the next in line geographically (for the guest) will be the sister brand.”

The addition of AmericInn to Wyndham Rewards also has had an immediate impact, Raja said.

“Within hours, (we saw) hundreds of Wyndham Rewards reservations and redemptions at AmericInn hotels, overnight, without much push,” he said. “That’s huge. That’s the kind of marketing, the kind of exposure we needed to push us.”

What’s next?
“The best thing about being a regional brand,” now under Wyndham’s global umbrella, is “we have the whole nation, the whole country to grow into,” Raja said.

“We are a Midwest regional brand,” he added. “We have done really well; we have very strong (revenue per available room) … our hotels perform really well, but once you leave the Midwest, our exposure becomes less and less.”

The “most obvious opportunity” to grow at least initially, he said, is in the states in the perimeter of where AmericInn currently operates: Michigan, Illinois, Kansas and Nebraska.

“That’s always the easier opportunity because folks in those markets are somewhat more familiar with the brand, so they see value in it,” he said.

“But because we have a very strong franchise sales team that’s established nationally, my guess is that we are going to get interest from everywhere. I call that opportunistic growth, where we are going to get the requests from developers, multi-unit owners, franchisees who like Wyndham, who like doing business with us. When they know more about AmericInn, they will say, ‘this is a fresh brand. We love the prototype. We love the cost of construction. We love what it produces. We want to build it.’”

Raja envisions most of that growth will be through new construction.

“More importantly for us, how the growth comes is important. We want to grow primarily through our Gen-4 prototype,” he said. “But we will continue to supplement that growth through what I call ‘quality conversions,’ prototypical conversions. When somebody converts to an AmericInn, we expect them to convert in a prototypical way. They follow our design standards, (furniture, fixtures and equipment), get our package in there so it looks and behaves like an AmericInn.”

Editor’s note: Wyndham Hotel Group paid for meals and accommodations at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where the conference is held. Complete editorial control was at the discretion of the Hotel News Now editorial team; Wyndham had no influence on the coverage provided.

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