Best Western Celebrates 75 Years, Begins New Era of Leadership at North American Convention

Best Western North American Convention 2021

BWH Hotel Group welcomed members to its first in-person convention in two years. Hundreds of members convened at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas for the 2021 Best Western North American Convention from October 5-7, 2021. This year’s gathering came at a pivotal time for the brand, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary while undergoing a transition in leadership. Longtime Best Western President and CEO David Kong, who has been with the organization since 2001 and has been serving as president since 2004, recently announced his planned retirement. During the convention, BWH Hotel Group’s board of directors announced the appointment of a new president and CEO, Larry Cuculic, who has been serving as senior vice president and general counsel for the company for 12 years and will assume his new position beginning in December 2021.

Visionary Leadership

The theme of this year’s convention—Spirit of Caring—emphasized how members and the company are moving forward together in one direction with a focus on helping members succeed. During his final address to members, Kong recalled the “Impossible Dream” that he laid out back in 2015, which encompassed goals related to driving RevPAR growth, focusing on customer care to achieve top J.D. Power Guest Satisfaction rankings, and enhancing guest loyalty through the Best Western Rewards program. Those dreams still hold true today and are part of the company’s corporate scorecard, Kong and Cuculic told LODGING. “I don’t think those dreams change. I’ve had the benefit of working with Mr. Kong for 12 years now, and his dreams are my dreams,” Cuculic said. “We have a very well-thought process of setting our key result areas (KRAs) on an annual basis. David’s Impossible Dreams are a significant part of that.”

Those dreams are also aligned with the six promises Cuculic made to members during his initial address at this year’s North America convention. First, Cuculic promised to respect that members have a voice that deserves to be heard. To support this promise, he plans to travel and conduct a listening tour in January to facilitate open dialogue with members. Cuculic also made a personal commitment to work hard with honesty, integrity, and fairness; to focus on driving superior revenue to members; to use fees to invest prudently and intelligently in areas like marketing, technology, and the corporate team to ensure a strong ROI; to strategically grow the brand through measured development that does not negatively impact existing members’ hotels; and to protect Best Western’s reputation and goodwill to promote repeat visits and guest loyalty. “We can do this by providing a quality stay for value that exceeds our guests’ expectations,” Cuculic added.

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When asked what he would like members to take away from this year’s North American convention, Kong emphasized how the organization “not only survived but recovered from the pandemic” and highlighted the dedication and commitment of the company’s board of directors and corporate team to ensuring member success. “Despite a pandemic, we not only survived, but we actually improved the company’s balance sheet. We drove superior revenue to [members], hitting all-time high RevPAR index results. We expanded the Best Western Rewards program, and are continuously thinking about how we can take costs out and help [members] recover from the pandemic,” Kong noted. While “there is some disruption and a change in leadership,” Kong says the organization is “in great hands” with an “experienced, dedicated, and capable” executive team that is singularly focused on member success.

Technology Investments

Greg Adams, Best Western’s senior vice president and chief digital officer, shared with members the corporate team’s plan to position Best Western as an industry leader. The goalposts of this strategy include owning and controlling its distribution platform, owning and leveraging its data, and engaging users with the distribution platform, including focusing on member experiences with the PMS system. As part of this plan, Best Western rebuilt its website from the ground up and acquired AutoClerk, which is now the fastest-growing PMS in its portfolio.

“Understanding your distribution platform—how you structure that, how you make that so that people can actually interact with it—is critical,” Adams told LODGING. He noted that today’s hotel company platforms must support an “entire ecosystem”—a variety of channels that include Brand.com, OTAs, and more. “We’ve created a platform to integrate with all of those and, […] from end-to-end between the hotelier and that consumer, everything that has to happen in between,” he explained. “It’s a very complex and powerful thing because whoever owns and controls the most parts of their platform, the more successful they’re going to end up being.”

Digital Transformation

Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for Best Western, noted in her address to members that the advertising landscape has been in a constant state of evolution over the last decade, and the global COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the rate of change. She cited a Wall Street Journal study that called 2021 “a year of hope” and 2022 “a year of growth” fueled by digital transformation and pent-up demand. To make the next year one of growth for Best Western and to lean into digital transformation and drive more demand to the brand’s portfolio, Dowling outlined several efforts, including a modular approach to creating video ads that “allowed us to manage the dynamic business environment and customer attitudes toward travel,” Dowling explained. “We are maintaining our focus on building brand relevance with loyal and potential customers and ensuring that Best Western is represented effectively across performance-based media to drive bookings.” The brand is also using social media and working with influencers to connect with and engage with key audiences and will continue to do so in the year ahead, Dowling noted.

Another initiative announced during the convention is the development of a new program called BWH Media Max that gives members the ability to make their own choices on lower-cost channels. This could effectively shift share from OTA channels to lower-cost brand channels, Dowling explained.

Rewarding Loyalty 

Another initiative to embrace digital transformation is re-engaging Best Western Rewards members through a Pay With Points program. Dowling explained that because the vast majority of loyalty members do not have enough points in their account for a full room night, this program allows guests to pay partially for room nights with the points they have accumulated. “Pay With Points not only helps Best Western Rewards remain competitive but ensures our members remain loyal to our brand,” she said. “A successful loyalty program can have a strong presence throughout the customer journey. It can introduce a new customer to a brand, help to create meaningful relationships with new customers, build brand loyalty, and bring one-time customers back into the fold.”

Driving Business

Pay With Points is one of two ballot measures that members were tasked with considering during the 2021 Best Western North American Convention. The second involves a proposal to remake Best Western PLUS to drive more mid-week, corporate business and position the brand more competitively in its comp set. Ron Pohl, senior vice president and chief operations officer, told members that to secure long-term growth and drive more revenue to members, “we must ensure that all our hotels and brands are competitive in their market segments.” To keep up with the evolving design and brand standards of its comp set, Pohl said that Best Western worked with an independent research firm to identify enhancements that are most important to business travelers. “We are proposing simple and cost-effective brand standard and design enhancements that will make the brand more competitive. There is an opportunity to attract more mid-week business travelers, and with an enhanced product experience, to increase rate,” he explained.

Operational Efficiencies

System-wide, Pohl told members that he is focused on three areas when it comes to operations: driving revenue, providing support and training, and reducing costs. To make hotels more profitable, the Best Western team is rethinking the business model in areas like housekeeping and breakfast. The brand will continue the practice of offering daily housekeeping service only upon request to guests and is testing a breakfast model with limited high-quality hot and cold choices.

As he explained to LODGING, addressing the labor shortages hoteliers are facing today starts with reevaluating the business model. He added that Best Western is also providing members tools and resources to help them attract candidates. “From a staffing perspective, we’re trying to work with all of our owners on what are the different practices you should use in your communities to attract staff, because it’s not just about competing with hotels anymore—it’s every business that’s near you or by you,” he explained. “I started as a front-desk clerk in the industry. You can progress through any field that you want within the business, but I think that’s lost traction and visibility in our industry, especially through the pandemic… We have to rethink that as well if we’re going to remain competitive and be an industry for the future.”

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Christine Killion is the editor of LODGING.

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