HOTELS interview: Choice CEO Joyce talks ‘Undercover Boss’ appearance

Show is great marketing tool

SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND Steve Joyce admits there was a little trepidation within Choice Hotels International headquarters when the reality show “Undercover Boss” invited him to star.

The producers maintain complete editorial control, so it there was risk involved. Would the show end up being a net positive? Choice’s CEO chose to take the chance. “Their show is based on a premise of, you know they want to make the CEO look silly, they want to make the line associates look good, you know they want a feel-good story at the end,” Joyce says. “Coming in and trashing the company doesn’t fit that formula, they want a feel-good story, so we took a lot of confidence in that.”

Joyce’s incognito days spent as an Econo Lodge maintenance worker, a Cambria Suites salesman and a Comfort Suites housekeeper and front desk associate were documented in the episode that aired on Sunday. There were some hiccups—some of the properties were less than pristine, and Joyce was even trapped in an elevator at one point—but there is little question that Joyce and Choice came out looking great overall.

“The associates loved it—we had a number of viewing parties across the country, all that were well-attended,” he says. “The franchisees have been writing in in droves, they loved it. We’ve got people walking in off the street asking for applications, our employment website has been overrun, our consumer site is way up huge numbers. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.”

The entire 46-minute episode can be viewed online.

Four line employees who unknowingly played boss to the CEO on the show were rewarded at the conclusion. A housekeeping supervisor who aspires to be a general manager but who could not afford to pay for training classes will have her tuition comped by Choice. A financially struggling front desk agent is having her rent paid for six months. The son of a maintenance worker who is pulling double shifts to pay for his education will be given a scholarship by the company. And Joyce offered a young, promising property-level salesman a position with Choice’s global sales force.

Joyce says he was prepared for the grueling nature of the jobs, but he was surprised by how the personal stories of the workers affected him emotionally. “I always view myself as not all that emotional, I’m pretty resilient. I was not prepared so much for the emotional effect,” he says.

And because he learned so much from his experience, Joyce plans to ask executives to periodically spend time on the front lines to ensure the company stays connected.

Some changes to come

Choice CEO Steve Joyce spent a night working as a front desk associate at a Comfort Suites.
Choice CEO Steve Joyce spent a night working as a front desk associate at a Comfort Suites.

A number of changes are being implemented or considered at the corporate level as a result of Joyce’s firsthand experience. A renewed effort is being made to identify high-achieving line workers who aspire to be general managers; those individuals will be given training and support to move up the ranks. The scholarship program for Choice employees is being expanded to include franchise-level employees. And Choice’s employee website will be enhanced to include better language training, to improve employee communication.

Additionally, Joyce has asked the company to review the standards for its Suburban Extended Stay brand—while staying at a Suburban during the show, Joyce was stunned to learn that coffee is sold at the front desk rather than provided on a complimentary basis.

Finally, the big question: As part of his disguise for the show, the famously mustachioed Joyce went clean shaven. Will he stay that way? “I’m not positive, but the vote that was taken here ran heavily against,” he says. “I had no idea—I thought everyone admired my mustache.”