Best Practices: BWH Hotel Group President and CEO Larry Cuculic on Leadership in General and Priorities in Particular

Larry Cuculic

Larry Cuculic, who today serves as president and CEO for BWH Hotel Group, first joined the company in 2009 as general counsel. Yet, as he told LODGING, it is his background in the military—he is a West Point Military Academy and Notre Dame Law School graduate who received the Legion of Merit upon his retirement from the U.S. Army—that has most indelibly informed his beliefs about how to lead and prioritize under even the most challenging conditions. “I’ve evolved as a leader over time, but the values ingrained in me as a cadet—duty, honor, country—have motivated me to do my best on a daily basis,” he asserts.

Focus on People

Cuculic says his role as senior vice president and general counsel prepared him well to take on the BWH Hotel Group top job vacated by David Kong upon his retirement at the end of 2021. “I was very fortunate that I was able to work on matters across the organization and gain a breadth and depth of experience that prepared me for this new role,” he says. This background most of all impressed upon him “the importance of having a great team with a unified focus. Those in teams with that unified focus build a collaborative spirit; they have a dedication to each other to not let each other down, to do their best to succeed together.” He says an important part of building just such a team is transparency. “Everyone that I work with knows that we can be honest and forthright with one another, and that allows us to be collaborative and focused as a team. You have to make sure that everyone knows that you’re dealing with them honestly, truthfully, and that you have their best interests at heart.”

Business Priorities

Cuculic cites three major priorities he is focusing on at this time both to improve owners’ bottom lines and to meet evolving guest expectations: The first priority, he states, is to assure guests of a clean, comfortable, and safe stay. “Cleanliness has consistently been among the most important factors customers consider in their choice of a hotel, but the pandemic elevated it to the highest level,” he says. In 2020, the company implemented We Care Clean, which delivers an enhanced commitment to keeping guests safe and healthy when staying at Best Western-branded hotels. In general, he says, “the needs and preferences of today’s travelers are constantly evolving, and we are committed to exceeding their expectations.” Toward that end, the company is supporting hotels with coaching and educational sessions: “At eight district meetings we held across North America, we stressed the need to meet those guest expectations.”

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Second, Cuculic points to the need to drive revenue through the lowest-cost channels—especially booking direct through bestwestern.com. He says this is most effectively achieved by building a base of loyal guests enrolled in the brand’s rewards program. “To drive that top-line, low-cost revenue, it is paramount to make guests and potential guests aware of the benefits for them of the guest loyalty program Best Western Rewards®. Our loyalty members need to know that not only will they get the lowest price, per our guarantee, but they’ll also be treated especially well because they are such loyal guests,” he says.

The third priority—helping hotels eliminate unnecessary costs from operations—Cuculic maintains has become more important than ever in recent months due to the dramatically rising cost of doing business, while many are still attempting to recover from pandemic-period losses. “We’re all aware of the effects of inflation and the need to help our hoteliers operate as efficiently as possible,” he explains.

Growth Issues and Opportunities

Cuculic observes that the BWH Hotel Group he now heads is very different than the single-brand BWH Hotel Group Kong took on more than 20 years ago. “Under David’s leadership, BWH Hotel Group has grown to have three hotel companies—Best Western® Hotels & Resorts, The WorldHotels™ Collection, and SureStay® Hotel Group. With 18 brands across every chain scale segment, from economy to luxury, BWH Hotel Group suits the needs of developers and guests in every market.”

According to Cuculic, Best Western Hotels & Resorts’ core brands—Best Western®, Best Western Plus®, and Best Western Premier®—are “the foundation of our success.” It is that foundation, he contends, that “fuels the engine that allows us to now grow our other brands,” including: (1) the boutique brands Aiden®, Sadie®, Vīb®, and GLō®; and (2) the soft collections, which include (a) SureStay Collection®, an enhanced version of the economy brand of the same name that includes a full-service restaurant; (b) BW Signature Collection® by Best Western, an upper-midscale product; and (c) BW Premier Collection®, which includes upscale and upper-upscale properties.

Rounding out the BWH Hotel Group portfolio, he describes, are the luxury and upper-upscale properties in WorldHotels™ Collection, the J.D. Power Award-winning SureStay® and SureStay Plus® economy properties, and two products in the extended-stay category: Executive Residency by Best Western® and SureStay Studio®.

Cuculic says he is not in favor of “growth just for the sake of growth,” and describes instead a strategy designed to enable each property to be successful. “We have all these excellent brands, but to achieve that success, we must ensure we’re putting the right hotel in the right location, where there is the demand for that type of traveler or by that type of traveler for that brand.” Beyond providing those quality brands for travelers of varied descriptions, BWH Hotel Group’s growth strategy includes an effort to build goodwill for each brand based on trust and an awareness of each brand’s differentiating features. The strategy also involves inviting developers to create the kind of properties geared toward an identified market for which they may have an affinity. Cuculic regards boutique brands in particular as a way to meet the needs of developers, who can create or reposition a hotel in a way that reflects their own vision, commenting, “Just as guests and employees are evolving, so are developers. Brands enable the developer of the next generation to fulfill their vision.”

