As chief executive of Best Western Hotels GB, Rob Payne is overseeing the launch of three new brands and undertaking a global rebrand, having steered the company through the introduction of the National Living Wage. Katherine Price reports
What was your perception of Best Western before you started?
I hadn't actually stayed at a Best Western before I started interviewing for the role. I didn't know much about the company, but when I started reading up about it and staying at the hotels, I fell in love with the brand because of how different it is. We don't have any shareholders, we're not a FTSE-listed company, everything we do we do for our membership and for our customers and the money all gets piled back into the business.
Dean Court, York
You're not from a hospitality background - does that affect your approach to the role?
My background is trains and healthcare, which are quite different! But I've always worked in service, and service is what our industry is about. I bring my commercial, marketing and development skills from experience elsewhere. There are a lot of similarities. Although it's a different industry and I still have a lot to learn, I absolutely love it.
Are there any disadvantages to not having come from hospitality?
Those disadvantages will only be in my mind and don't stop me from doing the things I need to do in the business. I have a great team around me and that helps hugely. Any gaps in knowledge, they fill fairly quickly.
What industry changes have you seen since the introduction of the National Living Wage?
We all believe in a fair wage for everyone. The problem was the speed at which it was implemented and the lack of consultation. When will the different stages be implemented? So many salaries in our industry are going to be affected by it. We still don't have that road map and Brexit has come along and all eyes have now gone to that one subject. It's great that Karen Bradley [secretary of state for culture, media and sport], daughter of a hotelier, is now in the cabinet. Now, hopefully, hospitality can be at the forefront of the Government's mind, because it needs to be.
What about the vote to leave the EU?
VisitBritain has released findings that some French operators have cancelled programmes to the UK for 2017 because of fears over visas, while some German coach tour operators have cancelled bookings as they think groups will not be welcomed in Britain. That's not what we're about and that's not the sentiment our industry needs to be having right now. I think now more than ever we need to start looking at a reduction of VAT on tourism.
How have bookings fared for Best Western since the referendum?
Our Monkbar hotel in York saw a 236% increase in bookings from America in the week after the vote. Across all our hotels, we've seen an increase in Canadian tourists of around 10%, American citizens by 4%, and it's probably because the pound is weak versus the dollar and it's a great opportunity for those visitors. But we're not necessarily seeing that for forward bookings in 2017. And we haven't seen any indication of staycationing increasing as a result of the vote. Yes, in the early days we saw an increase in website searches for British holidays, but that hasn't necessarily translated to visitor numbers.
But there are some positives - it's not all doom and gloom. We also have greater interest from developers and independent hotel owners. Just before Brexit we saw a 30% increase in enquiries about joining the brand, and I guess that's because during times of uncertainty people want to find shelter from the storm.
Tell us about the Best Western rebranding and the launch of the three new brands
The brand has served us extremely well over 24 years. The re-brand of the logo allows us to signpost that the brand has changed and the product behind it has changed, and creating that segmentation between the brands was really important to show that our offering is different between each of those brands. And now we've also got three new brands: BW Premier Collection, VÄ«b and GLÅ.
The launch of the BW Premier Collection allowed us to start having conversations with luxury four- and five-star properties. What we were asked to do is prove the product. Now we've got 10 four-star hotels behind the brand - including the Winchester Royal hotel, the Richmond hotel in Liverpool, and most recently the Ten Hill Place Hotel in Edinburgh - and we've got a pipeline that will get us to 20 by the end of our financial year.
That's probably one of my proudest achievements this year: the BW Premier Collection and the success that we've made of it. BW Premier Collection is also the vehicle for us to land that first five-star property.
We are in conversation with a few five-star hotel properties about joining. Our job is to land those and bring those into the brand. And they're all very different - they are hotels that want to keep their independence and want something that gives them that protection and distribution.
These things take a lot of time - a lot longer than I thought before I joined the brand. Hotels have to come out of their contractual arrangements. It's a lot easier when they're not tied into contracts or a distribution channel. And because the requirements of our brands are quite high now, it's a lot harder to actually join - there are a lot more brand standards that you need to meet. And it's all for the right reasons, and that's why our satisfaction levels are great, because we want the right hotels in the brand.
The next stop is VÄ«b. We've already got VÄ«b hotels under development in Korea and America. What we're doing in Europe is getting the specification right.
