Australian hotelier Rob Paterson was appointed chief executive of hotel consortium Best Western GB two years ago. He speaks to David Harris about the brand's current boom, with nearly 50 hotels expected to be added to its portfolio in the first quarter of 2020
Has the job at Best Western turned out as you expected?
I wasn't sure what to expect. I only knew Best Western in Australia, where it's a drive-up motor thing. Here it was a pleasant surprise, with everything from economy hotels to castles.
The standout difference at Best Western from the hotel groups I worked for before is that the people who run the hotels own them. Everything means so much to them; it makes a difference. You really see that in our owners.
Where do you see the focus of Best Western in the UK today? Do guests understand the group's proliferation of brands, now numbering 11?
There are lots of brands everywhere. I think Marriott has more than 30 now. At Best Western, our motivation is that we want to cover all the sectors. One of the key things is that our rewards programme can cover any level. Anybody who stays at different levels can use their rewards for benefits at any of our hotels.
The spread of brands is also good for the corporate market. Not so long ago we were just mid-market, but lots of companies have requirements that cover lots of different levels. Do guests understand all the brands? No, I don't think all guests fully understand them, but that's not necessarily to our disadvantage. The world is changing and those thinking about booking a hotel look at individual reviews on things like TripAdvisor, but they also like the sense of security that a brand brings. We can give them that. They know they will be safe with us.
Bearing in mind Best Western's recent agreement with seven-strong Corus Hotels – including two Laura Ashley properties – is the trend now for you to sign up groups rather than individual family hotels?
In the first quarter of this year we are expecting to sign up 45 hotels and in that we have both groups and individual family hotels. But this is a far greater rate of expansion than we have generally had in the past 10 years and it's true that it is fuelled by the groups. The expansion is helpful to us because we have big fixed costs – we have 200 or so staff – so greater scale helps us to operate more economically. The more members we have, the better value we are able to give them.
Hotel owners are looking not just at bookings they might get, but how much they pay to belong to a group
Best Western has said it is committed to the high street. What does this mean in practice?
We see it as an opportunity. City centres are very constrained for new builds, but with space opening up on high streets, we can make use of that. Although we don't own hotels as a group, we can help to connect an owner and a seller. We can help with joint ventures and deals.
Do you see Brexit as a threat or opportunity?
It's swings and roundabouts. We are looking for opportunities, but it is so difficult to know what is going to happen.
We had a good year last year, partly because people in the market who are seeing very modest growth were looking to join us because we are a good safety net. We expect more of that. Plus, we benchmark ourselves against Accor, InterContinental Hotels Group and Hilton and we are a good commercial prospect compared to them. Hotel owners are looking not just at the bookings they might get, but how much they pay to belong to a group. Because we are more competitive, we can often offer a better all-round deal.
Do you think the characterisation of poor conditions, low pay and long working hours in the hospitality industry is fair or outdated?
If I go back to where I started, it was at the front line. My first job was in housekeeping [at the Sydney Hilton]. I can remember pulling 20-hour shifts, which wouldn't happen in today's market. Then I moved on to banqueting and the hours were still long. The minimum wage is talked about, but here in central office it doesn't affect us too much. It is a big issue in the industry though, because costs are going up all the time and the owners have to make things add up.
What is the single biggest change you are planning for Best Western in 2020?
This is a huge year in our history. We are looking towards changing our corporate structure. We are a members' organisation, but we want to change that to become more commercially minded.
We have done the groundwork for this through talks with our owners and, in 12 months' time, we hope to be a limited company with shares. The hotels that are members of the group will become owners as well.
This should enable us to do more deals than we can now. What we have found is that sometimes there are opportunities, such as the new Hilton at Silverstone race track, for example, where we could not even be at the table. With the new structure, we could be much more.
What are the things you believe guests most want from a stay at a Best Western hotel?
It's all changed so much and we have so many brands that it varies from one to the other. But if I had to pick one thing I think it would be WiFi. I know it is said a lot, but you have just got to have it and have it easily available. For too many places it is still a lot of trouble to get codes and log on, and even then it is not necessarily very good. But it can be a difficulty. If you are operating a hotel in a castle 30 miles outside Durham for instance, then getting a good WiFi connection is not going to be easy. So it is a challenge.
What do you hope to achieve with the forthcoming three-part documentary on Channel 4 about the group? Are there risks?
A lot of prep work was done before we agreed to it. That said, we have no editing rights and we genuinely wanted to open up. We have great personalities among our owners and their staff, so we didn't put down any red lines at all. What we did do was look at the production company's previous work, which we liked, and we got a sense of comfort when we saw the first 10 minutes of filming. We didn't feel they were out to burn us. The programme is expected to be aired in April and we are just finishing the filming now.
The people who run the hotels own them. Everything means so much to them, it makes a difference. You really see that in our owners
Where do you most like to stay yourself, apart from your own hotels?
I like old charm, nostalgia. A couple of weeks ago I stayed in Marco Pierre White's Rudloe Arms near Bath, and there was no WiFi and a real old-world feeling. I like to switch off and it lets you do that.
What is the best hotel you have stayed in?
A small family hotel on Rhodes I went to with my family, where they made their own olive oil and honey. They really looked after you and took pride in everything they did. It was £19 a night.
When you left school did you expect to end up working in hospitality?
I started in the industry because I went to Sydney after finishing school to play football. One of the conditions of the club was that you had to continue to study and I chose a hospitality course. I played football for two years at the lower grades, but although this was still quite a high level I didn't make it to the first team in the end. But I still had the hospitality course.
Do you think you are underpaid, overpaid or paid the right amount?
My pay is decided by our board, which is made up of hotel owners, who are our customers. Eight of them are voted on to the board by the other owners. They make the decision.
Rob Paterson's CV
February 2018-present Chief executive, Best Western Hotels & Resorts
June 2015-January 2018 Commercial director, Village Hotels
September 2012-June 2015 Director of revenue and distribution, Malmaison and Hotel Du Vin
March 2011-August 2012 Director of revenue management and distribution strategy, De Vere Group
August 2001-March 2011 Various roles with Accor, including area revenue manager for New Zealand and Fiji, and regional revenue manager for southern UK and London
1997-1999 Studied at Kenvale College of Tourism & Hospitality Management, University of New South Wales, Australia
Best Western GB fact file
Best Western GB has 261 member hotels, with 11 brands and 15,271 bedrooms
Key staff: Rob Paterson, chief executive; Mark Stanley, head of hotel development; Terii Dunne, director of development Best Western GB was established in the UK in 1978 and is now the largest collection of independently owned and family-run hotels in Great Britain.
Largest hotel: Best Western London Crystal Palace Queens Hotel (330 bedrooms)
Smallest hotel: Lamb & Lion Inn Sure Hotel Collection by Best Western (12 rooms)
Longest-standing member: Best Western Plus Swan, Wells, Somerset hotel (joined 1972)
- Employs more than 10,000 people throughout the UK, plus additional seasonal staff
- In 2018, £65m was invested across the Best Western GB hotels, according to the BW Investment Survey
- BW takes on average 127,000 bookings per month, comprising more than 214,000 room nights
- In 2018, occupancy level across the portfolio was around 75%
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