Radisson Hotel Group’s biggest brand, Country Inn & Suites, is undergoing a design refresh and has plenty of room to grow, Radisson’s Ken Greene says.
MIAMI BEACH, Florida—First launched by Carlson Hotels in 1987, the Country Inn & Suites brand has experienced some changes in ownership and has updated its look. What hasn’t changed materially are its guests, its focus or its potential, said Ken Greene, president, Americas, for Radisson Hotel Group.
As of December 2018, Country Inn & Suites has a portfolio of 491 hotels in operation, representing 39,025 rooms, most of which—428 hotels and 37,324 rooms—are in the Americas region. The company reports the brand has 46 hotels in development (3,846 rooms), 37 of which are in the Americas.
That only scratches the surface of the development potential for Radisson’s upper-midscale, select-service brand, Greene said, noting that Country Inn & Suites’ footprint in the U.S. alone could be “three to four times larger than we are today.”
“How fast does that happen? I’m not going to put a date on that, but I think you will see accelerated growth on Country Inn & Suites,” he said.
For example, he said, “two markets in which we are totally underpenetrated (with Country Inn & Suites) are Texas and California.”
“Usually those are two states and markets where you see the most presence, but if you were to overlay our footprint with that of major competitors, you see how underpenetrated we are in those two marketplaces,” Greene said. “That doesn’t mean the product doesn’t work in those marketplaces; it just means we weren’t focused.”
That’s changing, he said.
“We changed out our entire development team; it’s only been a year since we hired this team,” Greene said. “It takes a year or 18 months for a developer to build up a pipeline, to really hit their stride. We’re just now starting to get toward that point where they’re not just walking; they’re jogging, and they’re getting ready to sprint in about six months.”
While much of the attention lately has been on Radisson’s trendier, up-and-coming brands—namely Radisson Red and Radisson Blu—Greene said Country Inn & Suites remains a key focus.
“We love all our brands equally. But they’re all at different stages,” he said. “Country Inn & Suites is core to our company. That’s our largest brand in the Americas. It is a clean brand, tight quality; we have very engaged owners. From a growth perspective, it has the highest growth potential of all our brands. We’ve got to leverage that.”
Integral to the strategic plan for Radisson’s seven brands are the distinct segments of guests they serve, Greene said.
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“They’re not separate strategies. One builds upon the other, and they work together. A distinct competitive advantage for us is that each of our brands has a distinct segmentation with a distinct demographic that we’re appealing to,” he said.
“People travel for different reasons at different times and stay at different types of products. You might be traveling for business, staying at a Blu. For leisure, you might be going on the weekend, with your kid’s baseball team or soccer team, and you’re staying at the Country Inn & Suites. Or you might be going with your friends to a Red for a very cool event.”
Greene said that as the company expands the footprints of its other brands—particularly, upscale, select-service Radisson Red, and Radisson Blu in the upper-upscale, full-service segment—Country Inn & Suites is “ultimately one of the biggest beneficiaries.”
“Radisson Blu is very strategic for us and benefits Country Inn & Suites in the long term,” he said. “We have all these built-in demographics sitting in Europe and the Middle East and Asia where they are predisposed to Radisson Blu. It dominates its segment; there’s over 300 of them that dominate their segment in every metric you can look at, whether it’s financial or guest service-related.
“We have these built-in revenue drivers that will trickle down to all of our brands as soon as we can get the key locations locked up across all the Americas for Blu.”
The “cool” factor plays a big part in driving excitement for Radisson brand development, Greene said.
“Radisson’s cool. I don’t know if we would have said five years ago ‘Radisson’s cool.’ Now it is,” he said. “That brings in other investors and developers that maybe were doing these cooler brands with other hotel companies; yet they were developing in the Country Inn & Suites segment as well. Some owners like to stay in the same family; they think that’s simpler. That’s an opportunity for us. We’ve got some owners who have been with two (brand) families or three families and are maybe a little disenchanted and are looking for an alternative. Maybe Red attracts us to certain owners and investors who normally wouldn’t (be attracted to Radisson).”
Now’s the time for owners and developers to get on board, he added.
