Since joining then Wyndham Hotels & Resorts in 2017, Michael Brown has led the vacation ownership group through a whirlwind of change. First, a spinoff as an independent public company under the Wyndham Destinations name, then earlier this year Wyndham Destinations acquired the iconic Travel + Leisure brand and became Travel + Leisure Co.
While some people would have thought that was enough to do, Brown is also stepping into the role of chairman of the American Resort Development Association. Resort Trades recently caught up with him (we had to move fast) to hear his thoughts on the industry, the pandemic, his life and the future of travel.
What would you say are your top responsibilities in your new role?
The acquisition of the Travel + Leisure brand hasn’t changed my role all that much, though my view of the leisure travel world has expanded dramatically as we continue to grow our core vacation ownership and exchange business while beginning our expansion into subscription travel clubs. My most important role is to activate our company’s resources and talent to put the world on vacation.
Wyndham Destinations will remain the umbrella brand for our core timeshare business. For that, I’m focused on continuing to grow our owner base and welcoming more owners to our vacation clubs while servicing our more than 850,000 owners to get them back on vacation at our more than 245 vacation resorts around the world.
How do you spend your days?
As the leisure travel markets are returning this spring and summer, I’m working hard to make sure our owners can get back to their resorts. While our company is slowly returning to the office, I’ve been spending many days there helping to make sure we maximize our participation in the leisure travel recovery.
While I’ve been a runner for a long time, I’ve begun trail running and also taken to walking during the day while taking some of my meetings. Since we’re still not in the office full time, I’m able to get out of my house and enjoy the outdoors while still being productive and staying active.
What do you see as your biggest challenges going forward? How are you addressing them?
In the short term, we need to make sure we’re ready to accommodate the surge in demand for vacations while ensuring we continue to protect people’s health until the global traveling public has been broadly vaccinated. In the long term, within our core business, embracing the digital transformation and working to ensure that we’re able to make it easier to buy, plan, book and exchange vacation ownership for our owners and members. We are launching two new businesses, our Travel + Leisure subscription travel club and our B2B travel services business, Panorama Travel Solutions. New business launches are always challenging.
Now that we are more than a year into the pandemic, how do you think the industry has fared and how do you see us bouncing back?
I think the industry as a whole as fared very well. For the developers and resorts who have had strong management and resource allocation plans, they were able to weather the downturn and are in a strong position to return to normal operations now that owners are returning to vacation. This pandemic has proven vacations are personal and families view them as non-discretionary, which is why our industry is incredibly resilient.
Can you share a timeline for that?
For Wyndham Destinations and RCI, we saw a very strong rebound in bookings in March. So strong, that most of this year will be stronger for us than it was in 2019, which was also a very strong year. All of the consumer trends point to this year being exceptional in the U.S. and improving in the rest of the world as countries begin to open their borders for international arrivals.
Over the past year there have been a lot of changes at (now) Travel + Leisure Co. Do you see that pace of change continuing over the next year?
Yes I do! I don’t expect we’ll change our name again anytime soon, but I do expect to keep up the pace of change across the business. As it relates to the Wyndham Destinations timeshare brands, we are continuing to innovate across the portfolio. We’re continuing to embrace the digital transformation, with more and more of our business being transacted online. We’re launching a new web experience for our WorldMark owners, and we’ll continue to make it easier for people to transact business on the web.
For RCI, last year the team launched a new brand and a host of new services for members and affiliates. We’re excited about the new travel services which greatly enhances the value of RCI membership and makes it easier for people to use RCI for all their travel needs, not just for a once-a-year exchange.
There has been a great deal of consolidation over the past year too. Do you think that was driven by the pandemic or by broader changes in the timeshare industry?
Consolidation in the timeshare industry has been happening for a number of years now, so I don’t believe that the pandemic drove some of the large deals that have recently been announced. Fundamentally, the continued growth of global hospitality brands in the timeshare space is a net positive for all companies – branded and independent.
Do you see Travel + Leisure making changes in the way the product is marketed and sold?
Our timeshare business will continue to operate under the Wyndham Destinations umbrella, and each brand will continue to focus on their markets. We are continuing to invest in those brands and how we go to market, so we don’t expect to use the Travel + Leisure brand to play a role there.
Are you planning to introduce new types of product with your new branding?
We are introducing new subscription travel products under the Travel + Leisure name this summer. While we don’t expect to use the Travel + Leisure brand in the timeshare space, the rebranding of our corporate entity as Travel + Leisure Co. will allow us to partner with other companies that might have been hesitant to work with us under the Wyndham name, due to brand conflict or confusion.
What parts of your job bring you the greatest degree of personal satisfaction?
We have an amazing group of associates who are committed to putting the world on vacation. I am always re-energized when I talk to our people around the world to hear about their passion for what we do and how we do it better than anyone else.
Congratulations and thank you for agreeing to chair ARDA for the next two years. What do you anticipate doing in that role to make a difference?
Among my top goals as chair will be supporting Jason Gamel, the president of ARDA, and his leadership team in responding to the evolution of the timeshare industry, advocating for legislation and regulations that emerge, and focusing on the need to reshape ARDA and the related benefits it provides to members.
I am also passionately committed to elevating education and awareness around the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion through forums, a featured speaker series, and member engagement opportunities. My agenda also includes continuing strong public advocacy of our industry, in part by strengthening our online presence and positive messaging around timeshare ownership. Lastly, organizations must evolve and ARDA must do so as well in the midst of continual consolidation.
What do you see as the best tack the timeshare resort industry can take to overcome challenges such as the negative image created by exit companies and media?
The entry of the branded hospitality companies in the timeshare space has transformed the industry and raised the bar for us all. Because we have a responsibility to protect our brands and the interests of our public shareholders, it’s changed the way we promote our businesses and how we market and sell our products.
Wyndham Destinations, for its part, has taken the position that we are going to proactively tell the story of our timeshare business and the customer journey from sales to exit. As part of that, we created Certified Exit Backed by Wyndham to let owners know that when their needs change, the company has options for them. That transparency and openness is part of how we are transforming our business and the perception of our industry.
With the fact that big companies are getting even bigger, how can small companies have a voice in what happens at ARDA?
We encourage everyone with a stake in the vacation ownership industry to become a member of ARDA and to become involved in the meetings and activities that matter. A vibrant dialogue is critical to an organization’s success. Those voices must be fully representative of industry stakeholders.
Judy Kenninger has been covering the shared-ownership industry for nearly two decades.