“Going Beyond” Generic Luxury: WorldHotels Annual Conference Highlights Brand Differentiators and Recent Growth

BWH Hotels' Ron Pohl speaks at the general session.

BWH Hotels’ 2024 WorldHotels Annual Conference took place from Jan. 18-21 at a WorldHotels Elite property that exemplifies the soft brand’s slogan, “inspiring travel through unique experiences.” Designed in 1955 by famed architect Morris Lapidus, the Eden Roc Miami Beach surrounds guests in an “Old Hollywood” ambiance, particularly in the Pompeii Ballroom, where stars such as Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. performed long ago. Both Larry Cuculic, president & CEO, BWH Hotels, and Ron Pohl, president, WorldHotels & international operations, addressed the attendees in that storied ballroom on Friday morning. LODGING staff was on hand to report on WorldHotels’ latest developments and initiatives.

BWH Hotels acquired the 54-year-old brand in 2019, and it has become the company’s “north star,” said Cuculic. “That means every hotel throughout our portfolio should be focused on service and quality like WorldHotels are.” Cuculic stressed the goal of continuing to “deliver on trusted guest experiences” and thereby building loyalty. But as a luxury brand, WorldHotels is also “aspirational,” he explained, meaning that travelers aspire to stay in these unique, distinguished hotels.

In fact, 2023 saw a greater demand in the upper upscale and luxury segments. “We saw a rebound beyond what we expected, and I think that will continue,” said Pohl at the Friday general session. “According to Forbes, travelers in 2024 will spend more on luxury travel, despite rising costs. The next generation of travelers is expected to cut other expenses so they can maintain the same level of travel in the upper upscale and luxury segments.”

(L-r): Wytze Vandenberg, vice president of international operations & WorldHotels (Europe, Middle East, Africa); Greg Habeeb, president of WorldHotels (North America); Richard Rehwaldt, vice president of BWH Hotels (Latin America); and Rod Munro, managing director of operations for Australia and New Zealand.
Rising Revenue

WorldHotels was part of last year’s high-performing upper upscale and luxury sectors. Vice President of Worldwide Sales Wendy Ferrill and her team, which includes 170 dedicated sales reps for WorldHotels, “generated over $54 million in revenue to WorldHotels alone last year,” Pohl noted. At Saturday’s general session, Ferrill said that “BWH had a wonderful year of growth [in 2023]. We grew revenue by 25 percent, which is remarkable and well ahead of the industry. But if we look at WorldHotels growth, that was 62 percent. And that’s because the hotels engaged—you all participated in our rate plans; you engaged in the customer events. And that helped us all together grow the revenue.”


In addition to leisure travel, WorldHotels properties are well positioned to attract MICE groups, and Ferrill commented that “the group market is hot. We’re seeing a lot of interest. What we are seeing is the small and medium [sized] meetings are still growing, but the large meetings are coming back, which we’re thrilled for, especially for the WorldHotels properties.” She added that last year, the company partnered with Cvent to develop a WorldHotels microsite that “gets a lot of attraction.”

Development Goals

The Annual Conference theme was “Going Beyond,” and growing the WorldHotels portfolio is one manifestation of that concept. “Scale can help define the success of this organization,” said Cuculic. “What that means is you have to have a footprint. You have to have hotels where people want to go that can help grow the scale. … So, please know we’re dedicated to growth. … And we have four perfect categories of WorldHotels to do that … Luxury, Elite, Crafted, and Distinctive.” The WorldHotels portfolio currently includes 160 properties, and Pohl noted that the brand gained 21 hotels last year, including new entrants into markets such as Brazil, Greece, Mexico, Spain, and Canada. “We’re projecting to add 30-40 hotels in 2024,” Pohl said. “We’ve already signed five deals in the first month of this year, and they’re outstanding hotels.” At a Friday afternoon Media Press Conference, Pohl added that “the long-term goal is to get this brand back up to 400 or 500 hotels—where it used to be—but with great-quality products in great locations. If it takes us longer, that’s perfectly fine. We’re going to add assets … in markets where we think the customer is looking to have that unique experience.” North American growth will be primarily focused on conversions of lifestyle hotels, as many of these properties are seeking a soft brand that provides all the benefits and services of a large company like BWH Hotels.

Raising Brand Awareness

Pohl emphasized the goal of enhancing the visibility of the WorldHotels brand, and toward that end, BWH Hotels appointed Joelle Park as the company’s senior vice president & chief marketing officer last summer and hired the Brandman Agency. Promoting the WorldHotels name can be accomplished through “subtle things like lapel pins, signs at the front desk, signs upon entrance to the hotel, signs at the elevators. It’s a way for our guests [to recognize WorldHotels], but it’s also a way for us to connect with developers, which is the other customers that we’re trying to attract,” he explained.

The WorldHotels team is also going the extra mile to help each hotel in the portfolio promote its own story to leisure and business travelers. “We began this program of creating your own story and creating a video that can be shared with consumers to create that emotional connection to your hotels,” said Pohl. “Many hotels are deeply rooted in their communities and have their own story. … Embrace creating your story, and embrace it on a local scale.”

Updated Training Platform

The brand is also assisting its owners and managers with new online training modules covering a variety of operational topics, launched this month. “We have to constantly update that content to meet the changing needs of customers and demographics,” said Pohl at the Media Press Conference. “A lot of the hotels have had such turnover, and there are still some locations are struggling with staffing. And we’re responding with these training modules. So, we’ve become a greater trusted partner, whether it be in housekeeping, sales, revenue management, etc. And I think the way we’re structured, we’re able to respond to a lot faster than a lot of other companies. … The hotels are loving this extra layer of support.”

Reestablished Partnerships

Speaking at the Media Press Conference, Greg Habeeb, president of WorldHotels (North America), explained the brand’s appeal to owners with an interesting example: “We’ve had several past members that have left us, and they’re coming back to us now. So, that’s a real testament to not only our company, but the power of BWH Hotels behind us. And that’s something that I think puts us in a very unique position among the other independents: we have a very strong backbone.” BWH Hotels is the largest soft brand operator, “and I think there’s a comfort that comes with that,” said Habeeb. “So, we’re very happy to welcome many hotel members that have left us, tried something else, and they’re coming back to us.”

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George Seli is the editor of LODGING.