HB ON THE SCENE: At 70, successes, SureStay & strategy mark BW’s convention

PHOENIX—Continuing to celebrate its 70th birthday year during the 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 100 years 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 (see story, Hotel Business, Nov. 7, 2016).

The pending property shift was one of several highlights being touted during the convention, 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.”

Welcoming attendees, Terry Porter, 2016 chairman of Best Western’s board of directors, set the tone by recalling some of the milestones the organization achieved since starting out in 1946 as a small network of motels and growing to more than 4,100 member properties worldwide.

“We may be 70 years old but we have demonstrated we are still very young and daring,” said Porter. He added that although change has been significant over seven decades, what hasn’t changed is “We are still hoteliers who care about guests.”

“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 programs or introducing new technology. In short, many of them are reinventing themselves to be relevant for today’s travelers.”

Ron Pohl, SVP/brand management, described ways to optimize ROI via design.

Ron Pohl, SVP/brand management, described ways to optimize ROI via design.

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 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 have strong pipelines, and GLo recently saw three groundbreakings on the same day. Morever, 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, a 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. 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 (see story, Hotel Business, Nov. 7, 2016).

Recently, the association debuted a revamped website (bestwestern.com) powered by a new digital platform that adapts to the screen size of the device a customer is using.

Best Western has been in a transformative process of its digital capabilities and, according to Greg Adams, VP/chief digital officer, thus far, the chain has completed more than 150 projects and 5,700 enhancements to its technology platforms.

“These projects and enhancements have increased our ability to deliver value to our members and international hotel partners in a number of ways, including enabling our brand refresh, the globalization of the Best Western Rewards program, the rollout of a new co-branded credit card and virtual membership cards,” he said.

“We also expanded our distribution platforms by connecting to Expedia, Booking.com, Ctrip, TripAdvisor and Agoda. We’ve added [more than]130 new connections to third-party partners through our push-distribution platform, bringing the total number of Best Western third-party connections to more than 300,” Adams said.

Other strategies include enabling the BestREV revenue management system to integrate with the PMS, installing a two-way PMS at more than 1,200 international hotels and completing upgrades to infrastructure hardware, networking, data storage, database servers and two-way servers.

“This may not sound exciting until you realize these systems drive close to $6 million a day to our hotels around the world,” said Adams, adding, “This infrastructure also supports the work we’ve done in preparation to launch our new white-label brand, the SureStay Hotel Group.”

Dorothy Dowling, SVP/CMO, noted content would be key in 2017.

Dorothy Dowling, SVP/CMO, noted content would be key in 2017.

Dorothy Dowling, SVP/chief marketing officer, noted as part of getting the word out on Best Western’s efforts, the organization would be making a “strategic shift of some of our traditional television dollars so that we can invest more in digital advertising on desktop and mobile to reach both business and leisure travelers. We need to be purposeful and smart about where we are investing resources… Digital advertising is where we will make an emotional connection.”

Advertising will remain on television, but on programming considered “in the moment,” such as news and sports. Best Western also will continue its relationships with Major League Baseball and Disney.

Dowling added that next year, content also would be “a big part” of efforts to reach customers, and the chain will launch the virtual Best Western Travel Zone content studio, which will include content features, videos, Instagram images and influential bloggers.

In addition, an enhancement initiative around its loyalty program dubbed Best Western Rewards Refresh also is underway.

“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, members are spending close to $2 billion for renovations, many yielding “dramatic transformations,” helping drive improvement in average rates and RevPAR.

“Not surprisingly, these hotels are seeing huge improvements in their Medallia scores… Our design program is not just enhancing our brand image; it also is enhancing our hotels’ asset values,” added Kong.

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 ensuring 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… The new logos also will help in differentiating our brands. In North America, over half of our hotels are on target to have new signs before the end of the year,” said Kong.

Greg Adams, VP/chief digital officer, detailed infrastructure enhancements for the crowd.

Greg Adams, VP/chief digital officer, detailed infrastructure enhancements for the crowd.

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.

The CEO noted it’s often a “fine balance” Best Western’s board needs to maintain between “caring for our members who are struggling and enforcing compliance on behalf of the whole membership. That’s not an easy task. In the past 10 years, we have separated from 1,200 hotels. Think about it: How many brands have more than 1,000 hotels? Not many. This truly demonstrates our commitment to quality.”

Pohl noted as of mid-October, Best Western opened 76 hotels this year. “An average of one new opening every four days,” he said. These included 22 Best Western, 41 Best Western Plus, four Best Western Premier and eight Best Western Priority Club properties.

“We are growing all of our brands,” said Pohl. “We have a good balance in the portfolio while we are selective and quality-oriented. We have two priorities: First, to grow hotels in primary markets, with an emphasis on new construction and developing key brands such as Vib, Premier and Premier Collection; second, Best Western and Best Western Plus hotels [will]remain at the center of our growth strategy.”

In commenting on Best Western’s overall longevity, Kong observed, “In the past 70 years, many brands have come and gone. Our success can be attributed to our unique membership structure. It allows us to have a singular focus—helping our members to be more successful. Unlike franchise brands, our interests are always aligned. We are always on the same side.”

The executive stressed Best Western would continue to push forward across the board in understanding what’s new and noteworthy in hospitality and among lodging’s influencers, such as Google. “It’s a brave, new world. It’s mind boggling, but it should not be scary. We must not be afraid of change; change is a constant in life. We must embrace it and use it to our advantage.

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

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