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Spotlight

Gary Thomson, CIO and senior VP of Choice Hotels International, sheds light on customer data integration and the role of the CIO.

Choice Hotels International is one of the world's largest lodging franchisers, with more than 5,000 hotels open or under development in 44 countries under various brand names. CIO and senior VP Gary Thomson recently went live with a customer data integration (CDI) system from Initiate Systems that augments applications already in place. CDI keeps customer data from multiple applications in sync, so people working in different applications won't get conflicting views of customer information. Thomson wants to give Choice franchisees the power to conduct marketing, sales, and customer satisfaction initiatives that are as sophisticated as any centrally owned enterprise can deliver.

Q: Why do you want to know everything you can about your customers?

A: I don't really want to know everything I can about them; I want to know things that are pertinent to our business and pertinent to the objective of providing better customer service. We value that information because it allows us to give our customers better service and a more meaningful relationship with us, but we also value their privacy and trust.

Q: Is that a hard balance to strike, between showing customers you know them but also not making them feel their privacy has been violated?

A: I don't know if it's such a hard balance to strike. It really comes down to figuring out the right way to use the information and being smart about it. If we use the information so that we truly provide benefit to our customers and we're careful to protect it, I believe our customers will place a higher value on their relationship with us. I work with our consumer marketing team to carefully think about how we'll use information and that we need to vet it through several people, including legal, before we do anything.

Q: Do you have a way of measuring how well your customers respond to your programs?

A: Yes, for example our Choice Privileges guest rewards program certainly drives incremental additional business, and we have the ability to measure that since we know who they are. Using the additional guest information that we obtain from this new system we can better measure the impact of our various marketing and sales programs across a much larger set of customers. Beyond better understanding the impact of those programs, we can develop better and more sophisticated programs by integrating the customer data with CRM and data mining with the intent of gaining more business from our existing customers.

Q: Why is CDI creating such a buzz?

A: There were two main reasons [we chose CDI from Initiate Systems]. Implementation was fast. We want to get to the point where we're performing guest recognition on a real-time basis across our entire system. Secondly, we chose Initiate because of its ability to integrate with our existing systems. [Other products] did things in a batch mode — you'd have to send the data out and they'd have to sort through it, or they just couldn't perform the data sorting and filtering as quickly as Initiate. We prefer having control of the data, so we can manage and integrate it with our different systems over time.

Q: CIOs are sounding more and more like CFOs and CMOs. It sounds like you're really aware of marketing efforts and what they can bring to the top line.

A: That's what I really enjoy. I enjoy technology and understanding technology, but I'm not a technologist for technology's sake. I really enjoy the application of technology in building more efficient and effective business processes. I guess the best way to put it is that I'm not a scientist, I'm an engineer. That's actually part of the appeal that I had coming to this job. I thought the hotel industry was ripe for a good set of technologies, and I wanted the opportunity to put together a good integrated set of systems that could be used to run and manage a hotel company.

Q: How important is the role of information technology in the enterprise for its execution of strategy?

A: Well, as I said to our CEO and our CFO recently, somewhat tongue in cheek, what we really are is a technology company. They didn't agree with me, but — if you stop and think about what we are as a company — we're a total franchise operation. We don't own any hotels. So why does someone want to buy our franchise? Well, we have great brands that signify to consumers, if you stay here, you'll get a good hotel at a good price. But in addition, our franchisees are looking for distribution of their rooms through a large set of sales channels and national marketing programs to help sell those rooms. Choice provides an integrated set of systems that provides effective and efficient access to a wide variety of sales channels, but gives franchisees the means to manage those channels for the best rate at the lowest cost. In addition, using an integrated set of technology systems allows franchisees to appear larger or at least be part of a larger entity — to be part of this big enterprise called Choice Hotels International.

You couldn't do that without technology. At least, you couldn't do it efficiently.

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