Brand Builder: David Kong is not just leaving Best Western; he’s leaving a lasting—and respected—legacy

After 17 years at the helm—the longest current tenure of any major hotel brand leader—David Kong, president/CEO, BWH Hotel Group, is retiring from the company he helped transform.
“It’s a good time for me to move on from Best Western, because over the last 20 years, we built a solid foundation,” he said. “We have a lot of very established, proven programs and platforms that are yielding good benefits for hotels. We have built a highly competent and dedicated team. We’ve achieved a lot together. So, if you consider all that we’ve accomplished, it’s probably time for me to move on.”

The decision to move on was not an easy one for him. “You know, Best Western has been an important part of my life for the last 20 years,” said Kong. “It’s become who I am, so it’s not an easy decision. But knowing that it has a solid foundation, and that it will be in good hands, makes the decision easier.”

Kong, who will finish his time with the company at the end of the year, let its board of directors know of his decision last year. He gave no hints as to who might succeed him at the company. “They have put together a very thorough process [to find a successor],” he said. “Obviously, we have very strong internal candidates, and some viable external candidates as well. The board recognizes that our organization is different, so they’re taking time and being thoughtful about the selection of my successor, and the announcement will be made at our convention in early October.”

He first joined Best Western in August 2001 after an already distinguished career with leadership roles at Hilton, Omni, Regent International, KPMG and 19 years at Hyatt. His first position at Best Western was the newly created role of VP of strategic services. He oversaw strategic planning and Gold Crown Club International, the company’s frequent guest program at the time. He also established the company’s database analytics capabilities.

In September 2002, he was named VP of operations and strategic services. Just six months later, he was appointed senior VP of global strategy and development, and by the end of the year, he was promoted to SVP, marketing and development. In June 2004, he became the EVP of international operations. He was named to his current position that September.

Kong has led the company to its greatest growth to date. At his first brand conference in the C-suite, he said, “I may not be the most charismatic, most experienced or best looking, but I will make up for it with hard work and dedication.” And, all kidding aside, he sure did.
He also told Hotel Business that it was his dream job. “It’s a great honor to be leading the world’s largest hotel chain,” he said.

His hard work and dedication is evidenced by the company’s growth under his watch, now with a global portfolio of 18 brands, comprising approximately 4,700 hotels across all chain-scale segments.

“When I became CEO, I really set out to wake up the sleeping giant because when I started to work for Best Western 20-some years ago, I recognized the potential of the organization from the beginning,” he said. “I was fairly impressed with how special the organization is, especially the people, meaning the hotels and the corporate team and everybody involved. And over the last 17 years or so, I built a team that’s really been with me all that time and, together, we’ve chased a lot of our dreams and have achieved a lot. In fact, [we] achieved what many would have considered impossible. I’m really proud of my team and, just in general, very gratified with all that we’ve achieved.”

While the company has achieved a number of successes during Kong’s tenure, he said there are several that stand out for him.

When he first became the president/CEO, he took a hard look at every aspect of the company, especially the individual properties. “The first one was between 2006 and 2008, [when] we separated from a lot of hotels because we were focused on quality,” he said. “We basically remade Best Western through that period. And if you look at the net promoter score, ever since we did that, it jumped up 30 points. That is an incredible increase in net promoter score, so I’m really proud of that. It gave us a really good foundation.”

In 2010, Best Western launched its descriptor program, which Hotel Business at the time described as the company’s most dramatic rethinking in its history. It made the Best Western brand into three: Best Western, Best Western Plus and Best Western Premier.

“Introducing the descriptors is a way of celebrating the diversity of our extensive inventory in North America,” Kong told Hotel Business at the time. “We offer a variety of price points and locations for the midscale traveler. But because we’ve never described our hotels very well, there’s been confusion on the part of many [customers]. [Guests] haven’t necessarily known what to expect at a Best Western.”

Another highlight for Kong was the launch of new logos for the company in 2015. “It basically signaled to the world that we are a fresh, vibrant and exciting brand and very relevant for today’s travelers,” he said.

He also points to the launch of Vib, Best Western’s first design-centric lifestyle boutique hotel brand, which was later joined by Glo, Sadie and Aiden, as a major milestone for the hotel company.

Kong is also proud of the launch of Surestay in 2017, the company’s first foray into the economy chain scale. “We set out to be the leader in the economy segment, and in so many ways, we have achieved it,” he said. “We’ve won the J.D. Power Award for the last two years. We are reaching high RevPAR index, high guest satisfaction. We have probably the highest social media ratings of all economy brands. We set out to be a leader, and I think we are becoming a leader.”

Two other highlights include the 2019 acquisitions of WorldHotels, which gave the company a presence in the upper-upscale and luxury segments, and AutoClerk, which provided the company its own PMS system.

One time that Kong will always remember is the current pandemic, “where we not only survived, but we actually gave ourselves a better foundation in a sense, that we weathered the storm, and we stuck together as a family,” he said. “We became tighter and stronger as a result. So, gave it us a stronger foundation to grow from.”

