David Kong: Liquidity, communication, optimism

David Kong, president and CEO Best Western.

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Developing a plan with clear priorities and objectives was the first thing BWHR did during the COVID-19 pandemic, David Kong, president and CEO, Best Western Hotels & Resorts, told CLN. “Obviously, ensuring liquidity is at the top of the list. Communication is vitally important during a crisis and providing a realistic but optimistic perspective is also important.”

Best Western noticed the first signs of slowing demand several weeks before the WHO declared the COVID-19 as a pandemic. They began to see a reduction in international travellers to the major urban areas in Canada, and an uptick in the number of hotel cancellations. These early indicators were further amplified by the slowing of the economy as the USA/Canada border closed and Prime Minister Trudeau asked all Canadians abroad to return home. These factors lead to a precipitous drop in demand across all regions and all market segments.

“At the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, Best Western Hotels & Resorts reacted swiftly to protect and support its hoteliers and guests through the challenging months ahead. In the early months of 2020, we first extended a helping hand to our colleagues in Asia while also learning from the challenges they were facing to prepare for the impact across North America,” Kong said. 

This allowed Best Western to act quickly and implement a number of measures (see box at right).

Roughly 15 per cent of Best Western-branded hotels across North America, and 17 per cent of hotels in Canada, closed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Each hotel is independently owned and operated, so owners were empowered to decide whether they would remain open or close their doors temporarily. Through dedicated COVID-19 communications channels, Best Western kept hoteliers updated on regional government mandates and every hotel followed rules and regulations pertinent to their location. 

“The health and safety of our associates is a top priority at Best Western Hotels & Resorts,” Kong said. “We made the decision early on to close our corporate offices, enabling associates to work from home for their own safety. Headquartered in Arizona, we will be following the state of Arizona guidelines when we do begin the process of reopening our corporate offices. 

“The hotel industry is battling the greatest decline in business we have ever seen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to fight this battle, we, like many of our fellow hotel brands, made the painful but necessary decision to separate from some of our valued associates.” 

Kong noted that generally speaking, upscale, upper-upscale and luxury hotels have suffered the most during the pandemic while hotels on the lower-end of the chain scale segments have fared better. Additionally, hotels in secondary and tertiary locations outside of major cities have been doing better than those in major urban markets. Extended stay hotels have performed better than traditional hotels.

“The most important thing we can do as leaders is to remain calm and thoughtful,” Kong said. “Developing a plan with clear priorities and objectives is the first thing we did. Obviously, ensuring liquidity is at the top of the list. Communication is vitally important during a crisis. Providing a realistic but optimistic perspective is also important. One can enlist help through empathy and being sensitive to the needs of the team.”

“Communication with our hoteliers, guests and associates has been a key priority throughout the pandemic. We created dedicated communication channels to deliver real-time updates to each of these audiences.”

Best Western GLō, Kanata Ottawa West, Ont.

These communications channels have proved effective in allowing Best Western to deliver timely updates, resources, tools and advice to their hoteliers including: resources from global, regional, local and industry associations such as the World Health Organization; recommendations on operations during the crisis, such as amended breakfast offerings and cleanliness support; updates on brand relief efforts, available government support, changing regional mandates as it relates to COVID-19 business operations, and more. Kong noted that they have been communicating with their hotels at least once weekly.

“Maintaining contact with our guests and clients has also been a priority. We have communicated with them via email, texts or phone calls.”

The health and wellbeing of guests and associates has always been a priority for Best Western. “During this pandemic, aside from the cleaning practices, we also want to provide a noticeable difference in our hotels to illustrate our cleaning practices. These visual cues are important to instill comfort and reassurance,” Kong said.

“All Best Western-branded hotels across North America already comply with the industry-leading I Care Clean program and have done since 2012. At the onslaught of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we immediately rolled out enhanced cleaning protocols and breakfast standards, which are in place at all open hotels. The We Care Clean program expands upon the I Care Clean standards and the enhanced cleaning protocol already in place and is required across all Best Western-branded hotels in North America.”

Best Western Hotels & Resorts’ protocols for We Care Clean program.

The We Care Clean program takes existing protocols to a new level, with special consideration and focus on mitigating the risk of COVID-19 transmission. In the guest room, for example, unnecessary items will be removed from guest rooms, such as decorative pillows, bed scarves, paper notepads and pens. Housekeeping offerings will be modified for stay-over guests, including the elimination of a full cleaning service unless specifically requested by guests.

Upon check-out, enhanced and thorough cleaning protocols will be implemented in guest rooms. Guest rooms will not be entered for 24 to 72 hours after check-out, at which time the room, linens and all touch points, for example, faucets, door handles, light switches, thermostats, clocks and hangers will be cleaned with chemicals aimed at killing COVID-19.

The chemicals used to disinfect all areas of the hotel are stronger and contain a higher alcohol content necessary to kill the virus. 

Hotels must also protect against transmission of the virus in areas such as the in-house laundry, where used linen and clean linen must maintain clear separation at all times; this includes when employees are retrieving and delivering linen and towels as well as on housekeeping carts. The usage of electrostatic sprayers/ foggers, ozone machines or ultraviolet light devices will prevent the transmission of the virus from surfaces that are not typically disinfected from one guest to the next such as: drapes, walls, doors, hair dryers and shower curtains.

Caring spirit and high ideals of service

“For nearly 75 years, Best Western has been a brand and family known for our caring spirit, compassion and high ideals of service. During this challenging time, we have been inspired witnessing this caring spirt come to life through tremendous displays of kindness and bravery within our Best Western family – many of our hoteliers have emerged as forces for hope and help in their local communities. “The video below captures just a few of the remarkable stories from our hoteliers.”

David Kong talks about displays of bravery and kindness within the Best Western family.

The opening of hotels across Canada will be based upon provincial guidelines as to how aspects of the economy are opened, Kong said. “Hotels were always considered an essential service which is why so many were able to stay open during the pandemic. The reopening of closed hotels and looking ahead to rebuilding to demand from travellers presents many challenges to our industry. 

“The willingness of the public to travel is paramount to the improvement of demand for the hotels industry. For leisure travellers this also means that other services are available to them during their travels, such as restaurants, attractions and events. At present many locations across Canada, such as New Brunswick, Banff and Canmore, are not recommending summer travellers come to visit, while some provinces have closed their borders to non-residents.

“As we enter the reopening and rebuilding phase, we have created a detailed best practices checklist for hotels to use to help them open successfully, and with the appropriate operational protocols and processes in place to ensure staff and guest safety, and trust in the hotel and the brand. 

Going forward…

“We recognize that hygiene and cleanliness have never been more important, and this will understandably be a significant consideration for guests as travel picks up again. Our hotels will be strictly adhering to the We Care Clean program for the foreseeable future to ensure we can provide a safe and clean home away from home for our guests when the time comes to travel again.

“As we look to the future, we believe that hotels will see an increase in drive-to business with road travel expected to be the transportation of choice for travellers. Shorter travel, road trips and staycations will provide travel opportunities for those concerned about the continued COVID-19 risks. At Best Western Hotels & Resorts we have more properties located in regional destinations, highways and byways – the ideal spots for road trips and staycations.”