“We’ve been working on this for years. We already have 5,500 properties up on the cloud, so we know what it takes,” said Stephen P. Joyce, president and chief executive of Choice Hotels. “We’ve had dramatic levels of interest, not just from independent hotels but also from other [hotel] chains.”
Choice Hotels, which oversees brands such as Comfort Inn and EconoLodge, is the latest in a string of unconventional businesses that have ventured into the tech world. Seven years ago, Amazon.com paved the way when it started Amazon Web Services. Since then, the online retailer’s cloud-computing arm has grown into what analysts estimate is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business.
To Joyce and his team, it seemed like a model that could be replicated. “Other properties have a computer-based server that needs to be cabled, that needs an air conditioner, that needs a tech guy to come in and check it,” Joyce said. “We don’t have any of that, so it is by definition a lower-cost alternative.”
But first, how do you turn a 74-year-old hotel company into a technology start-up?
At Choice, the process began in earnest three years ago, when the company started thinking about adapting its internal software system for the broader market. The company nearly doubled the number of employees in its IT division and brought on Ric Leutwyler, a longtime entrepreneur with roots in the hospitality industry, to oversee the transition.
There were other changes, too. SkyTouch employees moved from Choice’s offices in downtown Phoenix into an older, dingier building that used to hold the company’s data center.
“There’s a message here,” Leutwyler said. “We’re saying, ‘Hey, guys, let’s not think big like a billion-dollar corporation. Let’s think of ourselves as a small start-up that needs to make its own way.’ ”
A cumbersome predecessor
Choice Advantage, the internal precursor to SkyTouch Hotel OS, was created 10 years ago. The company knew it needed an Internet-based program that was less cumbersome and more secure than the system it had been using.
“Physically, with the old system, there was a lot of hardware and infrastructure needed at every single hotel,” said Todd Davis, Choice Hotels’ chief information officer. “We had deployed 15,000 workstations to 4,000 hotels, and our hotels needed a lot of help managing that technology.”
The company began shopping around, but there was not anything on the market that would fulfill all of the company’s needs, Davis said.
Choice decided to take matters into its own hands. The company spent the next 18 months creating and testing the first iteration of ChoiceAdvantage.