Sean Worker, CEO of corporate housing supplier
BridgeStreet Residences, Serviced Apartments and Suites, recently spoke with BTN
lodging editor Michael B. Baker about the company's strategy for dealings with travel
buyers, technology developments and challenges in using the
request-for-proposal process for corporate housing procurement.
What is BridgeStreet's overriding strategy?
Our position is different from all our competitors because we believe we're in hospitality. As a brand, as opposed to the others that are operating companies, we behave very differently, from a consistency standpoint and in the look and feel of the product. I'm a hotelier by background, because I used to head up Wyndham outside the United States. The only thing that differentiates us from hotels in our brand categories—which are tiers; we have residences, serviced apartments and suites—is that we don't have a bar and a restaurant. We embrace that by picking locations that have great delis and restaurants and local fare, and a gym across the street and a community, so you actually live in the environment. You'll see us replicate that particularly in how we select our real estate, in taking long-term positions. We have 5,000 apartments that are ours and another 50,000 in our supply chain. When I joined BridgeStreet, the feeling was that this thing was a sleeping brand, and it's proved that way. This year was our best year in 16 years. Last year was our best year in 15 years.
How have you been targeting the corporate market?
We have a lot of people from the hotel industry. The leader for the New York market came from Hyatt. Others have come from outside of the industry, who were technology sales or service sales, but the majority of the group has a hospitality background. We're competing against the broader hospitality community they're used to and conforming to the norms: the RFP process, service-level guarantees and agreements in place. That's opened a huge amount of doors for us. They're speaking our language, and we're speaking their language. For the travel department that's already pressured from a resource perspective, our attitude has been about technology: API connections into their billing systems, how we interact from a metric standpoint, what quarterly reviews look like so we're providing the director with reports that conform with their internal parameters. That's been very successful and mature. That builds confidence as we've won more and more accounts.
Have you seen a growth in RFP volume?
We're helping with defining an RFP first, because everything isn't just checking boxes. A lot of big institutions are going out to RFP right now. They go through the RFP, and it's based on room nights. For our product, if it's relocation, which is 24 percent of our business, it is very different from project business and 15-day-stay business. Often, that's difficult for a travel department to handle, so we have counselors. You can pick up the phone for somebody who's not just a reservations agent at central res in Omaha. This is about having somebody who will help you with relocation or projects, whether it's for four months in Berlin, São Paulo, Los Angeles or Saskatchewan. We can handle all of that with one phone call and one person you interface with. We have a system called Easy Source that brings all those bids together in one product online. We can show the clients choices, bring it all together, give you the best pricing and say that these have been vetted by us, so which do you choose? We're doing the RFP for them.
We also introduced extranets, so they can go through the SLA agreement and push that out to their employees, and they can book direct but still be controlled by the travel department. They can put in their own parameters like, "If you've already spoken to the travel department, check this box." If the instruction from the travel director is that unless they check the box, they come to a grinding halt, we can program that. It's helping to implement the program internally, which also is unique.
What are the challenges with procuring corporate housing through RFPs?
There are probably five or six key variables you can't answer in a generic gun-blast RFP. You have to sit down with the travel director. As an example, a financial institution has an intern program that is intense, complicated and variable. It could be 100 or 300 people. They're hitting New York and London for three months. You can't put that on an RFP, because they don't know where it's going to be or what their mix is, and the housing options could include New York University dorms or, for a certain population, a purpose-built building like [BridgeStreet's] 34th St. and Madison Ave. [property]. There isn't one tool out there that can do that without a conversation.
What are some of your initiatives geared toward corporate travel?
We need technology to interface with us, not the other way around, as a supplier. We built a value chain as opposed to a supply chain. On a cloud-based tool, our customer base can go online and see their production and their average daily rate in real time. We have 99.1 percent billing accuracy. They also get that on their reports. If there's customization within a traveler contract, it's all in there. When the tsunami hit in Japan, our major customers who had presence there went online, saw a Google map with the names of their employees staying with us that showed exactly where they were [staying]. In focus groups with travel directors, they want to know that it's guaranteed, particularly in a niche hospitality market. We introduced a brand guarantee and are the only ones in the space that do it. If your keys aren't there, or it's not cleaned and doesn't look like the picture, or the Internet and all the electronics don't work, we pay. Period. The first night's free, and every night after is 50 percent off until we fix it. On 700,000 unit nights, we paid it out 45 times, so we're proud of that.
Do many of your reservations originate online or through your app?
You can go on our website, and as nearly 10 percent of our business is leisure, we do participate like a hotel in the merchant models, so you can book on there, but generally you need to talk somebody. You put in your request, and [online] chat is available, which is instantaneous, and as long as we confirm what you're looking for, you'll get the counselor on there quickly. It's very personal. All it requires is a menu-driven, binary system. If you have a dog or a cat, you can't book online, but if it's you and your spouse going to London for five days, that's a very simple transaction that you should be able to book online.
What's your geographic distribution?
We're in 65-odd countries. We're in Europe. In India, we're in Delhi with a franchise with 800 units and more coming. We have an office in Singapore, and they source for Asia/Pacific. We have dominance in Australia. It's a pseudo-franchise system, which allows us to control quality, and the brand guarantee applies to them as well. We're always growing. We're very robust in how we deliver globally. We have call centers in Washington, D.C., London and Singapore, so it's following the sun and you can always talk to somebody. Sometimes, technology fails. We have an app, but you can hit "call" and it will put you through to the closest time-zoned call center, so there's always someone to talk to when you're stuck. It's important to have the personal and not hide behind technology.