Sarah Searls has spent the majority of her career working in analytics—first for America Online and Time Warner for nearly 10 years before moving on to Choice Hotels, where she began to build out the company’s marketing analytics capabilities. “Early on, the company recognized the potential of leveraging data and analytics to influence strategic and operating decisions that drive ROI for our franchisees,” Searls explains. In 2015, she became vice president of digital commerce, overseeing Choice’s mobile app, digital experiences, and ChoiceHotels.com, which J.D. Power recently ranked as the top hotel website for customer satisfaction.
Last November, a decade after first joining the company in 2009, Searls was promoted to the newly created role of chief customer officer. She tells LODGING about why Choice formed this new position, what she hopes to accomplish, and how technology is evolving the ways in which hotels communicate to guests.
Why did Choice create the role of chief customer officer?
Companies that deeply understand and anticipate customer needs—and build out programs, products, and services to address those needs—are more successful. Choice has been at the forefront of anticipating needs of guests with our history of innovation; we were the first hotel company to develop a mobile app and we have an award-winning loyalty program with Choice Privileges with over 43 million members.
One of the reasons why this role was created was to further elevate Choice’s focus on the guest to ensure that across the travel journey, Choice is listening to and understanding guest needs and then using those insights to drive strategies, create relevant marketing messages, evolve our digital experiences and our loyalty programs, and, in turn, create value for our franchisees.
What changes have you seen over time in terms of how hotels are approaching digital products and communication with guests?
Some things always remain consistent. It always has been and will be important to communicate to guests in relevant ways, to create products and services that meet their needs, and to reach them in a way that is meaningful to them. However, I do think that things have evolved and changed on a couple levels. First, the ability to reach customers through multiple touchpoints and different mediums and devices has impacted how we go to market and our opportunity to influence the customer experience at different stages in the journey.
If we rewind a few years back, most consumer messages were delivered through TV, radio, direct mail, email, and simple paid search. But now we have multiple types of TV, streaming, video, social, and different placements on search engines. This presents unique complexities. At the same time, there are even more opportunities to reach our customers and communicate to them on a more targeted, meaningful, and personalized level.
What are your biggest priorities in your new role?
Ultimately, we want to continue to grow share for our franchisees by delivering more guests to their hotels. We’re going to do this by deploying relevant marketing messages to the right targets for our growing portfolio of brands, by continuing to evolve our digital experiences, and by enhancing and growing our loyalty program in ways that serve guest needs. Along the way, we’ll increase our focus on leveraging customer insights and data to ensure we are delivering on those needs.
What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead?
Technology and customer expectations continue to change, so it becomes all the more important that we keep our pulse on these evolutions and how our customers react to them. That’s where some of our investments are paying off; we’ve invested in Choice Edge, our cloud-based CRS and data platform, which will put us in a really great position to activate against unique customer insights for leveraging AI and personalization.
Industry reports mention that RevPAR could soften in the next couple of months. We certainly believe that our efforts will mitigate some of these broader trends. If we can be more effective and efficient in our marketing, that has a direct impact on our ability to drive bookings to our hotels.
J.D. Power recently ranked Choice’s website as the top hotel website for guest satisfaction. What do you attribute to this success?
We’re very proud of this designation and we believe it’s our focus on customer experience that led to this award. Ease of use is a key category that correlates with customer satisfaction for this award. We invest quite a bit of time on design and processes to make the booking process intuitive, by offering customers the right combination of the information and content while minimizing the work and effort required to transact. We do this through regular discussions and interactions with our customers. In short, by listening to and understanding our guests’ needs on our website, we’re able to create this award-winning experience. And this is how we’ll continue to approach our efforts across all customer touchpoints.