The growth of online reservations has been so dramatic in the past two years that automation-resistant Best Western members who fail to capitalize on Internet booking potential will miss the boat, Best Western executives say.

That warning came through loud and clear in Phoenix in late October when Best Western International held its annual conference.

“Through September of this year, the net rate programs delivered over $10 million in revenue, versus just over $5 million in 2004,” Scott Gibson, CIO and distribution senior vice president, told some 2,300 attendees. That $5 million represents nearly 10 percent of the total revenue increase year-to-date in 2005. And it went to “just a few hundred of you,” he added.

He and Dorothy Dowling, Best Western's senior vice president of marketing, suggested that the only way Best Western can compete is to modernize. Gibson strongly urged attendees to install two-way interfaces at their hotels so field and corporate are on the same real-time page. Dowling noted that Best Western will upgrade its loyalty program and beef up its inside sales team to attract corporate travel business that has begun to stray from the flag.

Ric Leutwyler, senior VP of brand quality and member service, amplified a chorus blending complaint and praise. He noted that certain customer service satisfaction measures have fallen off. At the same time, he touted a new general manager professional development program and fresh emphasis on design and revenue management.

Overall, the Best Western corporate message was incremental. What gave it substance was President and CEO David Kong's moving opening speech. In addition to the expected praise and initiatives — Kong cited a 10.4-percent increase in reservation conversion over last year, a highly successful summer promotion through Nickelodeon and a 70-percent reduction in Internet booking fees — he stressed Best Western's response to the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita this past fall.

To underscore his claim that the soul of the flag is a “customer-centric culture,” Kong presented a video of a trip he took to the Gulf Coast in early October. Edited down to five minutes from five hours of footage, the video left the audience speechless — and, often, in tears.

Kong then gave Dawn Boteler, owner of the Best Western Westbank in Harvey, LA, the flag's Best Western Distinguished Service Award for Boteler's work in hurricane relief. Boteler and his family evacuated to Florida before Katrina hit, but he hired a small plane to fly him back to Harvey to reopen his hotel to the Red Cross and other emergency workers.

Boteler tearfully and gratefully accepted the award. Later, he said he would do anything for Kong, whom he called an exceptional leader.

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