Robert McDowell, Chief Commercial Officer

What do you do?

My teams are the experts that work every day to ensure that Choice-branded hotels are booked through the right channels at the right rates by the right guests.

There are many components that go into making sure this is accomplished. One component is Global Sales, which helps attract and drive business travelers to stay at our hotels during the week, which is often a time of lower occupancy for hotels. ChoiceHotels.com (desktop and mobile) attracts millions of visitors each year, and our Choice Privileges loyalty program helps capture new and retains our most loyal guests. We have introduced industry-leading revenue management tools like SmartRates and Choice Revenue Management that help our franchisees set the right rates across the right distribution channels. We have a third-party distribution strategy team in place to focus on contracts and partnerships with major OTAs to ensure franchisees are reaching new customers, distributing inventory more efficiently at the lowest possible cost and capturing non-brand-loyal guests. Lastly, we are focused on Choice's and our brand's messaging and awareness with marketing and advertising that sets up apart from the competition. We have a significant advertising spend to make sure that Choice-branded hotels are anywhere consumers are looking for and booking travel, including TV, digital, and search.

How did you get to this? Where did you start at? Why did you come to Choice?

Before joining Choice Hotels, I spent 15 years with United Airlines where I worked in various functions for the company, including revenue management, route planning, global sales, distribution and e-commerce. When I left, I was involved with the company website, distribution strategy and sales planning.

Five years ago, Choice reached out to me with an opportunity to join the company as the leader of Choice's Global Distribution Strategy. After talking with Steve Joyce (CEO) and Pat Pacious (COO), I liked the direction in which the company was headed, and I thought it was a great opportunity for me to join a company and have a meaningful impact on the business. And over the last five years, I have expanded the role to oversee all the commercial functions for Choice Hotels.

How does this compare to your experience in the airline industry?

The airline industry is very cyclical. A lot of external factors cause significant jolts to the business model, including the economy, fuel prices, among others, they all have impacts on profitability, positive and negative. The hospitality industry is generally more stable.

The hotel distribution landscape is always evolving at a rapid pace; we have to navigate the growth of online travel agencies (OTAs), the proliferation of mobile devices, and new entrants in the sharing economy. This challenges us to ensure that we're keeping up in both the franchisee and guest sides of the business.

How does news like the Starwood merger influence you in your position?

The combination of the Marriott and Starwood loyalty programs during this merger really has the most impact for my areas. And, we believe the changes we've made to Choice Privileges positions our program as one of the best in the hospitality space. But anytime there's a merger between two very strong companies, it's something we keep an eye on, and see how they evolve.

What's a weird fact about your job that people might not expect?

It's the amount of rooms we sell at the very last minute, given the nature of our hotel business. We have a lot of hotels that are sold within the last seven days before check-in, which is very different from the airline industry. It's always about driving consistent demand to Choice-branded hotels throughout the process, whether it's planning a spring break that is several weeks away or that last minute traveler that's looking for a room one or two days before they're about to leave.

What's it like working with your team?

I couldn't ask for better group of people to work with. We've built a phenomenal team over the last five years, developing top talent internally and attracting top talent externally. External hires have been brought on for their functional expertise, diversified backgrounds and business acumen from companies like American Express, Accenture, Target, L.L. Bean and Merkle. We now have a great mix of talent that enables us to take an in-depth look at marketing and distribution through different lenses. The thing I like the most about my team is they continuously challenge how we compete, not only against other hotel suppliers, or other loyalty programs, but also against major third-party players, like Google search, Expedia, etc.

What can you tell us about your involvement with mobile and the new app, and the effect that's had on booking?

Mobile has been a considerable area of growth for the company. We were the first hotel company to launch an iPhone app back in 2009, and since then we've expanded to apps for iPad, Android, and Kindle devices. We see traffic to ChoiceHotels.com from mobile continue to grow month-over-month; more traffic comes to our site from smartphones and tablets today than from desktop computers. But increased traffic is only one driver of mobile booking growth; we're working to grow conversion by introducing new features to our app like RapidBook—which enables Choice Privileges members to store their credit card information in the app and receive access to one-click booking. Thanks in part to these enhancements, we had our biggest app revenue day ever in mid-September (September 19).

Our eCommerce team is redesigning our mobile app right now, which we'll roll out early next year. The new app will make it easier than ever for customers to shop and book Choice hotels.

What do you think is the website model to beat- and how do you plan to do it?

Choice continual ensures its website, tablet, mobile web and apps are keeping pace with the competition and consumer needs. We evaluate other hospitality companies, OTA's, retail companies and large online retailers like Amazon and Jet.com. We are also very focused on consumer needs as purchasing behavior changes depending on device, and we need to ensure we help meet those needs. One example is with the shift to mobile the focus is streamlining the booking process as much as possible, consumers don't want to input all the customer information on a mobile device so we created Rapidbook so our Elite members with a stored credit card can make a reservation in three easy steps. Listening and understanding our customer needs are critical to ensure success.

Did you move here for this position, or were you in the area already? What did you think of the DC area?

I moved from Chicago to Rockville. First of all, the office in Rockville is phenomenal- it's a new building, great collaborative space, and it's much easier to get to than our original location (including Metro accessible). It's a great open floor plan that really helps facilitate collaboration across the company; you run into people throughout the day.

Personally? It's a great area for my two small kids, 12 and 10. There's so much history to explore over the Mid-Atlantic States that's all within two-to-three hours away. And, obviously, many Choice hotels are along the way! I've had the chance to stay at those hotels while experiencing some great American history.

My daughter is a big history buff. She was very excited about moving here, and we've had great experiences together visiting all the battlefields, memorials, monuments and of course an amusement park or two.