A lot of the company’s success during his tenure has to do with his leadership style. “I tend to be inclusive in the decision-making process,” he said. “I learned early on that if you engage people and you value their opinion, you get better buy-in, so your implementation is going to be smoother, and then the decisions are generally much better thought out and therefore would work… And I’m also not afraid to take a stance and make hard decisions. You can look back to the examples [of achievements] I’ve given; they are not easy initiatives. They were not easy, but we made it happen.”

He also values the people who work with him. “I also believe in helping people find their passion and identify and leverage their strength in order to unleash their full potential,” he added. “If you look back at the team that we’ve put together, none of my executive committee members left as a result. Dorothy Dowling has been with me for 17 years, for example, and she’s grown so much. Just look at her accomplishments. It’s just phenomenal.”
Growing up, many family memories were made at the local hotels. “When I was growing up in Hong Kong, my parents worked hard and they really valued the quality time with the family,” he said. “Having meals with family is a big part of the Chinese culture and, at that time, the best restaurants were in big hotels, so when I was growing up, I was exposed to restaurants and hotels, and I was very enamored with the business.”

As he grew older, he decided to attend the hotel school at the University of Hawaii, where in 2013, he was inducted into its Hall of Honor. “I came to this country as a poor student and an immigrant—no friends, no connections, no money,” he said. “So I never imagined that I’d end up serving as the president/CEO of one of the largest global hotel companies for almost 20 years. This really speaks to how exciting and vibrant our industry is and the opportunity that it affords. This industry has really provided me a very good living and gave me fulfillment, and it empowered me to have bold dreams and to pursue that without hesitation. I’m just very grateful for the opportunities that were provided.”

Kong credits his parents with making him the leader—and the man—that he is today. “I’m always grateful to my parents, who worked really hard their whole lives in order to build a better future for me and my brothers,” he said. “Everything I do, I try to honor them. I try to model their work ethic. I try to be helpful to other people. And the way that I [would] like to be remembered is: ‘David is a good person—one that others can always count on.’”

Kong said that another person who has had an influence on his career is Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder/executive chairman. “I have had Amazon stock for a long time,” said Kong. “I love his yearly shareholder letter. There were two things that he always mentioned, and I always keep in mind: One is, he talks about ‘It’s always day one.’ And I totally believe in that. If you have a startup mentality every single day, you are going to try so much harder, and have got to be very productive and efficient in how you look at things. You always feel inspired, motivated and enthused about going to work. So, I love that ‘It is always day one’ mentality.”

He added, “The second thing he talks about is the maniacal focus on customers, which I totally agree with. That’s why our company’s mission statement is: to lead the industry in superior customer care.”

Kong has also been influenced by fellow hotel industry leader Sébastien Bazin, chairman/CEO, Accor. “He has totally transformed that company, and I love his innovation,” said Kong. “I love all the adjacent businesses he’s gotten into and how it’s grown Accor. In fact, we’ve actually put together a case study for our team, and we use it for development purposes because I just love all that he’s done so much. I use that case study to talk about innovation.”

The soon-to-be Best Western retiree has lots of plans for when he leaves the company. “I’m looking forward to spending more time with family and having more time to pursue my personal interests,” he said. “God knows that I haven’t done enough of that when I was coming up the ladder.”

He also hopes to travel. “I wish the pandemic wasn’t as big an issue,” he said. “We had intended to go to Asia for about three months—I grew up in Hong Kong—and spend some time in that region. But regrettably, this year is not the right time to go. Maybe in a couple of years’ time, but I do intend to go to Europe for an extended period.”

While Kong is retiring from BWH Hotel Group, he doesn’t plan on leaving the industry completely. “There’s some catching up to do, but I’m not the kind to sit at home or play golf all day—just not that kind,” he said. “I intend to be productive and continue to contribute. I am having preliminary conversations with people about certain board seats, and also advisory roles with certain companies. I’m also looking to contribute through some kind of a mentorship opportunity. So, I’m going to keep myself busy and continue to contribute.”

As he looks to help the next generation of the hotel leaders through that possible mentorship opportunity, he does have advice to attract them. “I just wish more people would realize what a special industry this is and the opportunity that it affords,” Kong said. “And that we can attract more talent who could become the future stars of the industry.”

He also believes that a lot more work that can be done in diversity and inclusion, an area that Kong has championed throughout his career. “We need to see more women and minority leaders in our industry,” said Kong. “I mean, you go to industry conferences and notice that [there aren’t many].”
Kong shared with Hotel Business about the time when he was starting his career after attending the University of Hawaii. “I remember when I was coming up the ladder in Hawaii, there was just no way [Asians] could be hotel general managers… If you weren’t European, there were no opportunities whatsoever, so that’s why I came to the mainland,” he recalled.
He continued, “Over the years, I’ve noticed that the glass ceiling is real. I’m not just talking about minorities, but women also. There’s a real glass ceiling. That needs to change, and that glass ceiling need to be shattered.”

He applauded the work being done by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) through its foundation. “They are going to start, for lack of a better word, an education process for the leaders of the major hotel companies, including REITs and management companies,” he said. “It’s about being aware of the situation, and it’s about knowing how to have those—what many would consider difficult—conversations on this kind of topic. And it’s about how we can create more opportunities for women and minority groups that will eventually empower them to become leaders in the industry.”