Chris Arnett ’91 /Getting in on the ground floor of hospitality
Learning a business from the ground up has its advantages. Just ask Chris Arnett ’91, senior director of franchise management for Choice Hotels International, one of the world’s largest lodging franchisors with more than 6,000 franchisees offering over 495,000 rooms in the United States and abroad.
Arnett has come a long way from his early days in the hospitality industry when he worked two summers as a Transylvania student intern in housekeeping at Canyon Lodge in Yellowstone National Park and in food preparation at a YMCA camp in Sandwich, Mass. Yet it is that back-of-the-house experience, combined with his early years working on the franchisee side of the picture, that gives Arnett an edge when discussing operational or management issues with franchisees at any of the over 5,000 domestic Choice properties.
“Because of my early hands-on experience and my years on the hotel ownership side, I love talking with our owners,” Arnett said. “I speak their language, I know their challenges, and they respect that. They don’t think I’m sitting in some ivory tower and don’t understand what it’s like to actually run a Comfort Inn (one of Choice Hotels’ 11 brands), because I do.”
The internship at Yellowstone the summer after his first year at Transylvania confirmed for Arnett his interest in hospitality as a career.
“I was hooked from the minute I got to Canyon Lodge,” he said. “Because I worked hard and showed up on time, I got promoted to inspector. I no longer had to clean cabins—I got to inspect other people’s work. That was a good early lesson for me in how to move forward in my career.”
After earning his business administration degree with a dual emphasis in hospitality and finance, Arnett cut his teeth as manager of a small, new-construction hotel in Glasgow, Ky. There, he gained experience in every facet of hotel operation.
“You may be the general manager at a small hotel, but you’re also the executive housekeeper when they have a day off, and you might be the third shift night auditor if they’re sick,” he said.
That was followed by eight years in Louisville with Musselman Hotels, a franchisee company, where he advanced to senior director of operations.
He joined Choice Hotels in 2001, becoming director of brand management and strategy, focusing on the then-900 Econo Lodge and Rodeway Inn properties. His next position was brand performance consultant for Choice properties in Kentucky, Orlando, and the Florida Panhandle. He began his present position in February 2010.
Arnett directs a team that manages the contractual relationship with all of Choice Hotels’ domestic franchisees, who operate a range of 11 lodging options in the economy, mid-scale, and upscale segments as well as extended-stay properties. Brands include Comfort Inn, Comfort Suites, Quality, Sleep Inn, Clarion, Cambria Suites, Econo Lodge, Rodeway Inn, extended-stay properties MainStay Suites and Suburban, and membership brand Ascend.
As a franchising company, Choice Hotels owns no buildings or real estate, but depends on the business acumen of its franchise owners to represent the company’s brands in a responsible and competitive manner.
“When one of our franchisees doesn’t meet the quality standards of Choice Hotels, they may be in jeopardy of losing their franchise,” Arnett said. “In the best of cases, my group works with them to cure the problems—that’s always our first route. In some situations, the franchise agreement has to be terminated.”
Since the goal is to maintain the franchisee’s contract whenever possible, Arnett applies people skills he learned long ago to try to resolve problems.
“I still use some of the things I learned when managing that small property in Glasgow,” he said. “Back then, I saw every employee problem in a black-and-white context and tried to apply the same consequence to every person who broke a rule. But I soon learned that you just can’t apply the same tactic to every employee. If they are worth keeping, then you need to work with them in a more individual way while maintaining the company’s overall standards.”
Arnett looks forward to the daily challenges of making Choice Hotels the lodging of choice for travelers.
“My job is to champion the vision we have for each of our brands,” he said. “When I can make a decision that results in, say, our Comfort Inn properties becoming stronger and better as a brand, that’s exciting.”
Arnett has maintained close ties with his alma mater, serving as a member of the Alumni Executive Board from 2002-07 and as president from 2005-06. He was presented the 2007 Outstanding Young Alumni Award for his extraordinary involvement in the life of Transylvania.
He has a great appreciation for the academic preparation he experienced at Transylvania.
“I got a business administration degree at a liberal arts college, and in my mind, that’s the best of both worlds,” he said.
Arnett’s work with Choice Hotels has taken him from Maryland to Florida and back again. He now works at the corporation’s international headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., which is in the Washington, D.C., area. He lives in Silver Spring with his partner, Josh Graf.
—William A. Bowden