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4 Questions for David Kong, Best Western International

Last year at this time, Lodging featured a cover story on Best Western’s first Premier hotel. It was the beginnings of the company’s descriptor program, which created the Premier and Plus designations for its hotels. A year later, Managing Editor Megan Sullivan checked in with President and CEO David Kong to find out how the strategy has been working and what we might expect from Best Western moving forward.

1. Megan Sullivan: It’s been about a year since the descriptor program was launched. How has the strategy progressed over that time?

David Kong: I’m very excited about the success so far with the descriptor program. If you look at one of our objectives to have critical mass as quickly as possible, we now have over 800 Best Western Plus hotels and 15 Best Western Premier hotels in North America. And so I’m very gratified that we’re able to ramp up that quickly.

Critical mass is important in helping to introduce the descriptor program because a lot of what we do in sales and marketing is probably not comparable to the actual impressions formed when people get to stay at these hotel and experience what these descriptors offer. One of the key measurements that we have is how fast can we introduce this whole descriptor program to the consumers out there.

The number one metric that we use has been very successful. And of course the whole purpose of doing the descriptors is to enable consumers to make better selections about hotels. So in that regard it should translate into more revenue for our hotels.

The performance of each of the descriptors is very good. In terms of future business, if you look at the worldwide sales efforts, all our sales clients have embraced the descriptors, which is also very gratifying. They have just overwhelmingly endorsed the program and are shifting business our way. And this is evidenced by the 30 percent increase we’ve seen in terms of the RFPs from us, so that too is most gratifying.

2. MS: What are some other successes you are happy about over the past year?

DK: This is anecdotal. I was at a GM training session. I made my welcome speech and we opened it up for questions and one of the general managers— totally unprompted—stood up and said that she had become a Best Western Plus hotel earlier in the year and she used to be behind in rates in the marketplace. She just decided to raise the rates $10 since she became a Best Western Plus hotel and she’s getting it. She’s now the leader in the market in terms of the rates that are charged. Her revenue has gone up significantly as a result of converting her hotel to a Best Western Plus. That’s the kind of success story that I find the most heartwarming and gratifying because that’s the whole purpose of doing this program.

3. MS: How has the program benefited Best Western owners as well as travelers?

DK: The feedback relating to our owners is all along the same lines about it’s either that they are able to get a higher average rate or they’re able to get a high occupancy as a result. And the other one that I hear periodically, and it’s one of our objectives as well, is to avoid people from walking into one of our Best Western hotels and saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this is a Best Western.’

When people make that comment, I don’t necessarily look at it as a compliment. Maybe a compliment for that hotel, but it’s not complimentary for the brand. But since we’ve rolled out the descriptors I’ve seldom heard that kind of compliment. So it’s seems like the consumers who are staying at our hotels, and especially if they’re staying at Best Western Plus hotels or Premier hotels, are understanding that they are staying at a different type of hotel and therefore the expectation has changed accordingly. This is really objective of the program, to enable the consumers to determine what type of hotel they want to stay at and to make those decisions intelligently and also allow us to be able to set the expectations so we can always meet or exceed that expectation.

4. MS: What do you hope to achieve with the program going forward? Is there a ratio of Best Western, Plus, and Premier properties you hope to meet?

DK: We don’t really have any set mix of descriptors we are trying to achieve. It’s really to enable our existing hotels to position themselves as they see fit, it’s an incentive for these hotels to invest in their properties, upgrade the product experience, and be able to get a return on investment. So imagine if you were a two-diamond hotel previously; whether you invested the money or not you’re going to be called a Best Western. There’s not much incentive there, right? So now if you’re able to invest the money you can become a Best Western Plus hotel, and that allows you to position yourself differently and thereby able to appeal to a new customer set and charge a higher average rate. That is an incentive for them to do that, there’s a return on investment to do that. So it gives them that motivation to keep improving their hotel. This sets up what I call a virtuous circle.

If the hotels have motivation to keep investing in the hotel, they’re able to provide a better customer experience. A better customer experience in turn drives better guest loyalty, and loyalty to the Best Western brand. That loyalty to the Best Western brand in turn drives more business to the hotel, and that in turn provides motivation for our hotels to keep improving. So it sets up a virtuous circle, which is a very good thing. Now everyone wins. The brand wins, the customer wins, and the hotel wins.

Going forward, the proof is really in the pudding. There’s no easing up in what we do. In fact, I see a lot of opportunities for us to fine tune our program and make it even more powerful than what it is today. Just because we launched the program, I don’t want people to think that, ‘Oh, the work is done.’ The work has just begun. There has to be a significant amount of sales and marketing efforts put forth, there has to be some quality assurance in design efforts that we undertake with the membership. But all this is a good thing. This hard work is going to have a huge payoff because now we have the foundation to be really successful.

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