Best Western’s new story
Launch of descriptor program aims to set expectations for guests, drive revenue for membership.
After more than 80 town hall meetings with owners; consumer and travel agent research studies; and a big push by President and CEO David Kong, Best Western International (BWI) members have approved a new marketing strategy that slots hotels into three midscale tiers—Premier, Plus and traditional Best Western. The goal, says Kong, is to clarify and set expectations for guests, who until now could have had less than predictable experiences with the brand.
Starting in February 2011 when the re-branding officially kicks off with consumers, there will be approximately 10 to 12 hotels moving up to the Premier level (currently 34 applications)—the first being the Best Western Eden Inn & Suites in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—and about 850 reaching up to Plus status. Existing members of BWI’s Atrea brand are also being encouraged to re-brand as Premier as the company has no plans to further develop this recently launched brand. In many cases, owners will have to make investments in upgrades, ranging from signage and landscaping to lighting and flat screen TVs. Even with this planned rollout, which will advance globally late next year, the majority of the 2,200-plus hotel system will still be operating in the traditional Best Western tier.
This product descriptor program to enhance the brand’s image with consumers and help compete with the likes of Courtyard by Marriott and Hilton Garden Inn is expected to immediately drive rate index up 5% to 10%, according to Kong. In fact, he says, research showed a 20% to 25% bounce for hotels who move up to Plus and as much as 50% for new Premier hotels. This move also comes on the heels of some 500 hotels being removed from the system to improve the overall quality.
“Now that we spell out the differences in our portfolio, we can get more traction in various travel agent programs [business, leisure],” Kong says. “Until now, they didn’t know how to think about Best Western. With independent travelers, we feel we can generate 30% to 40% more business by better explaining ourselves. There will be a halo effect, too, with more customers trying our different types of hotels, depending on the occasion.” Today, BWI annually generates about US$4 billion in revenue in the United States alone.
Passing The Test
The descriptor program was hotly debated throughout the BWI system and Kong says the reason it passed was that it was well designed and took away most of the owner discomfort.
“We were careful not to use the terms ‘segmentation’ or ‘tiering,’ and we are not changing any fee structures or voting rights,” Kong says, adding that owners were initially fearful of losing equal voting rights, escalating fee structures and disproportionate ad dollars going toward any one segment. “We were very engaging with the membership to make them a part of the process. We capitalized on their thinking and made sure the program is relevant and on point.”
Kong also made it clear that he was not concerned about how many hotels sit in each tier. “This is all about driving revenue,” he says. “The metrics will be RFPs, RevPAR index and increased revenue.” To that end, BWI will also focus on updating its website and search engine optimization programs to make the descriptor strategy more visible to consumers.
To further get the word out, sales clients will get educational sessions, virtual tours and every effort will be made to explain how agents can work BWI hotels into their sales programs. For consumer, there will be public relations and advertising campaigns. “We will push hard toward the February launch date and leverage the current US$60 million budget,” Kong says.
After the launch, Kong adds it will be important to enforce the integrity of the program to avoid perpetuating any confusion with customers. Then it will be time to entice developers, who Kong says already are showing more interest with 12 applications under review—three at the Premier level.
—By Jeff Weinstein, Editor In Chief - HOTELS Magazine