In depth: Best Western's David Kong on his life and career

David Kong’s life story is a veritable instruction manual about how to make it in America. A tale of hard work and pluck and the drive to succeed. It’s an immigrant tale, not unlike so many others: the determined, gritty young man rewarded by reaching the pinnacle of his profession.

That’s David Kong, the president and CEO of Best Western International, the iconic hotel brand, which was founded in 1946 and celebrates its 70th anniversary next year.

Kong’s beginning, naturally, starts elsewhere—in Hong Kong, where strength of character was learned at a very young age from an obvious source: his parents.

“We weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouth, so we had to work really hard to get to where we are today,” said Kong, who also has three successful brothers. (His eldest brother, Peter, was the president of global components at Arrow Electronics, one of the largest electronic companies in the world.) “Growing up I saw how hard my parents worked. They really taught me the value of work ethic.”

Kong’s father embodied that paradigm. He worked, by Kong’s account, six-and-a-half days per week, but that small sliver of respite his father did have proved to inspire Kong’s future career plans.

It was during these times, on Sunday afternoons, when Kong’s father would take the family out for a meal at one of Hong Kong’s hotels, where, back then, many of the nicer restaurants were located. Those occasions, dining within the belly of these urban hotels, was where Kong got the itch to pursue a life in hospitality. “That whole experience really intrigued me and motivated me to begin a career in the hotel industry,” he said.
But this is an immigrant’s tale, and immigrant tales begin one place and jump to another.

Moving Forward
In 1970, at the age of 18, Kong moved to Hawaii to pursue a degree at the University of Hawaii—and while Hawaii was and still does have a very high Asian population, Kong still felt the role of the foreigner and convinced himself he’d need to work that much harder to get ahead.

His first exposure to the hospitality industry came at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where he was a dishwasher and a busboy, then “somebody took a chance on me,” he said, and he was promoted to waiter. F&B, not surprisingly, is where Kong made his initial mark.

Consider alcohol sales, an area in hospitality he knew could be lucrative. Unfamiliar with terminology and American brands, Kong took to studying up. Naturally, the best place for this was the liquor store. So, as a college kid, instead of trying to buy it, he studied it. “I knew immediately I had to really learn all these labels [and recipes] so I wouldn’t look like a fool,” he said. “I’d study all the liquor that they carried on the shelves and tried to memorize everything. That began my progression of wanting to move ahead. I figured if I was more knowledgeable than anybody else, then I can move ahead.”

From Hawaii, Kong made his way to Dallas, where he was working in food and beverage for Omni Hotels. He was so impressive that before long he was to be promoted to resident manager at an Omni hotel in San Francisco. It was also at this time that his wife, who worked for Hyatt Hotels, told him that the Hyatt Regency Dallas was looking for an assistant F&B director and was interested in Kong. One quandary: This would be a step back not only in title, but pay, too. It would also prove to be an inflection point for Kong. “I decided that if I was going to make the hotel industry my career, I had to be with one of the most progressive companies, which Hyatt was at that time.”

He got the job, bit the bullet and, in doing so, took a huge pay cut. Kong’s tough decision was influenced by his brother, Peter, who, as an electronic engineer, didn’t become successful overnight. “He was floundering for a long time,” Kong said, explaining that his brother, who at the time was living in Toronto, had worked for big companies, but wasn’t really getting ahead.

Then, he had the opportunity to move his whole family to Singapore. “It launched his career,” Kong said. He became very well known and sought after as an Asia expert, who could read and write English and understood the culture of Asians. “It taught me that sometimes you have to make sacrifices to move your career ahead,” Kong said.

His star rose at Hyatt, where, as GM of the Hyatt Regency Oak Brook, outside Chicago, he introduced such seminal ideas as the 100-percent satisfaction guarantee. This was in 1989, “before Hampton, before Holiday Inn Express, before anybody even was considering doing satisfaction guarantees,” he said. “A service guarantee is a powerful sales-and-marketing ploy because it gives people reassurance and comfort, and it’s a very powerful way to change the culture of an organization.”

