On a rambling road trip through the Canadian Rockies, Best Western explains why it wants to be the go-to hotel for riders making journeys of their own, and what it’s prepared to do to make that happen.
Room at the Inn
Story/photos by John Campbell
“You won’t hear a lot of preaching about Best Western, but we’ll talk about it during this trip,” says Ron Pohl as a mid-July rain continues to pound the streets of downtown Edmonton the evening before our pending ride through the twin jewels of Banff and Jasper national parks in Alberta. A calm, quiet man who recently moved from Cleveland to assume his current post as senior vice-president at Best Western’s headquarters in Phoenix, Pohl is an avid motorcyclist and very likely the ideal candidate for spreading the gospel of Best Western. It’s not a complicated message: with 308,237 rooms in 80 countries worldwide, and annual global revenues of $7 billion, the world’s largest hotel chain wants the motorcycle community to know that it has 1,400 “Rider-Friendly” properties in North America and each wants to be your home away from home. Most hotel chains do want their guests thinking like that, but very few—actually, only one—have a fixed hospitality program with sliding scale incentives for riders, and a willingness to send one of their top executives on a motorcycle field trip to further entrench the Best Western brand as the go-to place for riders making road trips of their own.
Cross-country demo rides are a staple outreach initiative to potential customers. Arguably, Harley Canada’s long-running Test Our Metal demo ride program is the most successful in the motorcycle-selling business.
In a sense, Pohl’s expedition into the Canadian Rockies with a small group of media in tow had the same mission statement: to disseminate information about the brand in the hope that new customers might be won over somewhere down the line. If nothing else, it was a good opportunity for Best Western to plead its case.
M.K. GUERTIN WAS BORN IN Liberty, Texas and his mother was said to be a direct descendent of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner. In 1947, working on a $2,200 budget, he set out on a 5,000-mile, 29-day journey in which he visited 507 motels between Long Beach, California and Tacoma, Washington, noting which ones were a “tank of gas” apart. By the end of his seminal road trip, M.K. Guertin had cobbled together a network of independent lodgings willing to refer one another to weary travelers. It was a time of enormous potential: the war was over, and construction of the great paved road system of America was well underway. Guided by Guertin’s vision, the era of Best Western had truly begun.
Today, Best Western is perched on the edge of yet another era: the standardization of the brand. The chain is not necessarily based on a franchise model. Rather, it’s a collection of privately owned and operated hotels with varying degrees of service. In Canada, there are 185 properties carrying the Best Western crown, most are clustered in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. The individual operators sign one-year agreements, and each is a member of the Best Western association with the right to vote on important changes.
But a recurring customer complaint has been that you never know exactly what to expect when you checked into a given hotel. Will there be a restaurant? A bar? Or even modern decor in the room? “We’re not a cookie cutter hotel chain,” says Pohl.
Three years ago, the company conducted a “heavy inspection” of all its hotels and concluded it had to clean up the brand. Putting it to a membership vote, a decision was made to raise standards. This required an investment of capital on the part of owners, and some balked—500 of its 2,229 North American members walked away from the brand, though an equal number of new properties rushed in to fill the void.
And generally speaking, most members are happy enough with the arrangement. Best Western enjoys a 99 per cent re-sign rate on its one-year contracts because of the proven strength of the brand. “The recession actually impacted us less than our competitors,” says Pohl. “Now is the perfect time for us to gain market share.”
Following through on that belief, Best Western raised its own standards again by launching a “descriptor” program this summer that will henceforth see hotels described on three different levels, ranging between Two Diamond and Three Diamond Plus. Each level carries its own diversity of service that targets it to the competition. Three Diamond Plus, for example, takes on heavy hitters such as the upper-end properties of the Hyatt and Marriott chains, while Two Diamond properties focus on outfits such as the Ramada and Comfort Inns.
With a plan in place to tackle infrastructure issues, Best Western turned its attention to market penetration. Partnership agreements were needed to expand exposure. The question was, with whom? Obviously, an appeal to the right demographic was essential. So, Best Western became the first mid-size hotel chain to partner with the 52 million-member AAA/CAA. Then came Disney, NASCAR, and Harley-Davidson.