Then there's the market out there for GLÅ, so that's a product the development team are working on and on how we're going to deliver that in Britain.
Mornington hotel, London
Why was the rebrand necessary?
Our quality has improved significantly, our satisfaction levels are higher than they've ever been and we have really great recommendation scores, but our brand wasn't able to convey that change. Getting that signposted to customers, developers and owners was one of our intentions, and also to broaden the appeal, which is what we're doing with our new brands.
Has it changed customer perceptions too?
We've done a lot of research around it, and 80% of survey respondents said it looks more contemporary, while three-quarters said it seemed as though something new is coming. It's ticked all the things that we intended, which is great. Time magazine made it one of its Top 10 Logo Changes of 2015, which is just a real seal of approval that we've done the right thing.
Why were some hotels exited from the brand?
It would have been failings across multiple areas. If you don't achieve improvements, we'll work with you, we'll put in a performance improvement plan for that hotel. We want to work with our hotels and we want to keep hotels in-brand, but if we can't make that work, that's why hotels would be exited. We have terminated seven hotels in the last 12 months for not meeting quality standards. Two of these hotels actually wanted to rescind a resignation but we declined due to poor quality and guest experience.
One of our brand requirements is around design, and it's not stuff that we just dream up, it's all based around what consumers want and what the market wants. We put a global brand standard in around high-speed internet. We delivered that brand standard. Satisfaction went up as a result of that, not only in high-speed internet access but overall. So we know we've got it right.
And we won't stop identifying areas we need to improve, our guests are constantly feeding back, and the fact we're broadening our appeal means we'll have new requirements coming into the business. Around 70,000-75,000 Medallia surveys are submitted by guests annually, which is our way of checking how we're performing, and that is how we build all the things we need to do in our performance because it monitors everything from a hotel level down to a specific requirement.
Then we have a team of quality assessors who go out and check everything - so we have the customer and we have this hit squad that knows our brand inside out; who knows the requirements of our consumers and goes out every single day to make sure the product's right.
London Peckham hotel
What else are you working on?
We're also working on a number of global initiatives to increase scale. Scale is massively important to all hotels. The more hotels we have in the brand means you share costs and you can also buy in greater quantities for less, but it also gives you the ability to negotiate better with the superpowers of the online travel agents.
What kind of targets are you looking at?
I wouldn't like to say but we're being a lot more ambitious than we've been before. I'm quite purpose-driven - healthcare taught me that. Having that purpose at your core is really important and we have that at Best Western by being brilliantly different and we want to connect more hotels together - like-minded hotels that believe in the same things that we do.
Is the future of hotels technology-based?
VÄ«b is definitely more technology-based, and I was asked recently if it was designed for millennials, but I don't think people need pigeon-holing. Yes, it's a lot more contemporary, vibrant and technology-based. But millennials don't want to be treated like robots.
Demands are increasing and the pace of change is huge, and we need to keep pace with that change. But the answer isn't always technology - that's just part of the answer. The other side of it is phenomenal service and creating those memories and stories and moments, because they're the things that last forever in people's memories and are invaluable to people.
- 2014-present Chief executive officer, Best Western Hotels GB
- 2012-2014 Director of marketing, Bupa Care Services
- 2011-2012 Head of marketing and e-commerce, East Coast Mainline Company
- 2009-2011 Head of marketing, East Coast Main Line Company
- 2007-2009 Marketing manager, National Express
- 2005-2007 Business marketing manager, Great North Eastern Railway
- 2003-2005 Senior product manager, Great North Eastern Railway
- 2002-2003 Product manager, business, Great North Eastern Railway
- 2000-2002 Product manager, catering, Great North Eastern Railway
- 1999-2000 Research manager, Great North Eastern Railway
- 1998-1999 Graduate marketing trainee manager, Great North Eastern Railway
Best Western's new brands
Best Western launched soft brand BW Premier Collection last summer to attract four- to five-star operators who want the marketing power and booking engine of the brand without the branding. Best Western GB is currently in talks to secure its first five-star properties to join its BW Premier Collection.
It also launched VÄ«b, a brand aimed at modern urban travellers who want a technology-led experience. The rooms will be smaller than usual, with guests instead provided with eclectic social areas.
There is also a new suburban mid-market boutique brand called GLÅ, the third new brand to be added to the company's portfolio in the last 12 months.
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