Anne Smith - VP, Brand Strategy

Tell us about yourself; your previous experience and how you came to Choice?

I've been in brand management, marketing, and strategy for close to 15 years now, and there's a reason why I love brands. Brands are idyllic representations. They're the dreams that we find in people's hearts and minds. Brands allow you to tell a story, engage, and connect with an audience. Brands are what fuel business which ultimately is what makes the world go round. Previously, I've worked with companies that have a lot of brands, like Frito Lay, and household names, like AARP. I left Frito Lay when my family moved to the east coast, and originally found work with AARP, which as you know, is a very well-known brand, and that allowed me to try out nonprofit work. I spent about 15 months there, and I enjoyed the work that I was doing, but there was something missing when it came to moving the brand forward and having a strong impact. I looked at Choice Hotels and I thought, wow, Choice Hotels, I know those brands. I've stayed in those brands. They mean something to me. I had a personal connection. I don't know how many people come through here and talk about their stories taking road trips as kids, but I took a lot of road trips! We always stayed at Comfort Inn® and Quality Inn® hotels. That was part of my childhood. It was part of my memories, and there was this sense of nostalgic connection. I had some tangible hands on experience with the brands.

What skills and background knowledge do you feel led you to this point in your career?

Brand strategy and management require core skills that are applicable across any field and any brand. What's your story, what's your value proposition? Who do you need to tell it to, who are you trying to grow with? Those are things I did at Frito, at AARP, and they're things I do at Choice. That being said, there's also a portfolio of brands, and when you're managing a portfolio it is really important that you understand how everything in it is different and yet related. That is where brand strategy goes to the next level. That's something I had experience with at Frito Lay. I managed the innovation pipeline for the potato chip portfolio. There were three brands, all made of potatoes, but very different, and so we segmented those brands very clearly between Lays, Lays Kettle, and Ruffles. Managing that portfolio was a really good experience for me to have as I came in here and was looking at a portfolio of nine brands.

What surprised you about Choice Hotels when you started working with us?

The kicker coming into this was finding out that Choice Hotels was thinking about pursuing a master brand identity. If you're thinking of doing an overhaul of the corporate master brand, well, I'm in, and this is the kind of work that gets me up in the morning, and gets me excited. It's a challenge. From day one, I was involved in all of the research that led to our brand positioning and was part of the team that was pulled together to do the overall reimaging. Once everyone kind of got on the same ship, the amount of change we could create was amazing. When we launched the new identity, campaign, and website, and the changes to Choice Privileges®, those were really big changes to big things. I had a CEO at Frito Lay whose mantra was big changes to big things, and I thought, oh yeah, Choice knows how to do that. This is so the right place for me.

So in the last two years, as a growing professional at Choice, what have you had to try to tweak about yourself- what skills have you had to develop?

I think there are two. At Choice, I'm focused a lot more on the strategic foundation. One of the things I really value about my position is how much learning opportunity it has afforded me in terms of the strategic analytics that go into building your foundation, and understanding the whole developer mindset and the development side of things. I have an MBA and took plenty of courses in finance, but now I'm actually bringing a lot of those skills from that past and leveraging them here. One of the things that really has impressed me about Choice is our use of data. Our amount of data and analytics, and our rigor and ability to build predictive models that make us more confident in our decision making. That is something that has been new and different in this realm of brand strategy. It's something I've really relished because it's allowed me to build new muscle.

As an expert on the Choice brand, what do you think sets us apart?

We take our understanding of people: people management, relationship development- so seriously. If I'm going to come to you with a tough request, you're going to have that relationship- that trust and respect we've built, the goodwill- to trust and go through with it. That level of respect that we have for each other and our franchisees is something that I feel sets us apart from the other big hotel chains. There's a reason we chose 'Welcome, Wanted, and Respected' as our tagline for our brand repositioning. We welcome new relationships, we want you and want you to want us, and we're going to have that two-way respect.

We're a company that is hungry and that is feisty. We've been around for 75 years, but we're not in our doddering years in terms of the types of challenges that we want to take on and the types of changes that we want to drive. We respect the fact that the changes we want to drive will have to take place over years instead of months, but we aim high. If you want to come in on the ground level and make an impact, there's opportunity here. No matter what level, no matter what role, you can come in and drive some of those big changes.

How does your team stay ahead of the competition?

When it comes to hotel competition, I like to think about the experience side of things. How do we use our space? How do guests actually interact with our space, whether that's public space or the guest room? Do we have big clunky things in the guest rooms that don't add any value and only add costs to the franchisees? If we do, that's an opportunity for change. Every month somebody on my team goes and does a competitive deep dive: they go and stay at one of the competitors, they take photos, they bring back collateral... they'll do a business dive in terms of the hotels' performance and history, pull out their brand standards, their rules and regulations, bring back photos and say, "This is what their breakfast bar looked like, oh! They're doing that- well WE'RE not doing that- that's interesting!" That competitive intel is something that we have to be constantly staying in front of.

What knowledge areas or skills are you most focused on building?

Having a healthy new construction pipeline and a high quality conversion pipeline is so critical to the future success of the brand. For me, it's about understanding the way the developers think and how they view our brands, so that I can take that back and figure out what kind of things we can change and tweak. It's more about stoking the engine of our business from a growth perspective. Picture and brand strategy are intrinsically tied to corporate strategy, so, the more connective tissue I can build between corporate and brand strategy, the more fully we can articulate what truly drives decision and changes.

Any upcoming brand news?

The work we're doing on the Comfort® brand is going to make you think twice about what you think you know about Comfort.

What's been your experience as a woman leader at Choice? And what advice would you give to women pursuing a similar path?

Don't be afraid of being the only woman in the board room!

Hospitality can be categorized as a male-dominated industry. That being said, at Choice Hotels there are several senior leaders who are women. I know who my cadre of female leaders, who are similar to me, are- they're ambitious, smart, savvy, and we have a really good support network. One of the things that's so important for women to continue to get ahead, not just in hospitality, but anywhere, is to champion one another- not be in conflict or competition with each other- if you have an amazing success, I'm going to cheer you on, support you, and congratulate you, because I know when it's my turn, you're going to do that for me. That is a self-feeding cycle that I think is unique to women and we're only losing if we're not leveraging that.

Do you have any advice to recent grads or incoming Choice employees?

If you want to come in and make an impact, we want fresh perspective. Choice Hotels is interested in hiring people who don't fit an exact mold. We're a company that wants to do and change big things. To grow and remain current, we need to listen to the voices of the next generation and welcome them in and have them help shape our future.