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by Cheryl-Anne Sturken | May 30, 2014

Comfort Inn lobby and bedroom prototypesMay has been a busy month for the hotel industry, with many companies announcing development deals, acquisitions and new brand strategies. While much of the attention-grabbing headlines have gone to the full-service and luxury chains, limited-service brands also have been busy honing their game. Two to keep an eye on are Comfort Inn and Comfort Suites, from Rockville, Md.-based Choice Hotels International.

To learn more about how the Comfort brand, which dates to the 1980s, is transforming itself, I spoke with Choice Hotels' Ann Smith, vice president, domestic brand strategy. "This is an iconic brand, and the intent behind the new development strategy is making sure that Comfort can remain classic and reliable," she says. "The new look is modern, but classic at the same time, because we want it to wear well."

The brand's refreshed elements include an inviting new lobby design, a new bedding program (so far, close to a quarter of a million new bed linens have been rolled out) and updated bedroom furnishings, such as the installation of multiple charging stations and new flat-screen televisions. "One of the things we learned from our business travelers is that they don't use alarm clocks any more," says Smith. "They want a recharge station by the night stand, and that's one of the things we have done. And there is more to come. Later this year, Comfort will begin rolling out its new service culture, which will be based on new training standards. And, in 2015, a new bathroom refresh will be rolled out, which will include new bath linens as well as amenities."   

By the end of this year, Comfort franchisees across the brand's 1,900 U.S. properties will have invested more than one quarter of a billion dollars on property improvements since 2011, when the new strategic positioning was rolled out. To support its hotel owners' efforts to bring their properties in line with the new initiatives, Choice has committed $40 million in financial incentives, the largest such investment the company has ever made in a single brand.

That investment already is paying off. This week, STR Analytics' Hotel Operating Statistics Almanac reported that hotel industry profits in 2013 totaled $41 billion, a whopping 67.3 percent increase over 2009. And while the luxury sector saw the greatest increase in revenue, the limited-service sector performed better than the full-service sector, with a 5.5 percent increase in revenue over 2012.

Even more exciting, says Smith, is that Comfort's new brand initiatives have sparked an unprecedented interest in development from investors, sparking an increase in the brand's development pipeline. There currently are 23 new hotels under construction, and, like all new-build projects, they will feature the full compliment of new Comfort features, from hotel design to product delivery. "All the refresh happening across the brand has sparked an enthusiasm across our system, and we want to leverage that," says Smith.