Noting that the company’s global footprint expansion was slowed by the pandemic, he feels that reaching out to international partners would support their growth objectives. “I think one of our biggest opportunities is leveraging those partnerships such that we can again grow our scale because, when guests want to travel somewhere, you want to have that right hotel in the right location that meets their travel needs.”

Cuculic also favors seizing upon what might be considered low-hanging fruit—proven brands, like SureStay, and types of brands that distinguished themselves during the pandemic. “The extended-stay segment has historically performed well, but it turned out to be a superstar during the pandemic and is ripe for further development in 2022 and beyond as BWH Hotel Group looks to expand its footprint across these brands.”

All in all, he says, “I am confident that our flexible and modern hotel solutions will continue to excite developers, drive revenue to our hotels, and entice guests to experience our unique properties across the globe.”

Bringing Back the Right Team Members

Circling back to BWH Hotel Group’s commitment to meeting the evolving expectations of guests, Cuculic makes clear the fundamental connection between the satisfaction of guests and the people who serve them. “Although I think any brand’s biggest opportunity is managing and meeting the evolving guest expectations, this starts with a recognition that it’s the workforce that welcomes and cares for those guests.”

Cuculic acknowledges the labor crisis facing all industries, including hospitality, but believes the people best suited to the industry will return due to what it has to offer them both personally and professionally. “What I especially love about hospitality is the caring spirit in the DNA of individuals who thrive in this industry, and I strongly believe they will gravitate back because it matches the essence of their personality type, the kind of people they are—friendly and welcoming—and the work that they enjoy doing.”

However, he reminds, that’s not to say hoteliers can just play a waiting game, especially while there is so much competition for labor. He maintains hotels should strive to be “employers of choice in their communities.” This initiative, he says, goes beyond providing competitive wages and benefits to include something he believes is even more important: “consistently ensuring that those team members know they are valued.” That can be achieved by reaching out to greet them, seeking their feedback, and addressing their concerns and ambitions (e.g., providing career growth opportunities).

“There is also the need,” he emphasizes, “to convey not just to team members, but to anyone who may be open to a career in hospitality, the message that the industry continues to be a place where one can start at the bottom and rise to the top.” This opportunity, he says, was dramatically confirmed by a show of hands of owners gathered at a district meeting when asked how many began at the front desk. “The response was overwhelming, one that clearly demonstrates the possibilities,” he notes.

Recovery Continuation

Cuculic observes that industry recovery continues to be led by leisure travelers and is confident that the summer season that commenced on Memorial Day will be strong, as has been generally predicted by experts. “As long as we have great hoteliers who exceed guest expectation, build brand loyalty, and provide great hotel stays, we will have continued record-setting success.” As for business travel, he says, “I have what I’ll call ‘a reasonable belief’ that business travel will eventually return, but it will be with more of a focus on a return on investment associated with that business travel. In other words, people will travel to visit clients and business partners more than to intercompany meetings, which can be done virtually.”

Team Spirit

At heart, Cuculic is a team player who enjoys working with a collaborative, focused team he can trust. But he is also a leader who likes his team to win. “What gets me up in the morning is knowing that when I come to work, I’ll be working with people who will work as hard as I work on a common vision of success.”

That vision includes more than financial success. Cuculic mentions that BWH Hotel Group recently reaffirmed its identity as a company that emphasizes caring and collaboration for the benefit of everyone—team members, guests, their communities, and beyond. “This vision stresses caring about people, which is the essence of our industry, and making a difference in the world. And when you distill it down to its simplest form, isn’t to be cared about as they’re traveling what hotel guests really want?”

Pandemic Aftereffects: Managing the Varied Changes COVID-19 Has Brought to Our Industry

Like nearly everyone, Cuculic likes to think of COVID in the past tense. Yet there is no denying its lingering effect on the industry, as his comments indicate.

On guest expectations: “Today’s guests are very different than they were pre-pandemic. While cleanliness has always generally been a top consideration in choice of hotel, it is now associated with safety.”

On the hotel workforce: “Today’s workforce is tremendously different than it was pre-pandemic. The unexpected aftermath of pandemic layoffs and furloughs was the Great Resignation. Instead of gratefully returning, many former hotel employees just quit or went into other industries, something we need to work as an industry to reverse.”

On growth and development: “While COVID did not change BWH Hotel Group’s growth strategy, it did impact the ability to execute the strategy in that it slowed it down. We had to allow our developers, people who are interested in converting or building a new Best Western hotel, the opportunity to take a deep breath and manage through the pandemic. Territorial restrictions put in place by governments also hindered travel to some destinations.”

On opportunity: “The pandemic has shown a light on extended-stay products, which include our Executive Residency and SureStay Studio brands. Then, too, our economy brand SureStay has had a meteoric rise; in fact, it has won a J.D. Power Award for being No. 1 in its segment for the past two years.”

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