Best Western’s Kong: “We do not shirk our responsibilities”

KongBest Western has spent more than $3 billion in the last three years to upgrade, renovate, convert or construct new hotels in North America. It also separated from hundreds of so-called “underperforming” hotels. I asked Best Western’s chief executive, David Kong, what these changes will mean to customers.

What was wrong with the old Best Western?

The old Best Western was right for its time, and while our brand promise hasn’t changed, every brand needs to evolve to stay fresh and relevant to customers. This has meant product enhancements but also exciting partnerships with AAA, Harley Davidson, Michael Waltrip Racing, and the World Vision child sponsorship organization. We have also made great strides in social media, with an award-winning blog at youmustbetrippin.com, active Twitter and Facebook followings, and robust mobile booking and trip-planning tools.

Can you give me a Reader’s Digest version of what you’re doing?

We engaged the Boston Consulting Group several years ago to help us formulate a product strategy. We have been following up on their recommendations to update our standards and enhance our compliance systems, separate from hotels that detract from the brand, and accept only high-quality hotels that will enhance the brand image.

We also introduced the Best Western Atrea prototype, an upper-midscale design which competes with chains like Hyatt Place, Hilton Garden Inn and Courtyard by Marriott. We have four of these hotels open now and 28 more on the way by the end of 2010. We have also rolled out our Business Plus program with over 600 hotels that will provide a higher level of services valued by corporate travelers.

What are customers are likely to find at a new Best Western hotel that they didn’t see before?

Our brand is fresher than ever, because our promise of service, quality and value is in sync with today’s consumer mindset. Our guests will find many of same amenities they have at home, including triple sheeting on high-quality mattresses, flat-screen television sets, and breakfast. That said, I read thousands of guest comment cards, and the overwhelming majority focus on the service experience. So while good product is a price of entry, service is the key to satisfaction.

For us, that’s about helping hotel staff find common sense, everyday ways to show compassion and caring and to make guests feel valued. This is the essence of our I Care training program.

I was really interested when I heard you’re eliminating some underperforming hotels. That’s something hotel executives don’t talk about a lot, at least to outsiders. How many hotels are you getting rid of?

We have separated from more than 500 properties in the past five years. For a membership organization, it is always painful to see a member leave. Most hotel brands don’t even have close to this number of hotels. It really demonstrates our commitment to build a strong and relevant brand promise.

What would be the reasons for eliminating a property?

We may separate from a property if they fail our stringent quality assurance inspections, or they fail to comply with our customer care or design standards.

One of the most common complaints I get from Best Western customers is something I like to call the “punt” — it’s a guest grievance that’s appealed to corporate Best Western, but that is denied because your hotels are independently owned and operated. Are you planning any changes in the way of accountability for Best Western franchises?

Properties are much better equipped to handle guest complaints than the corporate office because the stay and the complaint took place at the hotel. When a guest complains, our hotel must make contact within 48 hours, and to avoid a fine, the issue must be resolved within one week.

Best Western hotel staffs have made great strides in reducing and resolving guest complaints before the guest leaves the hotel. The number of customers calling our corporate office has decreased by about 50 percent in the past two years as a result of all our customer care initiatives. During that same time, customer satisfaction and “intent to recommend” ratings have reflected strong improvement.

That said, our brand promise comes with an implied satisfaction guarantee, and we do not shirk our responsibilities if an unhappy customer contacts the brand. Our corporate customer care team does its very best to problem-solve and find resolutions.

Are any upgrades planned when it comes to training Best Western hotels and their employees in dealing with customers?

Three years ago, we launched a brand-wide customer care program called I Care to train our member hoteliers to deliver “heroic hospitality.” Our mandatory I Care training is about building a caring culture that empowers every employee to spot common sense opportunities to demonstrate compassion and make guests feel valued. If there are issues, we want our employees to quickly resolve them with a smile before they fester into bigger problems. In addition, we provide frequent certification training sessions for front desk and housekeeping staff.

Phase two of I Care will roll out in 2010. It will incorporate additional training designed to enhance trust between our hoteliers and their guests, as well as a total quality management approach to prevent problems from recurring.

I get a lot of comments about fees and surcharges on hotel bills. As part of Best Western’s chain-wide improvements, are you planning to deal with the issue of price transparency?

Being a brand known for offering value, hidden surcharges are very rare at a Best Western hotel. Amenities like parking, Internet, breakfast, and resort facilities are frequently included in the room rate. Taxes are communicated to the customer prior to final purchase, which is industry practice.

Some travel experts are calling 2010 the Year of the Deal. Is that true for Best Western hotels?

The pundits are forecasting a soft year for the industry. Our guests can expect to see great bargains and frequent, rich promotions.

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