Published March 19, 2021 by Bowdoin Magazine

Trust in Travel

We talk with Jamie Russo ’01, vice president of loyalty programs and customer engagement for Choice Hotels International, about  the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the travel industry.

Jamie Russo '01
Travel has been really rocked by this pandemic. How do you allay the fears—real and imagined—that customers have right now?
Perceptions about travel right now are intensely personal and can’t be dismissed—if people worry about something, it’s real and legitimate. Cleanliness has always been incredibly important in our world, but in response to the pandemic, we’ve enhanced our protocols, products, and communications with our Commitment to Clean initiative. We adopted new staff precautions, modified high-touch interactions like breakfast, and gave guests an option to request housekeeping when they feel comfortable—all of that added
layers of safety. Each hotel also designated a “Commitment to Clean Captain” to lead the process of incorporating the new protocols into each hotel’s operations. Fortunately, once someone has that first stay back, they see the procedures we’ve put inplace, which dissipates their fears.

How has your company been able to survive at all?
Focus, flexibility, and speed. We always plan for the long term, but we have had to react very quickly in these unprecedented days. From the beginning, daily task force meetings enabled us to make decisions in real time that offered additional flexibility in hotel cancellation policies, in launching new promotions, and in identifying ways to support both guests and Choice’s franchise owners globally. We looked closely both at demand and at customer sentiment, and because of that, we were the first hotel company to launch a major national advertising campaign that spoke directly to what travelers needed and wanted in this time.

What's different about the way you and your colleagues go about your jobs now?
The word “impossible” will forever be questioned now. Part of my role is to oversee our call center operations. The pandemic drove call volumes to an all-time high, right as stay-at-home orders meant our call agents had to stay out of the office—and at that time, they were unable to take calls from home. Our team worked around the clock on solutions that would have been considered impossible just days before. It showed us what we could do together.

Are there changes as a result of all this that might be positive for the hotel industry?
America has so much to offer right here in our backyard, and families are realizing that accessible, local trips have some advantages over far-flung vacations requiring air travel. We are seeing a return to the traditional family road trip, and I think that will be positive for the industry and for families.

How do you keep things personal in a time already distanced by digital interaction that is now distanced by necessity as well?
We want our guests to make a long-term connection with our brand. Data, predictive modeling, and digital touchpoints in some ways help us be more personal by giving us “micro-moments” we did not have before. When guests search for a hotel, check their loyalty points balance, or engage with our app, we have the opportunity to connect, and we try to do that by giving them offers or content that our data has given us reason to believe they want. Doing it the right way makes the journey easier, earns trust, and ultimately more business.

Was there anything you learned at Bowdoin that you draw on still?
Curiosity. Bowdoin teaches you to follow your interests and, while the result is important, when you are curious, you unlock so many adjacent possible ideas.

What Bowdoin memories stand out for you?
 
Engaging professors, studying in the stacks, getting coffee in the Union, playing sports, and planning campus events at Baxter House led to lifelong relationships. Twelve of us around the country still get together at least once a year. But the most important moments at Bowdoin formed my family. I met my wife (Allison Farmer Russo ’01) at Bowdoin, and her twin sister (Sarah Farmer Curran ’01) married my freshman year roommate (Peter Curran ’01). Maine is now a regular vacation spot for us all, and that keeps Bowdoin memories alive.

Jamie Russo ’01, who majored in economics and Spanish at Bowdoin, lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife, Allison Farmer Russo ’01, and their two children. Prior to his position at Choice Hotels International, he was a vice president at American Express.

Jamie Russo '01
This story first appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.