Best Western, Not Good Western

“Bonjour, y'all,” quipped Charlie Helm, greeting more than 2,000 Best Western International members at the opening of the membership chain's recent convention in Montreal. Like other Best Western executives, Helm, who is past chairman of its board of directors, presented a glowing picture to attendees of Best Western's North American Conference.

The message was not only to stay the course but also to expand it. Helm cited the growth of Gold Crown Club International (GCCI), the chain's loyalty program; seven new design options unveiled in the past two years, including Atria, its 100-room, business-oriented prototype; and agreement on long-term goals, particularly when it comes to international expansion. Competitive set for Atria will include Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton Inn and Suites.

Best Western plans to be the largest hotel chain in Asia by 2010; in 2001, it boasted six hotels there. There are 106 today, including 32 in China either open or in the pipeline; two are expected to be in operation in Beijing by Aug. 8, 2008, the opening of the Olympics.

Helm's pep talk was a soft opening for David Kong, who is about to enter his fifth year as Best Western president and CEO. Wearing a goalie mask in honor of Montreal's hockey heritage, Kong entered to amused applause. “He said I might need it,” Kong told Helm, referring to the mask. “But he has no idea about what I did before Best Western.” Kong declined to illuminate that piquant statement.

Kong said 2007 has been another record year for Best Western, a brand known more for breadth than evenness. Under Kong's leadership, however, that has begun to change. According to Helm, Best Western terminated 188 properties in 2007, opened 82 new ones and has 124 in the pipeline. And Kong noted that its $1.2 billion in worldwide revenue signified an 11.2-percent increase over that of 2006. In addition, Gold Crown Club membership grew by two percent in 2007.

Still, Kong said, consistency remains evasive. And it is key to the ongoing success of the brand, he said, citing studies by the Boston Consulting Group, the firm Best Western hired last year. “Our first priority must be to deliver a consistent experience,” Kong said. Not in the cards: segmentation, which Best Western has dabbled in with Premiere, an upscale version of the brand available in Europe and, to a lesser extent, its key growth market, Asia. Boston Consulting, Kong reported, was against segmentation — officially, Premiere is not a segment but a “descriptor” — because it would lead to consumer confusion.

On the technological front, Kong said bestwestern.com, the flag's website, books $1.5 million in reservations daily, more than all third-party sources combined. “The Internet used to be where you went to find deals,” he said. “Now it's where people go to find experiences.”

That paradigm shift is one reason 2008 will be the year of caring for Best Western, Kong said, unveiling the brand's I Care program. It will involve greater emphasis on training and will have to become part of the culture of all 4,200-plus Best Western properties, he said. “Some people tell me it's a pipe dream,” Kong said. “I don't agree.”

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