Jamie Russo, VP, Loyalty & Customer Management

What was your career trajectory like?

I started out at American Express in New York City right out of college- I went to Bowdoin, where I studied economics and Spanish.

I spent almost fourteen years at AmEx. At AmEx I did a variety of roles starting with forecasting budgeting, internal tech projects, customer marketing, and then I went over and managed our relationship with hotel companies. That's where I got the hospitality bug.

I spent five years managing hotels and then also leading a team of client managers. From there I went back over to the consumer side of the business, and was leading a portion of the co-brand card with Delta airlines. We also launched a co-brand card with Mercedes Benz, and then I took over a team, leading emerging partnerships acquisition and marketing.

I got a call from Choice about a year and a half ago, not really looking to move, but I was intrigued by the opportunity to go to a hotel company. Then when I found out it was a loyalty related job, I was sold. I came down for my first interview set, and I can remember my wife and I talking, and she asked: "What are the chances we're moving?" and I said "It's 80-20, we're staying." Then I went down and I interviewed with Robert and six or seven others and when I came back she asked, "It's still 80-20?" and I said "Yeah, but probably the other way around!"

The idea of being able to lead a loyalty program in a time of transition and have the weight and financing of the organization behind it, that support, was a really exciting opportunity for me.

A year after getting here, taking over customer service centers was a new challenge for me.

What drew you to hospitality?

Hotel companies are one of the last bastions of meritocracy in this country. There are so many people who start their careers working the front desk of the hotel and work their way up into senior management, and that is always intriguing.

Business cycles within the industry are also very interesting. The idea of seeing supply and demand working out on a regular basis.

And then, it's such a sensory customer experience, that you're doing all these amazing things, seeing these places you've never been before, learning. Travel is an education tool, both for you and your family. Connecting with other people- that was something always very interesting to me on the hotel side.

But the loyalty part of it is what drives me, because that was really a way to motivate customers. Points are the second most widely used currency in the world after the U.S. dollar, and people really get into points! They can be a very motivating factor. What we focused on at Choice was that there was a real opportunity to expand what members could get. We're a company for the 99%, we're a loyalty program for the 99%.

You moved for work, to our Rockville, MD campus in the DC metro area. How has that gone?

We've really enjoyed it. When we had our second child, we were living in a less than thousand square foot apartment in Manhattan and paying more than we would for a house here.

That was an amazing change- but the area itself is also really nice. It's right near a major city, with tons of great things to do- cultural life, museums, and all sorts of things that are free, so it's a great place to raise a family. At the same time, the talent that we're able to attract by being so close to transportation into DC is just phenomenal. You're able to live in DC if you want, or if you're more where we are in our lives, and want to live in the suburbs, it's easy to do.

What are you doing any given day at Choice?

It really runs the gamut, everything from very tactical meetings making sure that things are running appropriately, to bigger higher level strategy discussions- what are we gonna do? How are we gonna do it? How do we improve the value proposition of our program as well as that of our hotels? And then how do we make sure the value proposition we have in market is resonating with customers? We're always listening to customers on the phones, and making sure we're providing the right level of support to both franchisees and customers.

The average American consumer is probably in 22-23 different loyalty programs. So it's really important that we find a way to stand out in the crowd. Offering something, rewards, right when you sign up, as well as saving up for those once-in-a-lifetime experiences is kind of the foundation of our program. We offer the faster way to rewards. The point part of it and the ability to save up is really interesting to customers. I heard the CEO of American Airlines say once that people check their AA balance more often than they do their bank account. Points matter. In the hotel industry, 98% of customers say the loyalty program impacts where they stay. For franchisees, it's much more profitable for them in the long run to have a guest in the Choice Privileges® program. The cost associated is offset by members returning more frequently, spending more, and rating our hotels higher. Our product is democratizing travel. The reality is you can have a great place to stay, and everyone can go and try something new. Travel is such an important part of how we learn and experience different cultures. We make it affordable.

What makes your team unique? What values do you like to promote?

Our team has a healthy sense of wanting to have a good time. They have a real passion for this job and being customer centric, but we like to enjoy our work, too. The good thing about our team is that we mix a good deal of experience from inside the industry with a lot of new. We're a heavy consumer of the TRAC program, where we have a lot of younger folks. Our new employees are great at pushing back on us and making sure that we don't just do things as we always have. A program like that is how I got into AmEx. I'm a big believer of getting people to try all sorts of different things.

You guys have a lot going on! What're some projects you're working on that you can share?

Since I came here, we have been evolving our loyalty program, but what we realized is that the customer experience with loyalty and its impact on the customer journey means we shouldn't JUST focus on elite members of our program. People factor loyalty in at the beginning steps of their decision making process. We needed to evolve our program dramatically to account for this.

So we remade ourselves into one of the most customer-friendly programs in the industry. We believe it's one of the best programs out there for people starting on day one. Now, not only do customers get a faster way to reward nights, they also can redeem points for instant gift cards, and for reward nights at over 6,300 Choice hotels around the world, as well as for luxury hotel stays with our partners like Bluegreen and participating Preferred Hotels & Resorts.

We also have a lot of rewards right in the beginning. For instance, with our new Your Extras program, for U.S. members, when a members' stay includes at least one Sunday through Thursday night, and his account preference is set to receive Choice Privileges points, that member will receive his normal Choice Privileges points and he can also decide on an extra, such as 500- extra points, 100 extra airline miles, a $2.50 credit at Amazon.com, a $5 coffee gift card, or $0.20 per gallon in Fuel Rewards savings at participating Shell gas stations. (Each member must select his Your Extra preference in his account prior to check-in to receive the benefit). And it's all done digitally. You can be driving down the road and select the coffee gift card, and once you check into your hotel, you get an email saying you can use it on your trip, adding to the value proposition of the hotel as part of the benefit of the Choice Privileges program. You can also now redeem for digital gift cards- the first hotel company to offer that- so instead of having to wait to receive a card in the mail that you may lose, it's right there.

At our Cambria hotels, we have a new program offered to every Choice Privileges member, because at Cambria, everybody is somebody. As you check in, you get a limited edition ceramic coaster designed by artist Sarah Greenman. We have 25 different coasters- you can get a new one for each Cambria hotel you visit. Each coaster is good for a free beverage at the Social Circle™ bar. If a member would rather have points, he can select 250 bonus points rather than the coaster.

There's also the Flex Rewards program, where we offer discounted reward nights at over 1,500 properties depending on location and season and whether it is a weekday (Sund-Thurs) or weekend (Fri-Sat) stay. And now! Points no longer expire as long as you stay an active member by having a qualifying activity every 18 months. We've been working on all this for a long time. Most of it was tech integration. Working closely with our technology departments, we focused a lot on user experience.

Terms and conditions apply to each new benefit option and offer. For full details see: https://www.choicehotels.com/choice-privileges.

What would you say to people considering a move to Choice?

The span of your control here is tremendous. No other place are you at a company that has this much of an impact for our size. You could be a 22 or 23 year old leading a huge project, or someone a few years into their career leading a team, or you could be a couple roles in and leading an organization. Those opportunities are there for those who want to take them.

What's an element that's crucial to doing well?

You're not going to be able to do things by yourself. Getting to know how things work, getting to know the right people, and getting to know how to get things through this system by utilizing relationships is really important. We're a relationships-based customer industry. Figuring that out is paramount.