Best Western: it won’t be a boring night
Pamela Whitby chats to the CEO of Best Western about the Channel 4 series that launches this evening, its new marketing campaign and why the appetite for tech innovation has never been stronger
Shortly before the summer of 2019, when Channel 4 began filming the documentary A very British Hotel Chain: Inside Best Western, the world was a very different place. Cut to May 2020 and, as the three-part series airs this evening at 9pm, only 70 of the group’s 250-plus properties remain open. They are among the hotels giving key workers in local authorities a welcome and convenient break from their work tackling the coronavirus crisis.
“We had a really good start to the year [sighs]… but then we had Covid,” says Rob Paterson, the CEO Best Western, Great Britain, the nation’s largest independent hotel chain which actually has roots in the US. Nevertheless, the Australian who joined Best Western two years ago with ambitions of doubling its members remains optimistic. “Against the backdrop of lockdown, people will want to get out and escape as soon as they can,” he says. And when they do, he believes they will be looking for a ‘staycation’, hopefully at a Best Western hotel!
From a marketing point of view, the timing of the Channel 4 show could not be better because it neatly dovetails with what people are looking for today, namely a bit of light relief. Better still, a spot on prime time TV will place the brand top of mind for people planning a holiday at a time when international travel is off the cards and there is a real desire to support local and independent businesses.
We have tried to create a real personality to the brand…to show that we are not ‘corporate’ like Hilton and Marriott
As one of the main characters, Paterson feels a “little daunted’ ahead of the first episode tonight but, he says, it is “a fun, human interest show” which people should enjoy. There is also, he adds, a “bit of cheekiness”. In highlighting the ‘spirit of independence’ and the individual character of every Best Western hotel, there are regular cuts to the blurred out logos of the big hotel chains like Marriott and Hilton. The idea, he says, was to show that Best Western GB “is not cookie cutter. It’s not boring.”
Speaking about the marketing campaign that launches at the same time, Paterson says: “We have tried to create a real personality to the brand…to show that we are not ‘corporate’ like Hilton and Marriott”.
Even though the UK government yesterday announced the possibility of ‘air bridges’, which would allow holidaymakers to travel to countries with similar levels of the virus without having to quarantine on their return, domestic travel is expected to recover first. Paterson points to “compelling” data from technology firm Avvio, which saw direct bookings for July and August surge 370% after the Irish prime minister announced a road map for opening hotels . To further highlight the opportunity, UK residents made 47 million outbound visits in 2018, according to real estate firm Frank Knight, which believes “the potential for increased room nights in the leisure segment could be significant”.
To prepare for this uptick, Paterson is one of many hospitality executives who is involved in an industry taskforce that is working to co-ordinate a consistent approach to hotel reopening that includes appropriate standards for safety and cleanliness (this is a key thread of the new marketing campaign). Although an exact date for reopening all hotels is not yet known, Paterson says hotels are “itching to get to July to see what they can and can’t do to get trading”.
In spite of the pandemic, the group's efforts are paying off and the group has seen a steady rise in the number of independent hotels interested in joining the collection. Since the beginning of the year the group has activated 22 properties and is on track to double that by the end of May. At this uncertain time, it seems that many hotels are looking for security and by joining Best Western, they are able to retain their independence and flexibility while also enjoying the benefits of scale.
Change is coming
Behind many closed hotel doors, discussions are underway about what hotel distribution can and should look like on the other side this crisis. With deep pockets and access to financial markets, Booking.com and Expedia, not to mention Google, are expected to survive the freeze in travel but they are unlikely to win any popularity contest in hotels.
If nothing else, Covid-19 has forced hotels to think about their future distribution partners like never before. “We have about 150 hoteliers on a Whatsapp group chat and this is a hot topic,” says Paterson, who says it is very clear that hotels do not wish to return to the status quo. Held to ransom by the OTAs for far too long, he firmly believes that hoteliers will think twice about high commission, price-led programmes like Booking.com’s Genius.
The appetite to get this [the technology] right is greater than it is have ever been
Internally, this is one of the strategic issues that Best Western is focused on, but it is also looking closely at mobile check in and billing. Although the technology has been around for some time, to date most hoteliers have been “a bit frightened of it. I don’t think they will be anymore. The appetite to get this right is greater than it is has ever been,” he says.
For the hard hit, highly fragmented hotel industry, cost efficiencies post-Covid-19 will be an overwhelming priority, and this is expected to accelerate technology development. So if there is any silver lining for hotels in this crisis, it is giving management teams a very rare opportunity to upgrade ageing systems with minimal business impact. Indeed, any technology that helps hotels to better manage guest relationships, the customer journey and employee performance, as well as improving yield and revenue management will be gleefully welcomed (Why AI might be checking into hotels sooner than you think).
In addition, cloud-based property management systems (PMS) and services that also have their heads firmly around payments are also sparking interest. PMS firms Apaleo and Mews Technology, and hotel data connector Impala Technologies could stand to gain. Leah Anathan, chief marketing officer of Mews, says: "We are definitely seeing a shift, primarily from the group properties." In fact, even last year, when the start-up ran a focus group with hoteliers from multiple countries several described changing a PMS system in their hotels as 'open heart surgery.' "This is particularly true when the system is older and on-premise," she says.
Looking ahead, innovation will be in the B2B space and technology partners that have not, in Paterson’s words, “exactly covered themselves in glory” through this crisis may be shown the exit. After all, in these testing times what hotels want and need more than anything are partners that have their back!
Still, while there is no doubt that the CEO of the Best Western GB will have his work cut out in the coming months today, along with the rest of locked down Great Britain, he is looking forward to watching the Channel 4 documentary this evening. “It won’t,” he says, “be boring.”