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Best Western just became the first U.S. hotel group to open a property in Haiti in a decade and is set to be the first U.S.-branded property in Myanmar.
Americans who correlate Best Western with road-side budget properties might be surprised to hear the hotel group is one of the largest in the world and that the brand is making international moves faster than Marriott and Hilton.
It is a mixture of timing and strategy that’s made Best Western look like one of the more daring hotel groups from the United States.
Part of the hotel group’s agility comes from its franchise infrastructure in which each property is individually owned and operated.
“It’s a very diverse organization,” said CEO David Kong at the NYU Hospitality Conference.
The moves appear risky, but the brand is entering the market in the form of converted or independent hotels.
Best Western in Haiti
Depending on your perspective, the brand’s entrance in Haiti is both unfortunate and brilliant. Best Western had been eyeing a Haiti property as part of its Caribbean expansion and was set to break ground on a hotel one week after the 2010 earthquake.
The project was delayed until its opening in April 2013 when it received media coverage as the first hotel brand to open on the island in over a decade. A location and team were already in place, but its timing raised its profile more than it would have prior to the disaster.
Mark Williams, Vice President of North American Development at Best Western, also expects operations to go smoother than they would have before the earthquake.
“We had challenges at that time,” Williams tells Skift. “With the changing government, we think that going down the road we’re going to have less issues and challenges. The government is going to be more progressive for business reasons. They want to be more proactive.”
After the earthquake, one of the property owners’ main goals was to help rebuild the economy by providing jobs and attracting visitors. With the exception of several foreign managers, locals make up 95 percent of the staff.
The hotel is also outfitted with 822 handicrafts, artworks, and photos created by local artisans, which are meant to represent the local culture.
Williams says occupancy hovered just above 50 percent in its first month, but it continues to climb each week.
Best Western is the number one mid-market hotel in the Caribbean. It was the first to enter Grenada eight years ago and very early to Aruba 30 years ago. The company’s goal is to eventually be on every Caribbean island to capture the leisure market.
In Myanmar, Best Western is taking over the existing independent Green Hill Hotel in Yangon, which will soon operate under the BW brand.
Glenn de Souza, VP of International Development Asia and Middle East, sees the brand as “taking first-mover advantage” by being the first U.S. brand present to cater to a new wave of tourists looking for internationally-recognized hotels.
“…while we will be the first American hotel company to enter Myanmar, we are doing so with the confidence that there is a huge market waiting to be tapped,” de Souza tells Skift.
There are many obstacles awaiting Best Western in Myanmar including importing quality hotel supplies, finding technical support, and working with underdeveloped financial infrastructure. Staffing, similar to Haiti, is also considered a challenge.
“Of course all emerging markets face certain challenges, but Myanmar is emerging with such pace that it is encountering several bottlenecks,” explains de Souza. “Manpower is a problem; as an international hotel company we need to maintain our service standards, and this might be more challenging in Myanmar which has a far smaller pool of workers with professional service skills.”
Best Western’s Myanmar property is just one of its expanding portfolio in Southeast Asia. The brand sees huge potential in the region given the increasing movement of travelers and formation of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015
“The region’s importance is demonstrated in our pipeline; we plan to open at least another 18 hotels in Indonesia, six in Malaysia, five in Thailand and four in the Philippines, along with others in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam,” de Souza tells Skift.