Travel Q&A: 5 questions with Best Western CEO David Kong

— -- This week, we debut our new Q&A series with newsmakers from the travel industry. We begin with David Kong, CEO of Best Western, the world's largest hotel chain. The Phoenix-based association has more than 2,400 properties in North America and over 4,000 worldwide.

Unlike other chains, Best Western works as a non-profit operation, collecting fees upfront for licensing the brand. Each owner is considered a member of the association and independently operates the hotel. Over the years, the uniquely decentralized model of operations has bred varying standards and inconsistent quality throughout the system, an operational challenge that Kong and its board have tried to tackle in recent years.

Q: What changes can we expect in your industry in the coming years?

Best Western is in the mid-scale segment (of hotels). It's traditionally the most resilient during a downturn. Our segment has taken a slight hit, but not as dramatic as other segments. (In a sluggish economy), people tend to trade down and look for value and midscale (hotels) offer that. The segment has made some serious product enhancements (in recent months). The overall experience is comparable to some of the upscale hotels.

Q: Tell us about some changes in the works to improve or expand your current products and services?

We've implemented numerous standards to look fresh and contemporary. In bathrooms, (we've installed) granite or other natural countertop materials, curved shower rods and high pressure shower heads.

We've also launched a new hotel prototype called Atrea. It's to compete with the upscale segment, (such as) Courtyard (by Marriott) and Hyatt Place. We're trying to capture the excitement back to the our hotels. In the lobby for example, we put in a media center. The breakfast area is set up so it looks like a lounge area at night. The room itself is very contemporary. We have 25 contracts that have been signed for (Atrea) and two hotels activating in February (in Conyers, Ga. and San Antonio). We're not making any changes to the brand now. (But) if (developers) met those (Atrea) requirements, they can use the name Best Western Atrea. It's an architectural prototype.

(Seeking more uniform quality standards at other Best Western hotels) is an ongoing process. I think we have done an excellent job ... (in determining) what initiatives to be undertaken and what hotels are taken out of the system (about 200 removed in 2007).

Q: Tell us one thing about your company or product that most people don't know.

We have a lot of different types of hotels. We have a hotel that's a 300-year old castle in Scotland. We have a hotel in Paris with a garden that used to belong to the personal physician of Napoleon Bonaparte. We have hotels with rich histories. When you stay at some of those hotels, it's really an experience.

Q: What do you hear from travelers about your products/services?

In general, people have favorable impression of Best Western. Sometimes, what's lacking is that, although they have a favorable impression, they don't necessarily think about staying at a Best Western. They might remember it from 20 years ago when they were driving across the country on a trip and they stayed at a Best Western. But they haven't stayed with us lately. That's why, in the last few years, you've seen concerted effort on our part to contemporize our brand. We also greatly stepped up our efforts for

Q: What's your biggest gripe when you travel for business?

Impersonal service. (Sometimes, when you travel,) it's like you're just a number. Like cows being herded. No sensitivity and no compassion. I can check in to a (5-star hotel), I can be coughing and seem like I'm having a tough time. All they do is take my card, give me the key and say 'have a nice stay.' Where' the compassion that says 'I'm sorry to hear that. Let me arrange to have some hot tea and lemon sent up to your room?'"

Readers, who in the travel industry would you like to see us interview in future installments? Leave your recommendations in comments below.