HB ON THE SCENE: Best Western pushes HQ hotel, experiences

NASHVILLE—While the setting was here in Music City for its annual convention, there was nothing honky-tonk about Best Western Hotels & Resorts’ strategies for the coming months, presented to some 2,600 attendees last month at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel.

“Best Western is doing well,” President/CEO David Kong told the crowd. “But we also need to be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of complacency and lull ourselves into thinking our future will take care of itself.  Our future depends on our imagination, and our continued motivation and passion. In a world where everything is evolving so fast, when consumer expectations are being reset all the time and our competitors, OTAs and disrupters are all trying their best to take our market share, we must use our imagination to compete.”

To give itself a leg up on the competition, the association is building a dual-purpose hotel proximate its headquarters in Phoenix.

The first 100% corporate-owned property, which will be a working 138-key hotel, also will include “innovation” rooms for each of Best Western’s brands so developers and new managers can experience the latest in brand offerings. It also will feature a lounge, full-service restaurant, pool and 7,500 sq. ft. of meeting space.

“We have a need to showcase the different kinds of products that we have. People want to see what a Vib room looks like, or a Glo room or Executive Residency room, or how a Best Western room compares to Best Western Plus or Best Western Premier,” Kong told Hotel Business.

“We are in the supply/procurement business, also. We have all these furniture packages—all the things hotels can buy. People want to see it and touch it and feel it in the hotel room,” the CEO added. “We do a lot of training in our campus and we wanted all the general managers and all the people who come for training to experience [the brands]firsthand, not just theoretical training in a classroom setting.”

The hotel will be open to the public; however, one floor will be dedicated to the brand “innovation” rooms.

Construction on the property is slated to begin in second-quarter 2018.

It’s a deal
Piquing developer interest also is coming in the form of a limited-time offer, according to SVP/COO Ron Pohl.

“One thing I have learned over the years about hotel development: Everyone wants a deal, a good deal. I thought, ‘Why not have a member convention special for development?’” he said. So, like a Black Friday special, the Best Western board authorized the executive to offer a deal to current members if they would commit to developing a Best Western-branded hotel.

To add intrigue, Pohl said he emailed all BW voting members the offer—without saying what it is—together with a letter of intent (LOI). On the form, members would indicate to which city or cities they would commit to developing a hotel, which brand and submit the information before year’s end.

“Our development team will begin to source opportunities for you,” Pohl told attendees. “These things take time, but you must be willing to submit an application within the next 12 months to take advantage of this offer. But you need to act quickly; you need to submit the LOI no later than December 31, 2017.”

And the “surprise incentive” of the deal? Hotel Business found out those who commit and submit get their first year’s fees waived.

“That’s huge,” said Kong.

And something expected to resonate strongly with the membership.  “Almost 35-40% of our deals come from our existing members today,” noted Best Western Chairman Terry Bichsel.

With more than 530 hotels in the pipeline globally, Pohl suggested if 10% or 20% of members at convention “committed to a new project with us, we could double our pipeline today.”

And fresh off the introduction earlier this year of its eleventh brand, BW Signature Collection by Best Western, the association made a similar move with its loyalty program, launching “Experiences by Best Western Rewards.”

The initiative is designed to bolster the already-robust program—it contributes almost 44% of gross rooms revenue and is expected to deliver more than $1.7 billion in revenue to BW’s North American hotels this year—by expanding the range of offerings BWR members can put their points toward.   

Initial experiences include offerings in Orlando, New York City, Las Vegas, Arizona and Paris and will be in tandem with stays at BW’s highest-performing hotels in those locations.

“Our Rewards members will be able see the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon by rail or by air, experience culinary delights that only Paris has to offer, see a Broadway show in New York City or be able to take the kids to Walt Disney World,” said SVP/Chief Marketing Officer Dorothy Dowling.

Hotels currently in the mix for the “Experiences” program include The Florida Hotel & Conference Center, BW Premier Collection; Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn; Best Western Premier Herald Square; the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower, BW Premier Collection; and several BW Premier Collection properties in Paris.

This spring, Rewards members also will be introduced to BWR Bot, a conversational agent for Facebook Messenger that will help them “get the most” out of their membership.

