As part of the Americas Lodging Investment Summit’s Patron sponsorship program, ALIS asked Best Western Hotels & Resorts CEO David Kong eight timely questions as we prepare for the 20th annual event July 26-28, 2021, at the JW Marriott/Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles L.A. LIVE. Following are his responses.
You have been Best Western’s CEO since 2004, which makes you the dean of hotel company CEOs. What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned since taking the role?
As leaders many of us can make decisions unilaterally and that would certainly speed things up, but I have learned that there is a price to that approach. Unilateral decisions tend not to be well thought out and often times are not the best … I have learned over time that embracing diversity in opinions enables one to make better decisions. As leaders we should be the last to provide our opinions, so we don’t stifle other people’s potential contributions.Demonstrating that we are keen on wanting other people’s viewpoint through being humble, respectful, and inquisitive will allow others to open up and share their ideas. Aligning strategic intent, being considerate and open minded to the value of someone else’s idea enables us to make more effective decisions. The inclusivity also builds buy-in and support. This is probably the most important lesson I have learned since becoming CEO.
During your tenure, Best Western has grown from one brand to 18 (Aiden, Best Western, Best Western Executive Residency, Best Western Plus, Best Western Premier, Best Western Signature, Glō, Sadie, SureStay, SureStay Plus, SureStay Signature Collection, SureStay Studio, Vīb, WorldHotels Collection, WorldHotels Luxury, WorldHotels Distinctive, WorldHotels Elite, WorldHotels Crafted). Why is it important for Best Western to have multiple brands under its umbrella, and are there plans to add any more brands in the future?
People want choices – just stand in line at Starbucks and listen to the many ways people order coffee. Another illustration of this – every major car manufacturer has at least three or four models of SUVs, sedans, and hybrid/electric vehicles.
Similarly, people have different travel needs depending on their travel occasions. In today’s fast-paced, competitive marketplace, we need to protect and grow our market share. Therefore, we must have a diverse portfolio of products with different price points in different markets to keep our existing guests and expand our customer base. We now have hotels across all chain-scale segments – from economy to luxury. We also have extended-stay, soft brands, boutique/lifestyle brands, new-construction, and conversion brands. This allows us to meet the varied needs of our customers, clients, and developers. We will continue evolving our offerings to meet the changing needs and preferences of today’s travelers.
As the global hotel industry prepares for its recovery, what do you see as the most important first steps Best Western should take, and how does that differ from other hotel companies?
From the earliest days of the pandemic, we took unprecedented steps to ease the financial burden facing our hoteliers so they can survive and eventually recover. In addition, we have provided timely guidance on operating standards, enhanced cleaning protocol and access to government relief programs. At this time, when recovery is in sight, we have to think about changes in guest behavior and expectation post-pandemic. We have recently engaged a top-tier consulting firm to help us understand these changes and advise on a recovery strategy. We expect the recommendations to address potential changes in brand standards, approach to sales and marketing, and how we can better meet and exceed guest expectations.
Most people have endured tremendous hardship during the pandemic. We have a good opportunity to establish an emotional connection with them by expressing our empathy and support and thereby build brand preference and loyalty.
What should hotel owners be doing now to prepare for the recovery, including the expected rush of U.S. leisure travelers hitting the road this summer.
Despite their tremendous hardship through this pandemic, we have advised our hoteliers to continue going above and beyond in service to our guests. Although we remain in a challenging environment, we must continue to meet and exceed guest expectations in cleanliness, upkeep, service, quality, etc. The level and quality of care we provide our guests today will not only determine whether they return tomorrow, but their intent to recommend our brand long after the pandemic has passed.
I have been inspired by the many stories of caring our hoteliers have shared with us, from stories of service to their local communities, to providing safe, hospitable accommodations to front line workers, to a genuine desire to provide a home-away-from-home to travelers during this challenging time. It has been a deep point of pride to see our hoteliers’ spirit of caring come to life in such meaningful ways.
What role should the hotel industry play in the social justice movement that the world is currently experiencing?
Our customers are diverse so our employee base should reflect that diversity. I am passionate about the importance of inclusivity and supporting all of those facing diversity challenges. It’s a well-known fact that women and other minority groups are under-represented in leadership positions in our industry. The glass ceiling is real. We must shatter it.
What role will technology have in hotels as the 2020s emerge?
The pandemic has sped up technology adoption – especially in the areas of touchless and mobile. Think about how easy it is to order takeout from a restaurant. You can complete your selection and pay within seconds, and the food will be ready for you when you arrive at the restaurant. I expect mobile bookings, cashless payment, and touchless check-ins/menus/guest directories to be widely adopted in the months to come.
What do you view as the most important indicator of success in the hotel business?
Most people would consider RevPAR, RevPAR Index and EBITDA to be the most important indicators of success. My personal viewpoint is they are important, and they are lagging indicators (after the fact). If we want to control the future, we may want to pay attention to leading indicators such as guest satisfaction and employee engagement. In addition, revenue management will play an increasingly pivotal role so the accuracy of the forecasts and yield decisions will also become an increasingly important consideration.
What’s the one takeaway people should know about David Kong?
Material things are not important, but life is too short to drink cheap wine.