Long before the inception of TripAdvisor and GPS, travelers relied on word-of-mouth recommendations, print directories, and guidebooks to find the right place to lay their heads. As early as the 1920s, motel owners began organizing referral systems through which they could promote one another and establish a set of standards. In 1946, M.K. Guertin established one of the most successful referral systems in the lodging industry: Best Western. A champion of the independent motel owner/operator, Guertin helped revolutionize the motor lodge business when he founded the chain.
Guertin had been a member or organizer of several motel “auto court” associations since the 1920s, ever since he moved from Texas to California to help his sister advertise her three Long Beach motels. Guertin’s passion for the business led him to own and operate several independent California motor hotels—or “tourist courts,” in the parlance of the day. He purchased the Cherry Court Motor Lodge in 1933 and the Beach Motel in 1938, both in Long Beach.
During that pivotal year of 1946, Guertin was a director for United Motor Courts, a referral chain composed of motel owners across the United States that published an annual guidebook. Guertin was unhappy with the organization’s quality control, so he decided to create his own referral program. On a car trip from Long Beach to Tacoma, Wash., Guertin noted the names and locations of motels about a tank of gas apart from one another. He gathered his findings and created a travel guide that endorsed motels along the highway routes.
The properties he recommended also stood for standards of cleanliness, respectability, and service. Guertin then reached out to a select number of fellow motel operators across the West to start the “Best of the Western” motels—or, simply put, Best Western. Guertin’s Beach Motel became the chain’s first official property.
Guertin’s marketing savvy, organizational skills, recognition of the importance of credit card affiliations, and willingness to try new initiatives kept the company growing strong. He was always consulting members on issues and prodded others who appeared to weaken their standards of hospitality. He also accepted that an important part of Best Western’s success was recognizing the different needs of its member owners. As such, he allowed associates the flexibility to address local needs while maintaining brand standards. This permitted Best Western to amass affiliates with a wide range of property types, from highway hotels to European castles. Today, the company has more than 4,000 hotels in 100-plus countries under six brands: Best Western, Vib, Best Western Plus, Best Western Plus Executive Residency, Best Western Premier, and BW Premier Collection.
For 20 years, Guertin led a brand built on the collective wisdom of its membership. That’s not to say he didn’t face a few rough patches along the way as the company expanded. Some members perceived his leadership as heavy-handed, but perhaps that assertiveness is what drove the company’s success. By the time Guertin retired in 1966, he was justified to be proud of his achievement. He had the genius to corral disparate parts of the lodging industry and create “the world’s biggest hotel family.”
About the Author
Mark Young, PhD, is director of the Hospitality Industry Archives at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management, University of Houston.
Photo credit: Best Western Collection, Hospitality Industry Archives, Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management, University of Houston