“We have to be where consumers are going,” said Dowling. “Today’s consumer expects responsiveness. Whatever it is they’re looking for, they need it right now. Due to that sense of urgency, voice-command technology continues to rise in popularity in today’s marketplace. Google Home, Siri, and countless others are in our homes and in our lives… The world has gone mobile, with messaging applications now taking the lead on how consumers prefer to communicate.”

The way Best Western has been wrangling communication has seen increased satisfaction scores as a result of a pilot program of its mobile guest engagement tool that allows for streamlined check-in/-out, giving a green light for a global launch of the platform.

Initially in beta at 360 Best Western properties, through a partnership with technology provider Runtriz, it provides web-based guest-communications tools pre-arrival, on-property and at checkout, without the guest needing to download a smartphone app. Members who tested the platform reported “significant increases in guest satisfaction, overall experience and increased room revenue through native upselling and advertising functions,” with Medallia Net Promoter Scores (NPS) increasing by as much as 18 points for guests using the platform’s mobile requests feature, according to Best Western. RevPAR also increased almost $1 for every two-point NPS increase.

Guests may customize their communications for email or text and will have access to sign-up links and integration with the Best Western Rewards loyalty program, as well as TripAdvisor-driven local information curated for the hotel’s location and in the guest’s preferred language. Guests may also purchase upgrades, request service and request a ride with Uber directly.

On the hotel side, management can respond to guest requests, make staff-to-staff requests, filter requests and track/monitor activity.

Like Dowling, Pohl sees this particular initiative as yet another global advancement for the association. “We believe this is the beginning of a true evolution in guest communication, and we look forward to what is to come down the road,” he said.

Toward this, Best Western already is heading down another technology avenue. At the Best Western Plus Oceanside Palms in California, the company is beta-testing integration with the voice-controlled personal assistant, Amazon Dot.

“Imagine what our guests can use the Dot for—like ‘I have a compliment. What is David Kong’s phone number?’” laughed the CEO. “Seriously, imagine our guests using the Dot to leave wake-up calls, request additional towels or ask common questions… This technology is empowering to the guests. It creates a special connection with them, and it will also make things more efficient for us.”

While Kong noted messaging platforms and the Amazon Dot “are contemporary and relevant ways” to connect with guests, he stressed, “Nothing beats service from the heart.”

He praised members who came to the fore during the country’s recent spate of natural disasters, providing shelter and respite for displaced persons despite, in some cases, being affected themselves. 

“Many of our members went above and beyond to help those displaced from their homes,” said Kong.

Brand activity
With the member association now at almost a dozen brands, the CEO felt the organization is “doing very well” across all of them. With an overall RevPAR Index of 110, Kong said this year about 40% of all approved applications are for its newer brands, with that statistic expected to jump to 50% in 2018.

A sampling of some newer brand activity indicates Vib has 18 approved applications, with the first two in North America to open in Staten Island, NY, and Springfield, MO. Midscale boutique entry Glo has 30 in the pipeline and three under construction, while its extended-stay offering, Executive Residency by Best Western, has two open, four under construction and 42 applications approved, with many dual-branded with Best Western Plus, Premier or a Vib.

At convention last year, Best Western debuted a white-label economy brand, SureStay Hotels, and delved into a franchise model. Twenty-five are open already and there are 19 in the pipeline.

The Best Western conference featured a trade show.

Pohl told Hotel Business while there are limited opportunities for Vib and Glo in Europe, where conversions are leading growth, “there are huge opportunities for Best Western Signature Collection and Best Western Premier Collection, because 70% of Europe is unbranded today. They’re independent hotels and they want to maintain their independence… In Asia, it’s a lot of new-construction. They still want luxury, but are looking to go upper-midscale because they haven’t had a lot of brands in that segment. So, Glo is very attractive there; Best Western Plus is still very attractive there. We’re having more developers that want limited-service versus full-service in Asia, and we see an emerging middle market of customers that had to go to luxury hotels more so in Asia in the past; now, there’s a segment there that says: ‘Hey, there’s a demand here.’ India and China are perfect examples of great opportunities for growth.”

The association’s soft brand BW Premier Collection, which earlier this year snagged Las Vegas’ iconic Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower along with the Aquarius Casino Resort in nearby Laughlin, NV, has 73 open globally and its latest soft-brand entry BW Signature Collection has four approved applications.

“With today’s trend of customization, travelers want more options. Our new brands help us expand our portfolio of offerings. By offering more options, our brand becomes more relevant and desirable,” said Kong. HB

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