Best Western Hotels & Resorts earlier this month named Larry Cuculic to replace long-time President and CEO David Kong, effective Dec. 1. Kong had previously announced he would be retiring at the end of the year after some 17 years at the helm of the Phoenix-based brand company.
Hotel Interactive recently caught up with Kong for a one-on-one interview to reflect on his tenure with the company and share some thoughts on what his legacy will be. The following Q&A represents portions of the conversation.
HI: What prompted your decision to retire from Best Western at this time?
Kong: It was actually over a year ago that I gave the board notice. I’ve always wanted to leave when I’m at the peak of my performance and the company has actually fared very well despite the pandemic. We continue to break RevPAR Index records and continue to enjoy high guest satisfaction ratings.
As an example, Best Western Premier is number two in JD Power [rankings], and SureStay is number one in JD Power [for their respective segments] so we continue to win a lot of awards and accolades both for the company as well as personally. So I just think that this is probably the right time to move on.
HI: Would you consider potentially taking another position within the hotel industry down the line or is this it?
Kong: I’m not sure I want to pursue another CEO role. I think I’d be more interested in pursuing my personal interests and maybe serve on some boards and continue to be productive. I’ve always enjoyed consulting so I’ll probably have some opportunities to provide advisory services. I’d like to be of service and pay it forward in the form of being a coach or mentor to somebody. I have those plans as well, I’m not the kind that would sit at home and play golf all day.
HI: The company has gone through a huge transformation in the time that you’ve been at the helm, what are some of the things that stand out for you in terms of accomplishments?
Kong: There are several important ones. The first one was back in 2005, my first year as CEO, I had a vision for the organization to lead the industry in superior customer care and to focus on quality. In the ensuing years we separated from 700 or 800 hotels, which was a lot, in a very short time to give ourselves a quality foundation from which to grow and I’m proud of that. We have a much better portfolio now.
After that we have the descriptor program, where we split the one brand into three covering the midscale, upper-midscale and upscale segments. That gave us the foundation to grow into the number of brands that we have now. We have brands from economy all the way up to luxury in every chain scale segment so that was the foundation that enabled us to do that.
I think launching the boutique brands was also very important because it remade the image of Best Western and, of course, new logos signaled that we are a fresh contemporary, relevant brand. That is something that I’m proud of.
The launch of SureStay—which is one of the fastest growing brands with 400 hotels open globally in a short 4, 5 years—is also very gratifying.
And, of course, there’s the recent acquisition of AutoClerk, which enabled us to own our own PMS system, and we bought WorldHotels in 2019 and that announced our foray into the luxury and upper-upscale segment. It’s been a great run of a lot of achievements.
HI: As a membership organization, Best Western operated quite a bit differently than some of its franchise competitors. How were you able to navigate the company’s structure and powerful board of directors to get some of your initiatives accomplished?
Kong: We have roughly 2,000 members in North America and everyone has a voice. Everyone wants to tell you what their needs are and how we should go about doing things. Somebody can look at that and say ‘I have to contend with 2,000 voices and it’s very distracting and very hard to coalesce and manage.’ I look at it totally differently. I look at it as I’m so fortunate I have some 2,000 qualified experts giving me advice and in many ways giving me council on how I can do a better job. I embrace that and I welcome that. I look at it as something positive and a differentiator for our organization.
HI: What are your thoughts about how you’re leaving the industry after what has been a difficult 18 months?
Kong: Right now we have an outright labor crisis, it’s not a challenge, it’s a crisis. Hotels have rooms they are not able to open because they don’t have people servicing the rooms.
It’s also a problem that guests don’t get the service that they expect. It’s a real threat not just for the company, but the entire industry because people might say they’ll get rooms through Airbnb because they get a better experience. There are many reasons why we are not able to attract the talent, one of which is the image of the industry. It’s just not seen as one of opportunity so we have to step up.
HI: What are your hopes for the company going forward without you?
Kong: First of all we have a solid foundation. We have very established programs and platforms—whether it’s technology or sales and marketing or any area—with a proven track record.
Secondly, we have a very experienced and talented team, which is very dedicated and committed. You can look at how we not only survived but prevailed through the pandemic as proof of that. It wasn’t easy to come up with a plan, to execute it and continue to improve on the plan to drive the results that we have been able to drive through the pandemic. So we have a good foundation in so many ways.
Lastly, coming out of the pandemic opens up opportunities. There are so many exciting things that we should be looking at on every front, whether its the technology or sales or marketing or brand standards or operation support and so on and so forth. I feel good about the exciting future that Best Western should be able to enjoy. It’s got a great foundation, opportunities, and the right people on the bus so I think the future is bright.