BITAC Symposium Live 2021 played host to a number of C-level industry execs highlighted by a live virtual interview with Wyndham’s Geoff Ballotti, who discussed a handful of key industry issues, as well as the evolution of the company since he took the helm as President and CEO some 7 years ago.
The event took place earlier this month at the InterContinental Times Square. Ballotti was featured in “View From The C-Suite,” a One-on-One interview with Hotel Interactive Editor-in-Chief Dennis Nessler. The following Q&A represents a portion of that conversation.
HI: How are you feeling about the industry right now as it relates to the ongoing recovery?
GB: “It’s pretty remarkable isn’t it that we are where we are right now? Obviously as the world’s largest hotel franchise company with 6,148 hotels as of today here in the U.S.—primarily in the economy and the midscale segment—to think that it’s been eight weeks where economy RevPAR is 15 percent ahead of where it was not last year but back in 2019. To think that midscale RevPAR is 4 or 5 percent ahead of where it was back in 2019, I mean those are growth rates that we would have been really happy to see back in 2019 over 2018.
“Here we are in 2021 with lots of folks talking still about Delta variant and when will the industry get back to where it was in 2019, but economy and midscale as we’ve seen throughout the last eight weeks and really since the beginning of a very early spring break is doing a lot better than it was back in 2019 so we’re thrilled with where things are. I think our franchisees would tell you that they’re pleased and happy with where things stand and we see no evidence of a slowdown.”
HI: As you look back on the pandemic and the 18 months behind us, what are some of the things the industry could have done better?
GB: “All of these associations, AH&LA, AAHOA, the U.S. Travel Association, have been having every single one of us on zoom calls and on the phone with Congressmen and Senators, both at the federal level obviously, but also at the state level.
“I think communication is so important, I think we could always do a better job communicating. One of the things that I don’t think anybody in the industry was really pleased with was the outcome with the MSLP (Main Street Lending Program). That was by everybody’s viewpoint an abject failure because of the inability for so many of our small business owners that were looking for that MSLP to get a loan. But you know we learned from that and I think what we’ve achieved now with the SBA in the EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) and what’s happened there in terms of the availability of up to $2 million now to be used for many, many reasons that a small business owner may need it has been viewed as a tremendous success.
“That obviously happened with the help of our association leadership, with so many of our brands speaking up more, but also so many small business owners. If there’s one thing that I could say to all of your attendees today that we all need to realize it’s that Congress listens more to our franchisees, to our small business owners, than they do to me or any of my other brand colleagues.”
HI: Getting and retaining qualified labor continues to be a huge issue for the industry, what can we do about to help attract new talent?
GB: “We all have a story to tell and we all need to tell that story. Whenever we have the chance to get out to one of the hotel schools and tell young professionals that this is a better industry to be in than any other industry out there. I look back at my days before the pandemic up at Cornell, we all need to recruit up there, speak at hotel schools and as leaders in this industry we all need to provide a career path for the people that are working in the field to know that they are appreciated and well compensated. Labors always a big issue as we talked about before this pandemic hit, it’s an even bigger one now and we all need to be very, very focused on it.”
HI: Most experts acknowledge that the industry will not see a full recovery until group business returns in earnest, when do you see that happening?
GB: “We certainly are seeing in our business the more social, military types of groups come out. We do manage some large hotels and we are seeing fraternal organizations begin to meet again with a great degree of confidence realizing that people can meet and can meet safely. So I think what we can all do is feel safe and comfortable when these meetings come up attending them in person versus via zoom.”
HI: Wyndham has evolved dramatically in the time since you’ve been at the helm, what are some of the more meaningful changes to you?
GB: We’ve been adding some great new brands and will look to continue to add brands. It’s so much for us about our distribution. Wyndham Rewards is the number one hotel loyalty program as rated by USA Today and U.S. News And World Report.
“One of the things I’m most proud of our teams have achieved in the last several years that was really heavy lifting was the Wyndham umbrella marketing. To have all 21 of our brands now being marketed as by Wyndham; Days Inn by Wyndham, Super 8 by Wyndham, La Quinta by Wyndham, took a while.
“We were very focused and have been very focused on removing brand detracting hotels. We’ve said goodbye to over 80,000 or 90,000 substandard, lower quality rooms. We sold brands that did not fit that by Wyndham branding. But to convince all of our franchise advisory committees and brand councils that the power of marketing our brands as by Wyndham, the power of Wyndham Rewards where nearly one out of every two check-ins here in the U.S. tonight will ask for their Wyndham reward points is really, really powerful.
“So we’ve been investing all along throughout this this pandemic. We spent more money on great new tools like our booking app—which is our fastest growing channel—and new customer data platform systems. But it all comes back to the power of Wyndham, both domestically and internationally, and our growth has been really strongest throughout this pandemic and I think into the future.”