This year’s Best Western International Annual Convention, held Oct. 28-30, drew added energy from its locale: Cleveland, Ohio, the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Capitol of the World.” Naturally, the convention featured a rock theme, with highlights including an opening reception at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and a final-night performance by REO Speedwagon. LODGING editorial staff was on hand to speak with BWH Hotel Group executives and gather the latest updates on the company’s performance, new initiatives, and goals for next year.
At the general session, John Kelly, chairman of Best Western’s board of directors, confirmed that “the past months have proven to each one of us that we made the right choice” in appointing Larry Cuculic as the company’s new CEO last fall. “He and his team are laser focused on driving more revenue to all of our hotels. He believes that when a member wins, we all win.” Soon afterward, Cuculic took the stage at the historic Public Auditorium to overview the company’s performance this year. Most notably, RevPAR was up 37.8 percent, and the company’s midscale, upper midscale, upscale, and SureStay brands saw an average year-over-year 16.2 percent occupancy growth and 16.6 percent ADR growth. “I commend you on what was the most successful financial season in the history of Best Western,” Cuculic remarked.
Following that summer 2022 performance, BWH Hotel Group plans to rebate back $15 million to its members. Prudent financial stewardship enabled that rebate, Cuculic explained at a media conference. “We budgeted for 2022 based on what the experts thought was going to happen with regard to travel. It wasn’t like you needed to market when the guests were traveling nonetheless. So, at the end of the year, we now have excess funds that were approved and thoughtful about not spending. We recognize it’s [members’] money.”
Making Strides in Development
A major announcement came from Brad LeBlanc, senior vice president & chief development officer. The newly launched HOME by BWH is set to compete in the midscale extended-stay segment, offering developers an opportunity to maximize their ROI with a “lean” prototype that makes elements like meeting rooms, bars, and pools “options, not mandates,” LeBlanc explained. And compared to some other brands, BWH Hotel Group offers plenty of “green space” in the high-performing extended-stay segment. “The single thing I’ve heard as I went out to these interviews with developers was, ‘I need another brand to grow with,’” LeBlanc commented. For more information on HOME by BWH, see our coverage of the announcement.
Outside the United States, the company is driving major growth, with 1,606 international hotels and 240 in the pipeline. Speaking at the general session, Ron Pohl, appointed president of international operations in March 2022, noted that “the major growth in the hospitality industry and for Best Western Hotel Group will be in international markets. All major brands today are focusing on international development. But we already have a strong presence, and we’re creating a more effective global structure. We are well positioned for growth.” Pohl went on to overview the company’s pipeline and recent openings in numerous international markets, including the 74-room Best Western Plus Market Square, in Lviv, Ukraine. “Just a few months ago, we opened our first hotel in Ukraine. The owners of this hotel were adamant that this has reinforced the confidence of the Ukrainian people and the future of their country. I have so much respect for that,” Pohl said. He also highlighted the growth of the WorldHotels brand in the United States and Canada. “We currently have 18 hotels in North America but will grow to more than 40 hotels next year. And we’re going to leverage Brad [LeBlanc’s] experienced team to surface more great WorldHotels,” adding that many members’ independent hotels could benefit from being repositioned as a WorldHotel.
New Training Program
BWH Hotel Group also announced an enhancement of its staff support to members with the new Because We Care training program. “Our education and training team are packing their bags and they’re back on the road,” said Michael Morton, vice president, brand management and member services, at the general session. “We’ll be offering Because We Care training in more than 100 locations across North America in the first quarter of 2023 alone, at no cost to you.” Apart from that presence in the field, the company has launched a new learning management system, Morton announced. The overall approach to learning has been revised to reflect the learning styles of today’s employees, who generally prefer shorter format courses, Pohl commented. “Associates today are much different than they were 14 years ago [when the training program was originally launched]. You can’t expect that the same program is going to incentivize them to want to be a part of it.”
The company is also helping its members with staffing, one of the most pressing challenges of today’s hotel industry. “Finding staff just got a little bit easier for those of you that hire seasonal workers,” said Morton. “Last week, it was announced that 65,000 additional H-2 visas will be available for fiscal year 2023, and our team can help you learn more about the programs. Whether you’re hiring a seasonal worker, or you’re looking for a staff member who can grow with your team, attracting and retaining talent should be top of mind.”
The Best Western Hotels & Resorts App has seen a marked improvement in performance this year, Cuculic noted. “Today, 10 percent of our dotcom revenue comes through the app, with a consumer rating of 4.7 out of five, which is tremendously different than it was six months ago,” he said. He attributed the improvement to a “renewed emphasis on the quality of the app and making sure the team understood its importance going forward.”
Overall, the company is making a significant investment in technology, with an $84 million budget earmarked for next year. “We’ve migrated all of our data into Amazon Web Services, creating this data lake. And now the question is, how do you use it?” Cuculic said. He noted that gathering data on the individual guest’s preferences will be critical toward optimizing the hospitality experience. “It’s about data, in my opinion. And that’s what I’m focused on.”
On the topic of data, Pohl added that the company is rolling out a rebuilt revenue management system in Q3 2023. The goal is to provide members “dynamic reporting,” he said. “Any time of day, you’ve got the most recent data on your competition, where their rates are, how they’ve adjusted them.” The enhanced system will also recommend revenue strategies based on the latest reports on projected market strength.
Having celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, BWH Hotel Group is looking to ensure another successful 75 years. Cuculic put forward the company’s new mission statement at the general session: “Deliver trusted guest experiences, drive hotel success, and foster a caring, inclusive culture that respects the environment. That’s who we are.” He concluded, “I am tremendously optimistic about the future of Best Western in our industry. I firmly believe in the resilience of travel and the unique experiences that you provide. People will always travel. We love to travel, to share time with family … to broaden horizons and, of course, to celebrate life.”