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Cloud migration helps Choice Hotels weather COVID-19

Choice Hotels' cloud-based global reservation system and adoption of collaboration and communication applications helped it stay in business during the pandemic.

COVID-19 pushed Choice Hotels' cloud migration plans further along, and now it has no plans of stopping soon.

With travel restrictions and quarantine measures in place, the hotel industry has suffered during the pandemic. Choice Hotels, a hotel franchising business with more than 1,300 employees, kept its franchisees connected and running through a global, AWS-based guest check-in system and by adopting cloud-based technology.

Choice Hotels, which includes brands such as Comfort Inn, WoodSpring Suites and Cambria, consists mostly of hotels and motels along highways. At the height of the pandemic, these places lodged many first responders who couldn't return to their families, said Choice Hotels vice president of engineering Jason Simpson in a breakout session at this week's Rubrik Forward virtual event. Even still, occupancy was down significantly.

Keeping employees working without an office was key, Simpson said. At the start of the pandemic, he pinpointed he would immediately need broader VPN access, reliable communication and a good video conferencing system, Simpson said in an interview. He quickly deployed VPN in the cloud through Palo Alto Networks and adopted Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

The moment the pandemic hit, we had a lot of work to do. We knew when we went home that night, we weren't coming back.
Jason SimpsonVice president of engineering, Choice Hotels

"The moment the pandemic hit, we had a lot of work to do. We knew when we went home that night, we weren't coming back," Simpson said.

User adoption of the collaboration applications went surprisingly smoothly, Simpson added. He expected some hesitancy because not all of Choice Hotels' staff was used to working remotely, but he said he believes they were won over by the low learning curves and user-friendly interfaces of Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

Booking it in the cloud

Apart from bolstered communication and collaboration, Choice Hotels continued to thrive during the pandemic because of its cloud-based marketing and reservation system, called ChoiceEdge, Simpson said.

ChoiceEdge, built on AWS, is a globally connected system to track hotel bookings, whether they came from Choice Hotels' website, a partner such as Expedia or through the hotels themselves. With these various room reservation systems able to talk to each other, Choice Hotels was better able to drive occupancy for its franchisees and adapt to customer needs during the pandemic, Simpson said.

Choice Hotels originally developed ChoiceEdge on-premises and started migrating it to the cloud in 2015. The problem with a data center approach was that it had to be designed for peaks, Simpson said. On the cloud, he could scale compute and storage up and down as needed.

The cloud migration also made it easier to onboard new partners to ChoiceEdge, Simpson said. In the last two years, Choice Hotels gained partnerships with AM Resorts and Penn National Gaming. By connecting them to ChoiceEdge, Choice Hotels was able to build a single system for customers to book reservations and redeem loyalty points -- even at non-hotel establishments.

All Choice Hotels properties and partners were on ChoiceEdge by 2018, but the company still runs some of its systems on premises. Simpson said he wants to lower Choice Hotels' physical footprint as much as possible. The goal is to have 90% of everything running in the cloud by 2023 and shut down Choice Hotels' data center in Virginia, he said.

Jason Simpson, vice president of engineering at Choice HotelsJason Simpson

Rubrik provided backup for Choice Hotels since before Simpson's tenure, but its importance grew significantly during the pandemic, he said. The company initially purchased Rubrik for on-premises backup and to replace an aging legacy backup system that failed one-third of the time.

As Choice Hotels started using the cloud more, Rubrik was able to protect its new environments such as Microsoft 365 and AWS EC2. Simpson said he'll be working more closely with Rubrik as he begins migrating Choice Hotels' databases to the cloud.

"First and foremost, you need to back up everything you have, so we're pivoting Rubrik to the cloud," Simpson said.

COVID-19 also brought along an epidemic of ransomware attacks, and Rubrik provided valuable ransomware defense with its immutable backups, Simpson added.

After the pandemic, Choice Hotels will continue to be hybrid, but the balance between on-premises and cloud may shift, Simpson said. It's too early to predict what IT initiatives taken during the pandemic will be scaled back, but Simpson said at the very least, he hopes Zoom and Microsoft Teams will continue to be used.

"There's going to be a lot of people who don't want to come back to the office and some who do. In some ways, this transition back to the office might actually be harder," Simpson said.

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