by Dominic Walsh
US franchise giant Choice Hotels International expects to have 100 properties in the UK within the next four to five years.
It is currently on 33 following its recent franchise agreement with Friendly Hotels, and Choice president Gerry Petitt told Caterer the group was in discussions with a number of other small groups and individual hoteliers.
He is particularly keen to kick-start the expansion of Sleep Inn - a purely new-build product - and hopes the economic recovery will provide developers with the necessary funds. So far, only one Sleep Inn has been built, near Nottingham.
Although Choice continues to expand at a rapid rate throughout most of the world - it has grown from 300 hotels to more than 3,300 since 1981 - it has found the UK a tough nut to crack.
But Mr Petitt said he was confident the Friendly deal would boost Choice's profile among hoteliers as it seeks to meet its goal of 100 properties by the end of 1998, as well as raising brand awareness among customers.
"There's enough consolidation going on in the market that properties have to look at international branding," Mr Petitt explained.
Conversion of Friendly's 24 UK hotels to Choice's Quality and Comfort brands is expected to be completed within the next few months, though in a few cases intransigent local authorities are holding up proceedings.
For its part, Friendly hopes the deal will enable it to pick up management contracts from new franchisees. Any acquisitions by Friendly will also automatically be plugged into the Choice system.
To cope with the growth of the business, Choice is moving its UK reservations centre into Friendly's London head office at Victoria, and is recruiting additional staff.
To date, Choice has offered European franchisees its Sleep, Comfort, Quality and Clarion brands only. However, Mr Petitt revealed last week that the group was thinking of introducing one of its three US-based economy brands.
"It could happen in the next year, probably in France," he said. Pushed to name which brand it would be, he said: "Probably Econo Lodge."
China is one of 19 new countries in which Choice is currently developing a presence as it moves closer to its goal of having 10,000 hotels worldwide by the year 2010.