It proved to be a hit with guests and also employees, who felt empowered. “Our revenue went up and then our profit went up and, of course, our employee engagement scores went up,” Kong said. “That was my claim to fame at Hyatt.”

Best Days Ahead
Kong’s ingenuity ultimately bumped him up to the corporate level at Hyatt, where he stayed for 10 years. In 2001, he joined Best Western International, where he initially filled a few executive positions. Three years after joining the company, Kong fulfilled his American dream, becoming president and CEO. He was ready, and ready to shake up the status quo.

“When I first joined Best Western, I just thought that the brand had so much potential that it wasn’t tapping,” Kong said. “We were sitting there looking at brands like Holiday Inn Express and Hampton becoming stronger by the day, but we were not reacting to it. We were just business as usual and not recognizing that we were losing market share.”

Once Kong took the reins, his focus was on two areas: one, improving the brand’s image (Best Western separated from around 1,200 hotels in a decade’s span) and, two, revving up the company’s revenue engine by concentrating on electronic distribution and Best Western Rewards, the company’s loyalty program.

Seven years after becoming CEO, Kong unveiled what likely will be his legacy. In 2011, Best Western, for more than 60 years a single-brand operation, announced its descriptor program, which tiered properties into three categories: Best Western, Best Western Plus and Best Western Premier. The program was many years in the making, Kong said.

“There was a consumer confusion problem,” he said. “Sometimes they’d stay in a really nice Best Western, get really happy, and then go stay at another Best Western and get disappointed because their expectation was not met. We knew we had to solve that problem.”

The descriptor program, as Kong told it, was as much a customer initiative as it was an owner retention directive. Best Western is a member organization, with each property independently owned and operated. “Some of the high-quality hotels were thinking about leaving because they didn’t want to be associated with some of the other hotels,” Kong said. “We knew if we lost those hotels, we would dwindle down to maybe even the economy segment. It would just be a downward spiral. We had to correct that. It now has put us in a much better position to compete.”

Kong wasn’t finished retooling Best Western. Last year, the company launched a lifestyle brand and soft brand, Vib and BW Premier Collection, respectively. The former was created to tap into new developers, enhance the image of the brand and serve as an incubator for new ideas. “We knew we had to go and tap into a different set of developers if we wanted to move ahead,” Kong said, adding that the lifestyle segment is contemporary and relevant with today’s customers. “It is one they are interested in.”

Kong referred to the BW Premier Collection as a different consideration. “We had a lot of hotels, independent hotels, that didn’t want to meet the requirements that we have for Best Western Premier,” he said. “Yet they are looking for that alternate source of distribution. We saw that opportunity and we also saw the opportunity to introduce a new funding model.”

Kong views other soft brands not as the competition, but, rather, the online travel agents. “Why would these independent hotels want to look for an alternate source of revenue?” he asks. “It’s because they don’t want to be relying on OTAs. That’s why we did our fee model based on a percentage of revenue that we deliver and not on a royalty base on total rooms revenue.”

BW Into The Future
Best Western will hold its convention in October, and a new logo is in the offing—the current iteration having now been around for some 20 years. “Our logo is really good in a sense that it’s very prominent and noticeable,” Kong said. “It’s also very familiar, so it’s not an easy decision to just change it for the sake of changing it. We’ve done a lot of great things with the descriptors and that really needs a brand identity to help convey that we’re a contemporary relevant brand.”

Best Western is also six brands now. “We need a logo that’s going to separate these brands, convey that they’re different, but at the same time make it seem like we’re one cohesive family of brands,” Kong said.

What the logo might look like is still under wraps, but in this day and age, there are many more considerations to bear in mind, such as, “How do you make our logo stand out on an Apple iWatch?” Kong asked. “The whole world is moving to mobile, so we have to prepare for that.”

With Kong at the helm, you know they are.