Q&A with Scott Buchalter, Knights Inn

Industry veteran Scott Buchalter recently took up the baton as brand leader for Wyndham Hotel Group’s Knights Inn franchise, where he’s looking to shape the economy brand for the future by starting with the basics: connecting with each of the Knights Inn franchisees via phone, with close to 400 calls on his calendar.

Buchalter is no stranger to the Wyndham family. He started with the company in 1999 and has worked in franchise services, brand services, property openings and, most recently, as senior director of franchise integration. He’s also served as a GM and operator.

Founded in 1972 in Columbus, OH, by Cardinal Industries Inc., the brand in 1995 was acquired by Cendant Corp.—Wyndham Worldwide’s predecessor—which 10 years later merged its Villager brand into the Knights Inn system. At the end of Q1 2017, there were 370 Knights Inns open representing 22,589 rooms.

How would you characterize Knights Inn in terms of its brand awareness with guests, as well as industry players? Knights Inn offers guests clear, uncomplicated value and has done so since the first Knights Inn hotel opened in 1974. The brand caters to a widely unmet need in hospitality—no-frills accommodations with the benefit of a powerful rewards program. Guests enjoy low nightly rates while earning Wyndham Rewards loyalty points redeemable at any of Wyndham Hotel Group’s more than 8,000 hotels across 19 different brands. Our goal is to offer an easy lodging experience for our guests and owners at the best value.

As the new brand leader, what are you tasked with doing? My first priority is to deliver value to our franchisees. In addition to driving the value proposition, I want to ensure every Knights Inn hotel is aware of the benefits and opportunities that come with being part of the brand and part of a hospitality giant like Wyndham Hotel Group. I believe franchisees who see value in their investment in Knights Inn will work hard to pass that value on to their guests, creating a great experience and strengthening the brand.

Is Knights Inn looking to expand its footprint? Absolutely. With hotels in 42 states and Canada, we’d love to conquer all 50 states by the end of 2018. There is also boundless opportunity in international markets; with the continuing growth of the global middle class over the next decade, especially in regions like Asia-Pacific and Latin America, travelers will always seek out affordable economy lodging. 

What markets are on your radar for the brand? We have a strong presence in markets like Florida and Texas, and are looking to continue to grow in the Northeast and Southwest United States, as well as Western Canada. We’re also open to expanding internationally in the right markets for the brand.

Who’s coming to Knights Inn in terms of development/franchising, e.g., multi-brand owners, Wyndham brand “family” members, flag jumpers, newbies? All of the above. We have a number of owners who have multiple Knights Inns. Once they experience the ease of operation and the cost effectiveness, they often bring their independent hotels over to the Knights Inn brand. Hoteliers of other brands also learn about the value of owning a Knights Inn and may convert their hotel when the time is right.

We also have a large amount of first-time hotel operators.  Knights Inn truly represents the approachable entry to franchising and an opportunity for new hoteliers to operate an established brand. Many first-time entrepreneurs choose Knights Inn because of its low start-up costs, short-term contracts and the greater support services afforded by being a part of the largest hotel group in the world.

How would you describe today’s Knights Inn guest? The Knights Inn guest is every family in America. It’s the truck driver, the traveling salesperson, the construction crew, the bus tour, the sports team—any traveler who doesn’t want to spend a lot to get a lot. Knights Inn guests travel simply and casually, and at the end of the day, are looking for the basic essentials for a good night’s sleep. 

How are you parlaying your previous career experience in this new position? The hospitality business is the only field I have ever been in. I grew up in the business; my dad owned a diner in Long Island City, NY.  After earning my degree in hotel administration, I went on to manage numerous limited-service hotels. After 14 years on property, I became a franchise-service manager for Days Inn, serving as the operations liaison between the franchisee and the franchisor with over 180 hotels in my portfolio. Using my property-level operations experience, I feel I can relate to our owners and GMs because I’ve truly done every job in the hotel and understand the competing demands our franchisees face every day. This kind of experience is vital in my current role as I help our franchisees navigate these challenges and opportunities.

What appeals most to you about your new role? Meeting all of our franchisees. Their entrepreneurial spirit amazes me. Many of them are families working together, and I remain utterly impressed with how our owners have created their own business from the ground up and are driving its success. Anything I can do to share my operations background to help a hotel sell another room or make guests happy about their choice of accommodations means a great deal to me as a brand leader.   

What has surprised you thus far about leading Knights Inn? I am consistently surprised by the pride and genuine happiness our owners feel when I call them out of the blue just to say “Hi,” congratulate them on a recent quality-assurance inspection, or wish them a happy [franchise]anniversary. A simple phone call is a gesture hoteliers don’t always get from other brands. Knowing how much they appreciate the support we offer at Knights Inn and Wyndham Hotel Group makes me proud to be part of the brand and to serve this amazing group of hoteliers. HB

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