“IT’S A BEAUTIFUL SYMBIOSIS,” SAYS Alex Carroni of the relationship between Harley and Best Western.
A pretty blonde with a fetching smile and an impressive history of residency in the far-flung corners of the world, Ms. Carroni is the public relations specialist for Deeley Harley-Davidson Canada. And for this media opportunity to spend travel time in the company of Pohl, she has brought with her to Edmonton a Dyna Wide Glide, Fat Boy Lo, and a Softail Convertible and Fat Bob from the 2010 CVO line. She says she crated them all herself the day before she left Toronto. Three more touring bikes—Road King, Street Glide, and Ultra Classic Electra Glide—were awaiting us at Hob And Autumn Murphy’s Heritage Harley-Davidson.
Hob and Autumn were having their own problems when we arrived. The non-stop rains plaguing the west through the summer of 2010 had pooled and ebbed their way into the couple’s otherwise beautiful new store. A dispute with the contractor is likely imminent, but in the meantime the Murphys displayed the unfailing courtesy and genuine interest that have made them a grassroots success.
The designated Rider-Friendly properties of the Best Western association provide a mandatory base level of services to all enthusiasts including specific parking, a wipe-down towel at check-in and a cleaning station for your bike. Individual hotels are free to ramp up the program if the owner has something special in mind, but he has to maintain the basics.
And despite some misunderstanding about the program, you don’t have to be a Harley rider to enjoy the basic benefits. “You can show up on a scooter if you want,” says Best Western’s public relations manager Heather Wright, “It’s about being an enthusiast.”
Still, there are definite advantages to rolling into a Best Western Rider-Friendly hotel on a Harley-Davidson.
Ms. Carroni’s “beautiful symbiosis” is actually cross-referential in nature, based on a partnership agreement signed three years ago between Best Western and Harley-Davidson. The partners recently re-upped for another three-year term and now with 64,000 Harley Owners Group members in the loop, the Best Western Rides Reward program exclusive to Harley-Davidson enthusiasts carries all the trappings of a runaway best-seller. Small wonder.
The program offers deep discounts on room rates, and automatic upgrades to the cryptic “Gold Elite” status. There are points to be accrued that can be transferred to your room bill, or to airline tickets or to merchandise gift cards from an ever-expanding list of retailers. It’s motorcycling’s version of frequent flyer points and a program Pohl calls “one of the best in the business.
For Best Western, the program’s obvious advantage lies in solidifying a ready customer base from a certain demographic with a proven track record of steady, if not lavish, spending. For Harley-Davidson, the partnership very likely has material value that also fits neatly in the till, but there are other, more esoteric, meanings to it as well.
Though riders are adventurous, Ms. Carroni explains, they are also creatures of habit who like to know where they are going to throw it down for the night. By establishing Best Western as the destination for the day’s end, the circle grows that much tighter. Here is where I will sleep, have a drink and eat supper. Here is where I will fill up my bike in the morning. Here is where the nearest dealer is located. Best Western connects the dots to these important services as part of the program, and documents the process through a link to a travel mapping function on the website bwrider.com.
For Harley riders in particular, the program deepens their already legendary sense of community, knowing that they belong to an elite and formally welcomed clientele base.
“HOG encourages riders to put miles on their bikes,” says Ms. Carroni. “Our members are proud to do this. And they’re always looking for added benefits that the give them ownership of a bigger community feel … a sense of belonging when you’re abroad.”
Adding flavour to the arrangement is the private ownership model of the Best Western association. Every hotel is its own unique entity, not simply a generic holding of some large, faceless unknowable corporation.
“The guy checking you in might well be the owner,” say Pohl. “It’s very unique to Best Western. There’s a sense of pride, kind of like, you’re coming to stay in my house. So, it’s not just these few motorcyclists coming through … it’s more like I want to know who these people are. Maybe they will come through another time or maybe they know people who will. I’ve heard owners say, ‘You wouldn’t believe how I get these great rides and how they’ve come back for two or three years in a row in the same group of 20.’”
And though some hotels may be more grandiose in scale, Best Western has continued to follow the trail blazed by M.K. Guertin in the early days, setting up shop on the backroads of the nation, where riders typically set their sights.
“We are in locations where nobody else is,” says Pohl. “We are anywhere you want to be.”