At the tail end of September, Best Western Hotels & Resorts pulled back the veil on its experimental “white label” franchise model brand, SureStay Hotels. The new entity will be targeting economy and midscale properties both in North America and internationally, but there are a few curiosities surrounding SureStay that Best Western executives were all too willing to clear up.
1. SureStay is Best Western’s economy option
SureStay has a lot in common with upmarket collections or soft brands by major hotel companies (think Marriott's Autograph, Hilton’s Curio), but trends in the opposite direction. David Kong, president and CEO of Best Western Hotels & Resorts, said the primary targets for SureStay are branded or un-branded hotels that feel they are lacking in consumer awareness, and want to be plugged into a stronger distribution and operations platform like one owned by Best Western. The best example is SureStay’s first official property, the Genetti Hotel in Williamsport, Pa.
“Gus Genetti has been a member with us for 38 years,” Kong said. “His hotel has a grade of 4.5 on TripAdvisor, and by joining SureStay, he can tap into not only all the resources we offer, but he can also benefit from better commercial terms negotiated with OTAs.”
“There hasn’t been a hotel company out there that has offered a true midscale soft brand,” said Ron Pohl, SVP, brand management at Best Western.
2. The new brand is not an extension of Best Western
While SureStay will still be owned and run under the Best Western umbrella, the new brand will operate distinctly from the mothership and will not share a website. Kong reasoned that while the economy and lower-midscale segments are of great interest to Best Western, they had little exposure to them through past properties and did not want to begin investing in those hotels using the Best Western name in order to avoid confusion over the quality of the Best Western product, as well as the brand’s image.
“We are not linking Best Western and SureStay because we don’t want guests to equate Best Western with an economy brand, and it will cause confusion,” Kong said.
Furthermore, Kong expects there to be initial confusion among travelers as to what SureStay is, but that will be dispelled through a targeted advertising and educational campaign. Best Western is drawing on past experiences with similar issues in order to ensure a smooth rollout.
“When we launched Best Western Premier, it was impossible to explain what it was to guests in a 30-second ad,” Kong said. “It will take time, but we will educate the clients we work with.”
3. No PIPs
Product-improvement plans are a major part of operating a Best Western hotel (the company says that its properties are currently in the process of spending nearly $2 billion in renovations), but for economy and lower-midscale hotels it may not always be possible, or preferable, to spend on the upgrades. Kong’s message to hotels looking to join on with the new brand is clear: SureStay has no PIPs.
“The whole proposition is SureStay hotels will differentiate along the lines of customer care and not product experience,” he said. “We will rely greatly on TripAdvisor’s rating system to ensure the integrity of that brand. [Prospective hotels] will have to score at least a 3.5 on TripAdvisor to even be considered to join the SureStay brand, and on top of that they have agreed to a service promise, so if anything goes wrong they will fix it. We will also be performing unannounced inspections.”
4. Existing Best Western properties are making the switch
Seeking out new hotels to add to the SureStay brand is Best Western’s primary strategy for growing the portfolio, but there are also a number of existing Best Western properties that are willing to ditch their PIPs and sign on with the white label. Those conversations are taking place right now, but they are just one facet of SureStay’s growth plan. When asked where candidates for the brand will come from, Kong had a threefold answer.
“First, our own company,” he said. “Hotels that don’t want to invest in their property through renovations but still want to stay in the family, they are perfect for SureStay. Second, there are many properties that apply to become a Best Western but they don’t qualify because their product experience maybe doesn’t measure up. So, where do they go? There aren’t many other options to them, but they can join our company through the white-label brand. Lastly, there are a bunch of brands out there that don’t have the awareness, or unhappy franchisees that feel they are being charged too much. There is an opportunity there.”
5. It’s almost here
We are just now hearing about SureStay, but discussions regarding the brand began as far back as two years ago. Now, with months of preparation already underway, SureStay is preparing to open its first property (the previously mentioned Genetti Hotel) on Dec. 1, coinciding with the launch of the brand’s new website. Development on this website began a scant five months ago, but the development process was expedited by copying the existing infrastructure found in Best Western’s site and flipping it for SureStay.
“It doesn’t make sense to put the site up now, we won’t activate it until the first hotel is live,” Kong said. “Five months of development may not seem long, but we’ve been discussing SureStay for two years. We wanted to be sure we had a way to protect our members, and provide a payoff for all of our members as well.”