HOTELS exclusive: Best Western UK CEO talks outlook, ‘Undercover Boss’

LONDON Earlier this month, David Clarke, chief executive officer for Best Western Great Britain, grew out his beard and went incognito as a line employee for the television show “Undercover Boss.” He talked with HOTELS about the experience and what it taught him about hotelkeeping, and he also shared his thoughts about the state of the hotel industry in the UK.

HOTELS: Tell us about your experience on “Undercover Boss.” What did you learn, and how will it help you be a better business leader?

Clarke: It was an incredible experience and it was on the back of our recent “Best Western—Hotels with Personality” national TV advertising campaign in Great Britain. It was a good opportunity to raise our profile even further with consumers and potential new member hotels. 

However, it was also challenging because Best Western does not own hotels—we are an association of independently owned and operated hotels. From a political perspective, I had to navigate some tricky terrain, not just with guests, but with Best Western member hoteliers, to whom we are primarily beholden as an organization. I learned that we have some incredibly loyal and hardworking employees at Best Western hotels. They go to extraordinary lengths to deliver on the Best Western brand promise of great service and value. I also discovered that membership in the brand is so valuable that one hotel was prepared to break the rules in order to maintain its Best Western flag. Lastly, I learned that, in Great Britain, the bond between Best Western brand personnel and our hoteliers does not always extend to hotel staff as much as it should.    

Going forward, Best Western Great Britain will be very much focused on inclusive education and training, as are our counterparts in North America. This is a challenge for an organization like ours because we don’t actually employ any hotel staff; their employer is the hotel, and understandably the primary relationship is with their local team. However, if we can turn these thousands of employees into ambassadors for the Best Western brand, that will have a positive impact on brand perception and consequently bookings, which helps us deliver on our mission of superior revenue delivery to our membership. We are working with one of the employees featured on the show—a smiling, warm-hearted restaurant supervisor named Leona—to develop a campaign designed to educate Best Western hotel staff in Great Britain about what makes our brand special. We’re quite excited about it.

On a personal note, doing the show was an incredible life experience that has taught me a number of things. I knew TV to be powerful, but I’ve been overwhelmed by the scale of the response, which has been overwhelmingly positive. Had I got it wrong, the consequences could have been serious. It’s reminded me that a CEO must never underestimate the impact of his or her decisions. Also, though I remain aware of the hospitality and travel sector’s major contribution to the economy, I have never been more cognizant that we are at heart a people industry. This carries social and emotional responsibilities, and we must invest in training our people to deliver on these levels. If more managers and CEOs made time to work alongside their people, we’d never lose sight that these are complex human beings in our beds, not just heads.

HOTELS: Did you come away with a renewed appreciation of the challenges of hotelkeeping?

Clarke: I’m a career hotelier and I’ve worked at every level, so I appreciate the hard work that goes into hotel operations. Still, it’s fair to say that the further one gets from the front line, the more sheltered one is from the realities of life on the ground. It has made me even more grateful for the luck and opportunities I’ve had in my life and career, and even more committed to extending those opportunities to others in the industry.

HOTELS: What are your thoughts about the state of the hotel industry in the UK? Is the outlook improving?

Clarke: The UK hotel market has had a tough time over the past two years, with hotels outside the London/South East area worst affected. RevPAR has been a challenge for hotels in all areas at all grades, but this is now starting to recover. London has seen good recovery this year and business is starting to improve in the provinces, so there is growing optimism in the country. The Olympics coming up in 2012, and a host of other prestigious international sporting events taking place in the UK in the coming decade, are a boon for hotels throughout the UK.

HOTELS: How is business for Best Western Great Britain these days? Do you have growth plans for the company that you could share?

Clarke: In the last quarter, Best Western Great Britain saw business up 10%, and certainly our recent “Hotels with Personality” marketing campaign drove that growth. This TV and social media campaign, launched in April, emphasized the uniqueness of our hotels and the personalities that work in them. Going forward, we in Great Britain believe we will see a repeat of last year’s booming ‘staycations’ trend. This will help compensate for the continued slow corporate and government business in our region. 

HOTELS: What are the biggest challenges for Best Western in the coming year, and how do you plan to overcome them?

Clarke: In Great Britain, we are looking for more good quality, independent hotels to join the Best Western brand—in in particular, in key corporate business locations. We are tackling this by raising our profile and by working with management companies through our associate business, Innfutures. In our search for sizable new member hotels, we realized that the asset owner would probably not be the operator. For this reason, we have selected and recommend to these asset owners management companies that understand the Best Western brand.

Another key objective is to create awareness and understanding of Best Western International’s three-descriptor strategy, a marketing communications effort to help guests navigate Best Western’s diverse property portfolio and properly set expectations at the point of booking. The strategy is being rolled out now in North America and is being considered for Europe.

We also need to continue encouraging our hotels to invest in their businesses and their people so that, as the economic climate improves, their hotels will be in a strong position to take advantage of increased activity.

HOTELS: The branding of hotels in the UK has really picked up steam in recent years. Is that ultimately a net positive for an established name like Best Western?

Clarke: If you asked me where I’d like to be as an hotelier in the second decade of the 21st century, my answer would be, “Safely affiliated with a major brand.” OK, I’m biased, but Best Western ticks all the boxes for hotel business people with an entrepreneurial mindset.

Despite the proliferation of brands in the UK, Best Western is unique in that we are a non-profit that exists solely to invest every cent of margin back into activities that drive revenue to the membership. What independent hotel operator would not want that business model?

In addition, as branding of hotels has picked up in both the UK and around the world, Best Western is providing a real business answer for independent hoteliers trying to compete against the big franchises. Our members are able to maintain their independent vision while at the same time linking into the global booking channel of the world’s largest hotel chain and getting amazing economies of scale with respect to supplies and other services. This enables them to market their hotels to huge numbers of corporate and leisure buyers, at minimal expense. Independents are still the backbone of the UK hotel industry, but they have to start thinking about branding if they want to take on the big players. Collaboration while maintaining their own personality is the answer.