HB ON THE SCENE: Best Western at 70: Successes, SureStay, Strategy

PHOENIX—Continuing to celebrate its 70th birthday year during its annual global convention here in its hometown city, Best Western Hotels & Resorts found itself gifted with its first commitment for a SureStay Signature Collection Hotel, three weeks after officially launching the chain’s new “white-label” franchise subsidiary.

The independent, 208-key Genetti Hotel & Suites, approaching its 100th year in Williamsport, PA, is being proffered by owner and long-time Best Western member Gus Genetti, who also owns the Best Western Genetti Hotel & Conference Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

The pending property shift was one of several highlights being touted during the convention, being held over several days at the Phoenix Convention Center. More than 2,500 attendees got an initial year-in-review approach from the chain’s top executives—with boxes checked on major accomplishments, such as being at the halfway mark in completing the association’s reconcepted brand-identity initiative put in motion last year—before they shifted the focus to the future, playing to the convention’s theme: “It’s A New Dawn.”

“We all know our competitive environment has become much more complex and difficult,” said President/CEO David Kong. “There are many disrupters that try to take a share of our business or a share of our profits. Our competitors are not standing still. Many of them are aggressive and are launching new brands, enhancing their loyalty program or introducing new technology. In short, many of them are reinventing themselves to be relevant for today’s travelers.”

The CEO indicated Best Western is in the same camp and not “standing still” at all. He noted among numerous advances, Best Western on his watch is achieving record RevPAR and has gone from one brand to seven brands: Best Western, Best Western Plus, Best Western Premier, extended-stay product Executive Residency by Best Western, the upper-upscale BW Premier Collection and boutique offerings Vib and GLo—all with strong pipelines; GLo recently saw three groundbreakings on the same day. And in late September, BW added the SureStay subsidiary, which will give owners with hotels in the upper-economy and midscale segments an alternative to their current brand or an opportunity to brand their independent properties across three tiers: SureStay Hotel (premium economy); SureStay Plus Hotel (lower midscale); and like the Genetti Hotel, the SureStay Signature Collection (midscale soft brand).

“While we are enjoying tremendous success, we need to be mindful that our business is cyclical. It is inevitable that there will be a downturn at some point in the future,” Kong told the crowd. “While business is still good, we need to have the foresight to shore up our customer base. We need to build guest loyalty through a superior experience at our hotels and through the Best Western Rewards program [In North America, Rewards contribution is currently 40% of total hotel revenue]. We also need to expand our customer base so when there is a downturn, we have a broader base to draw from. It is important for us to be prepared for the future.”

That future includes waves of tech-savvy millennials and to help capture a greater share of that market, Best Western earlier this year partnered with Google to create the Best Western Virtual Reality Experience that gives travelers the ability to view guestrooms, lobbies and amenities via an immersive experience using their smart phones prior to coming to a BW property.

In addition, the association recently debuted a totally revamped website (BestWestern.com) powered by a new digital platform that adapts to the screen size of the device a customer is using.

“The higher the consumer perception is of our brand, the higher our RevPAR and asset value will be,” said Kong. “Our brand image affects each hotel’s financing, its clientele base, its average rate, its occupancy and, ultimately, how much the hotel is worth when it is sold. That’s why it’s so important to enhance our brand image. Our success depends on it.”

On the physical plant side, he noted in North America alone, Best Western members are spending close to $2 billion for renovations, many of them yielding “dramatic transformations,” helping drive improvement in average rates and RevPAR.

Ron Pohl, BW’s SVP/brand management, encouraged attendees to consider six recommendations to optimize ROI via design. These included exterior renovations to pump up curb appeal, which translates to guests on site, driving by or viewing online. “Also consider adding a charging station,” said Pohl. “Demand is increasing.”

Other areas he suggested included: improving the lobby and front desk; adjusting the chain’s BestREV revenue management system to reflect a property’s repositioning; doing a renovation sooner rather than later at this point in the cycle; and making sure website images are current, especially following a renovation.

“Every minute your online presence is not accurate, you are leaving money on the table,” admonished Pohl.

Implementing the company’s new logos program, created last year when Best Western dropped the International from its name to segue to Best Western Hotels & Resorts, is on track, and Pohl stressed installation of signage to alert travelers of the changes at Best Western also is key in helping boost ROI.

“Our new logos are a part of this important brand-image strategy as well… In North America, over half of our hotels are on target to have new signs before the end of the year,” said Kong.

Incoming member properties—there are 222 hotels in the North America pipeline; 239 in the international pipeline (60% new builds)—will have the new look.

“As we celebrate our 70th birthday,” said Kong, “We are signaling to the world that we are a brand on the move.”

—Stefani C. O’Connor