“We’re underpenetrated right now, and owners that join us today will reap the benefits of that,” he said. “These brands will be more expensive five years down the road.”
Much of the excitement for owners and developers around Country Inn & Suites is tied to renovating properties and transitioning to the Generation 4 design. In the first year since the Gen-4 prototype was launched, 140 Country Inn & Suites hotels underwent renovations to comply with the new standards, according to Aly El-Bassuni, Radisson’s SVP of franchise operations, Americas.
During a town-hall session at Radisson’s recent Americas Business Conference, one Country Inn & Suites owner called for more attention to be given to the brand’s latest updates, which Greene said is encouraging.
“Owners are very proud of it. That’s the fundamental difference. Two years ago, there was a lot of skepticism,” he said.
“When I came on board, and we set up the five-year strategic plan, we actually thought there were a whole bunch of Gen-1s, well over 50, that were going to have to exit the system, that just did not financially pencil in, because they’re smaller properties, under 60 rooms, that would not be able to move to Gen-4.
But some of those owners with Gen-1 properties said “we think we can do it … in a cost-effective way,” Greene said.
“My internal team at the time said, ‘No way, can’t do it.’ We went out there, sat with them and looked at what they were doing and we said, ‘Darn right, it can work.’ We didn’t have to ask those properties to leave. Many of them have been converted over to Gen-4 very successfully,” he said.
Much of that success comes from having owners involved in setting the new standards, Greene said.
“What’s good about Gen-4 is we’ve had owners be part of the whole design process,” he said. “There’s been a lot of thought into how this thing operates. We’ve had voices at the table, not just owners, but general managers, operators of properties participate in that design.”
It also helps that conversion to Gen-4 has proven to improve hotel performance, Greene said.
“What causes owners excitement is return on investment. What excites us from a brand perspective is consistency in the product because that’s what consumers want. Unless it’s entirely 100% purpose-built new construction, there always will be variants from one product to the next, just depending on when it was built, what it was first built as, was it a conversion, what part of the world is it in. We’ve got properties backed up against mountains in national parks; that’s going to be a unique property,” he said.
“But what a consumer wants is really tight consistency on the things that are most important to them between the worst property and the best property. Country Inn & Suites, the quality is really tight. That’s exciting for us, that excites consumers, that drives business to an owner, and they get the return on investment.”
As a result, the pace of conversion to Gen-4 has been faster than the company expected, Greene said.
“Two years ago, Gen-4 was something we were talking about; it was something we were doing; there just weren’t enough of them. Part of being the brand is sending the tough message out that this is the standard, we’re going to hold you to it, and you need to comply. It’s easier to do when there’s great validation and there’s a return on investment for an owner. And I think they’re seeing that,” he said.
“With over 100 properties—140—that are Gen-4, that’s a pretty staggering number. So typically as a franchise network, you can try to tell them what to do. But your options to enforce that are limited. You can restrict them; you can default them; you can terminate them. Those are all things that you hate to do. So what you really need to do is whisper in their ear and convince them to move forward and give them a compelling reason. The best way to do that is to get their peers to say this is working.”
The goal ultimately is to continue to grow the brand, Greene said.
“What those owners want is to have more Country Inns & Suites across the Americas. The more they have, the more recognition we have, the more advertising we have, the more business we can drive to their properties. They’re not afraid of us putting a property right on top of them. We’ve got a lot of white space out there. … And a lot of our existing Country Inn & Suites owners are multiple property owners who continue to build,” he said.
“We’re not just a sleepy company anymore. We do have a vision. We’ve got a very engaged management and field team. We’re refreshing the Radisson brand; we’re bringing Radisson Blu to life in the major marketplaces; and we’ve got this new cool Radisson Red and Park Inn by Radisson. I think the Country Inn & Suites owners are starting to say—and people who maybe were not in the past predisposed to doing Country Inn & Suites are now hearing from their friends and owners who have done it—that this is a good return on investment.”
Editor's note: Radisson Hospitality paid for accommodations and meals for Hotel News Now to attend its Americas Business Conference. Complete editorial control was at the discretion of Hotel News Now; Radisson had no influence on the coverage provided.