‘We want to build a strong brand image’

DAVID KONG, president and CEO of Best Western International, spells out the secret of the world’s largest hotel chain’s success to SHAFQUAT ALI
Kong … ‘The UAE offers a huge opportunity for us’

As president and CEO of Best Western International, the world’s largest hotel chain operating under a single brand name, David Kong has a job that’s the envy of top hoteliers. But, to his credit, Kong is neither intimidated nor overwhelmed by his position.

A hospitality industry veteran with more than 35 years of experience, he took over his present job in September 2004 and has been working hard ever since to ensure that Best Western consolidates its position without losing sight of its hallmarks and its unique business model, featuring a diverse and distinctive portfolio of independently owned and operated hotels.
Last month, Kong was delighted as the lodging giant reached another milestone when it welcomed its 4,200th property (Best Western Chester Inn & Suites in Richmond, Virginia) into the membership. As Best Western prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary this year, Kong took time off to speak to TTN. Excerpts from an interview:

TTN: Best Western welcomes more than 300,000 guests to its hotels every night. What does it take to run the world’s largest hotel chain?
David Kong: There are several aspects to it. First of all, I think it is important to maintain a high quality and enforce our brand image to the customer. And we do that through a quality assurance programme – we have satisfaction surveys, we have complaints and comments that we track.
Apart from that, from the company’s perspective, it is important for us to recognise that we are not running a hotel company for North America or for Europe, but rather it is a global company. What I mean is that we have to be respectful to the people, the culture and the history of the different countries that we operate in and customise our hotels for each region.

So how much of the local culture do you integrate when you open a property in a new location?
It’s all about the local culture and we don’t take a cookie-cutter approach to it and tell you that this is what your country looks like. We really leave it up to the local developer to decide what is best for that particular market. Our job is to enable the hotel to successfully compete in the marketplace so we provide the training, the sales and marketing and the operational support. But we encourage the hotelier to establish the hotel in such a way that it will be successful in the domestic market. We leave it to their judgement and that’s why we are careful about whom we bring on to the organisation.

Given that your hotels range from the 14-room Best Western Grandma’s Feather Bed in Juneau to the 672-room Best Western Plaza International in Orlando, how do you review thousands of applications from different categories?
Well, we don’t just accept any hotel. There’s a whole application process that we go through. There’s a review committee that looks at every application and makes sure that not only is it the right representation for us in that market but that it also does not create any unnecessary conflict with hoteliers that are out there already. For example, we don’t want to have two Best Western’s side by side competing in a reservation system.

What are Best Western’s USPs as it taps new markets?
Well, for one, we are a membership organisation, which is very unique. We basically have membership banks and what that really means is that we have very low fees and typically we charge a fraction of what the other franchise brands may charge and yet we provide affordable services. The reason for that is we are not just a profit-driven organisation. We are in the business to generate value for all the hotels that belong to this organisation.

If it’s not profit, what is it then that Best Western strives for?
It’s really the consistent high quality brand image. That’s what we are after. We want to build long-term value for the hotels and a strong brand image.

What opportunities do you see for the brand in the Middle East?
We have some very good representation in the Middle East, especially in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. And we have very nice hotels there that really help the brand image. What we want to do is find the right partners to develop in that entire area and that includes the Gulf Coast, as well as India and Pakistan.

It’s surprising that you have not made a foray into the UAE market…
Well, the UAE market offers a huge opportunity for us and the reason we are waiting is that we need to find the right partner to open there. We don’t want to just rush into it and ruin our opportunity there. There’s a lot to be said about having a brand presence rather than having the right brand presence.

Can you elaborate on the company’s expansion plans?
It may come as a surprise to you that we don’t have big plans to grow our number of hotels because we are already the largest in all the major continents and we don’t want to grow in just the number of hotels. Yes, we want to grow our brand image and brand preference and that means the quality of the brand. And that’s where we are focusing our efforts on.

What are the improvements you have brought about since taking over the top position?
I talk about quality a great deal. I look at quality across the company in all the regions and that’s been steadily improving. We have a quality assurance programme and we also carry out regular audits. In addition, we are also rolling out a global inspection survey soon.
On the revenue side, in 2005, we have increased the revenue production by 11 per cent which is remarkable given that figure is almost double of what the industry is doing on a global basis. As far as reservations go, we are finding ways to reduce the cost. The electronic channel is very important and we are spending more money there.

That’s not surprising since, on average, Best Western books $1 million of revenue through its web site every other day…
That’s right. Best Western International also set an industry record for gross bookings on its web site last year and, currently, internet bookings comprise close to 50 per cent of all our reservations. So, we have recently added six different languages our website and we will also be adding virtual tours on the website.

Any innovations on the card?
Well, the innovation is really going to be on improving the customer experience and I don’t mean that from a product sense. The innovation that I want to bring about will be experiential in nature meaning how we can create a unique guest experience by connecting with them on a more emotional level. And sometimes when, I think about that, it’s all about going back to basics. The little things that show the act of kindness, the sensitivity and the caring – that’s what we, in the hospitality industry, need to think more about and bring back.

Having started from the bottom up, what unique understanding of the industry did you bring to the table?
I have worked my way up from a busboy in a restaurant to being general managers of leading hotels to my present position. I have been with hotel operations in the domestic level, the regional level and also at the international corporate level. So, I think, I brought a unique understanding which helped things operationally and functionally at the hotel level without losing sight of the bigger picture at the corporate level.