Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Best Western Hotels & Resorts, is already three decades into a travel industry career she describes as “joyful.” She recently discussed the highlights of this path, including having the good sense to hire Best Western CEO David Kong as her boss and becoming Allied Leadership Council President for the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA). She also stressed the importance of CQ (curiosity quotient) over IQ, reputation management, and most of all, choosing the right partners to succeed in business and life.
Dowling tripped on her hospitality career path as a graduate student at Canada’s University of Waterloo while researching travel practices of Canadians using data owned by the Canadian Government Office of Tourism, which subsequently hired her as a marketing research analyst. This led to a consulting job focused on analyzing data related to major destination areas with what is now Horwath HTL, and then a series of positions with hotel companies that recruited her.
Then, 15 years ago, a “persuasive recruiter” asked her to meet with David Kong, the then-new CEO of Best Western. “At that point in my career, I wasn’t looking for a change, but I took the meeting because I believed David would be a transformational leader,” she explains. In keeping with her belief that “you have to hire your boss,” she “hired” Kong—even though she then believed Best Western’s best days were behind it. “Still, I knew as soon as I met David, he was an inspirational leader who would create great leadership in an organization that desperately needed it.”
Dowling describes her business function as a marketing executive to be “mostly about putting numbers on the scoreboard and really driving business outcomes,” but maintains that beneath it all is creating value based on what customers want. She says Best Western’s Rewards program, which was established 30 years ago, is structured to create value for a broad base of customers across its 16 brands, which range from economy to luxury. And, like successful loyalty programs in general, is “the gateway to learning about your customer.” This, she says, involves understanding their habits, being able to share data with other mediaries to understand a customer’s journey to you, and identifying what she calls “look-alike customers.”
Dowling asserts that gaining a deep understanding by listening and learning about what is important to the different segments of customers has driven the evolution of Best Western’s foundational value over time. “For example, one of the most important anchors in our rewards program—that our points never expire—is based on the understanding that a large proportion of our members who are very committed to our loyalty program only stay two to three times a year because they are leisure travelers. For them to remain loyal, we need to be sure they are heavily invested in our program. We want to maintain the opportunity to win our share of their wallet for their lifetime by regularly offering promotions that add value, to give them what they want most—that free night.”
For other travelers, she says, there are other customer relations opportunities— including a program for small-medium business enterprises called Best Western Business Advantage. “We can create a lot of very targeted customer relations opportunities because we know our customers and understand their behavior. We get additional insights through data sharing—Google, Trip Advisor, and other digital media companies—so we understand their path of purchase and what’s driving a lot of their decision-making.”
Calling the GBTA the “premier travel association for business travel,” Dowling says it was Best Western’s product segmentation seven years ago that motivated the deepening of the relationship with GBTA. “Best Western had always been considered a leisure brand, but when we were segmenting our product base to align with a wider range of customer expectations, we wanted to invest much more heavily in the business travel space and really become a significant player.”
As Best Western became active in the organization, Dowling was asked to join its board of directors. “That was an incredible honor for me to sit with a lot of business travel buyers who are driving a lot of the leadership and change in the business travel space, including many of my counterparts across the travel industry who are really developing solutions to be able to respond to today’s business traveler,” she says, adding that when WINiT—a network focused on the advancement of women professionals in the industry—became part of GBTA, she became chair of its Strategic Advisory Board, a position she continues to hold. Next, she became the first woman to be named president of GBTA’s Allied Leadership Council.
“Women in high positions in an organization have a responsibility to give back and also show the path of their journey, in hopes of paving the way for women behind them to have the type of careers they wish to have.”
Of her association with WINiT in particular, she says, “I’ve come to accept that women in high positions in an organization have a responsibility to give back and also show the path of their journey, in hopes of paving the way for women behind them to have the type of careers they wish to have.” A priority of the WINiT Strategic Advisory Board she chairs is to create more development events to be conducted in concert with GBTA meetings. “The endgame is to create a foundational educational program that will bridge the need to develop and recognize women more, and to help GBTA member companies build more programmatic capabilities within their diversity and inclusion programs,” she says, adding, “But we’re still very early in the journey.”