How David Kong is keeping 67-year-old Best Western relevant through the customer experience

David Kong, President and CEO, Best Western International Inc.

David Kong, President and CEO, Best Western International Inc.

When you stay in a hotel there are so many things that could go wrong. The hotel could lose your reservation, a TV remote control might not work, a light could be burnt out, the air conditioner may be noisy, or in David Kong’s case, the room may not contain an iron and ironing board.

On a trip to Germany to attend a black-tie event, Kong’s attire became wrinkled while traveling. His hotel had no extra irons or ironing boards, but the staff took his clothes and got them ironed. The next day, the staff bought a new iron and ironing board for his room and also sent a fruit basket to apologize for what had happened.

“My impression of the hotel went sky high, because they went out of the way to make it right,” says Kong, president and CEO of Best Western International Inc. “When something goes wrong, it’s an opportunity to build guest loyalty if you take care of the problem correctly.”

The customer experience is exactly what Kong is focusing on to keep the Best Western brand relevant after nearly seven decades. Headquartered in Phoenix, Ariz., Best Western International Inc. is the world’s largest hotel family with more than 4,000 hotels in more than 100 countries and territories. The company has 1,200 corporate employees and annual revenue of more than $6 billion worldwide.

Over the past eight years, Kong has been working diligently to build and capitalize on Best Western’s strengths surrounding the customer experience.

Here is what he and his team at Best Western have done to keep the company’s brand relevant through the years.

 

Unlock potential

When Kong joined Best Western, most of his friends couldn’t understand why he would make the move to Phoenix to work for the midscale hotel.

“I saw tremendous potential at Best Western, and I wanted to be a part of the team to unlock that potential,” Kong says. “When I started as CEO, I wanted to define the key strengths of Best Western but also look at how we can make the brand more relevant and contemporary.”

The Best Western brand is 67 years old, making it the most senior hotel brand. Kong’s objective was to not appear as anything less than relevant and contemporary and to fit with today’s customer tastes.

“In that regard, we had a concerted effort in separating from hotels that detract from the brand, meaning they didn’t provide the cleanliness, upkeep or service that the brand should be known for,” he says.

Best Western split from more than 1,000 hotels during the last eight years and implemented standards that ensured delivery on the brand promise. The hotel family also created partnerships with Harley Davidson, Disney, AAA and others to not only penetrate those customer bases but better position the Best Western brand.

“We’ve done a lot in terms of how we keep the brand relevant and contemporary and deliver on the brand promise,” Kong says. “That was just step one. You have to do the basics.”

Kong also thought that Best Western needed to be known for certain aspects of the hospitality industry, so the company launched the I Care Clean program, which uses UV wands for cleaning and black light for inspecting cleanliness in rooms. It also launched the Descriptor program, which allows travelers to choose the Best Western that meets their needs out of the company’s three different hotels — Best Western, Best Western Plus and Best Western Premier.

“Ultimately, when I talk about unlocking potential and looking at who we are and what we stand for and capitalizing on that, it’s really about what is Best Western,” Kong says. “If you look at how Best Western is different from any other hotel brand, it’s because we have some very caring, sincere, salt-of-the-earth type of owners in our brand who are very passionate about the brand.

“The big opportunity for us was to capitalize on that, because that is something we have at Best Western that nobody else has and we want to turn that into something that’s relevant to the consumer.”

 

Connect with the customer

To drive that desire forward, Best Western crafted its vision statement to lead the industry in superior customer care. Today, everyone talks about customer service, but in this digital world, the human touch is disappearing very quickly.

“Everybody is focused on innovation, efficiency and productivity like using kiosks to check in and ordering food and beverage from a tablet computer, and there is very little chance to interact with the guests,” Kong says.

“Our industry is the hospitality industry, and it’s about hospitality and caring for people. We have made that our vision, and we started to create programs to capitalize on how we care more than anybody else.”

If you’re looking to keep your brand relevant or expand upon it, you have to find what you want to be best at.

“Take a look around you, study the environment and assess what the unmet need is,” Kong says. “I talked about us living in a fast-paced digital world and ‘humanity’ is disappearing because people are so focused on efficiency and productivity. So our unmet need was that ‘humanity’ was disappearing.

“Then you have to define yourself. Look at yourself and see if you have any attributes that can be leveraged to capitalize on that unmet need. The third thing is to begin to develop a plan to meet your end goal. The last thing is you set measurements and you make continuous improvement.”

To make the message of caring and top-notch customer experience stick, you have to ingrain it into your culture.

“That cultural shift is what we are working on now,” Kong says. “To live our vision, we have to make sure that every single employee cares. We have put together a cultural change initiative that involves selecting the right employees and giving them the right training and resources.

“It involves aligning all our business systems and business processes along this caring initiative, so at the end of the day, all our people, systems and processes are all aligned to deliver superior customer care.”

Creating this culture change is so important because a lot of companies simply have a program of the day, which is a one-time event rather than a system for creating a company mentality.

“Employees can see right through that,” he says. “It doesn’t stick. You have to have the right people in place. They have to feel empowered. They have to feel like they have all the tools to do what it is that you want them to do. There needs to be compensation systems and performance management systems aligned with that, and it has to be customer-centric.

“All those things need to be lined up. That’s how you can affect the cultural change.”

In addition, the leadership team has to be involved for the cultural change to take effect and for it to be sustained.

“If the leader doesn’t walk the talk, then employees see right through it,” Kong says. “If the leader is always, every day, every moment, living what he is preaching, then people get invigorated and inspired by that. The leadership is everything.”

Through these brand relevance initiatives, Kong and his team at Best Western want to be the dominant player in the broad midscale market.

“If you take all the industry measures, whether it is revenue per available room, market share in that respect, our relationships with all the major buyers, whether they are travel agencies, big corporations or independent travelers — in all those aspects, we want to have the superior market share,” he says.

“Every company should set goals for themselves, because if you don’t set goals, you don’t know whether you’ve gone there or not, and you can’t stay on that path.” ●

 

How to reach: Best Western International Inc.,
(800) 780-7234 or www.bestwestern.com