Incoming BWH Hotel Group president/CEO talks transition

For Larry Cuculic, who takes over the reins as president/CEO of BWH Hotel Group on Dec. 1, “The best is yet to come” for the company.

“I consider it a true professional challenge and one that I undertook after being thoughtful about responsibilities associated with leading this company,” he told Hotel Business. “It’s not a responsibility you can take lightly. It’s one you have to be committed to 100% because it’s just my style. I believe in leading by example—always being accessible to our hoteliers and our associates. You have to be all in 24/7.”

When Cuculic, who previously served for 12 years as the company’s SVP/general counsel, was introduced as the next president/CEO at the company’s brand conference at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in early October, he outlined six promises to the members of Best Western. “Number one, because Best Western is a community of members committed to the success of the Best Western family, I will always respect that you have a voice that deserves to be heard,” he said. “In January, I will travel and conduct a listening tour. I want to meet with you in your backyard and have an honest and open dialogue. I want you to tell us what we’re doing well, and what we can do to improve.

“Second, my personal commitment to you is that I’ll always work hard with honesty, integrity and fairness, and I will lead by example.

“Third, we will be focused on driving superior revenue to you. As they say in the military, ‘That’s our mission.’ That’s why we exist and what we can never forget.

“Number four, because you trust us with your fees, we will wisely use those funds as we invest in marketing technology and the Best Western team, ensuring there is a return on investment. Money spent will be spent prudently and intelligently.

“Fifth, we will strategically grow the Best Western brand through measured development that does not negatively impact your hotels.

“And six, together we have an obligation to protect the Best Western reputation and goodwill, so that the more guests stay at Best Western hotels, the more likely they are to return. We can do this by providing a quality stay for value that exceeds our best expectations. We will welcome them into our hotels and care for them as if they walked through the front door of our home. I raised my hand, as I’m taking an oath, and I make these promises to each of you.”

Since his introduction at the brand conference, Cuculic has worked to make sure that he is ready on day one to take leadership of the company, and to continue to build on the foundation that David Kong, from whom he is taking over the role, established in his long tenure with the company.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mr. Kong for 12 years now and watching and learning from his leadership style, his strategic thinking and how he conducts business on a daily basis and how he guides this hotel company from a tactical, as well as strategic level,” he said. “The past two weeks, we’ve continued that natural rhythm that we’ve always had, but he’s allowed me to also ask him very pointed questions with regard to matters.”

He hopes to emulate Kong’s leadership style going forward. “David is very thoughtful, and he’s a great listener, and I try to be as well,” said Cuculic. “We’ve had dialogues back and forth. As his general counsel and advisor for the past 12 years, I’ve learned the importance of our membership structure, how important it is to understand and recognize what our members…have come to expect from Best Western, and that really is having a voice.”

As part of the transition, he and Kong traveled to Europe to meet with the company’s international partners in an effort to “assure them that we’re aligned on a go-forward basis and we have the same strategic goals, objectives, vision to grow the brand globally because we are a global powerhouse,” said Cuculic. “We’re not just a North American brand. We have 4,000 hotels internationally.”

He felt it was very important to hear from the members directly—and give them their voice. “[It was important to] catch up with them as to how they survived, what they did, what their current status is post-pandemic, because it really did affect organizations differently… It was a great opportunity to catch up with our international partners and make sure that they’re doing well and they know they’re here to help them be as successful as possible as we move forward.”

While providing the members with a voice is a key to being a successful leader of the company, he said that recognizing that BWH Hotel Group is not structured like other hotel companies—with member hotels instead of franchisees—is extremely important. “Our board of directors is elected by our members,” Cuculic said. “We have governors who are appointed by their directors. We have advisory committees. The secret is to listen and guide them to where they want to go strategically, recognizing they each have a different perspective. The hotelier has the hotelier perspective. The board has that strategic objective, but that hotelier perspective at the same time because they are also members.”

He continued, “We’re different in that our members decide everything. We go out to our membership, and they vote on brand standards. They vote on design standards. They vote on our governance documents. Now, we can make a strong business case after we’ve listened to them and gotten their feedback. We have found that when we [do that], those ballots are successful because it’s actually what they’ve told us they want.”

Another key for leading the company is being true to yourself. “It is very important as a leader in this organization to have credibility to lead our hoteliers so that they follow and they know that you’re doing the best you can,” he said. “And that you have a true heart. I think that’s really important in this organization as well because we are a family of hoteliers. I think that’s what sets this organization apart from franchising as well.”

His role as its former general counsel should provide him proper perspective for the many aspects of the company. “A general counsel has the ability and the opportunity to build strong, deep, broad experience,” said Cuculic. “If you’re a good GC, you are not just a legal advisor, you’re a good business partner, you’re a sounding board and you can have those open, honest dialogues once you establish credibility with your team, so that you’re…a confidant [for]discussions across all the business departments and sectors.”
As general counsel, he had to stay abreast of everything happening in the company. “What a leader does in any organization is understand the impact of their decision on the other organizational departments, because no one really should operate in a silo,” he added. “…You have to look ahead and see what the impact of one decision on another department and make sure that they’re aligned and focused on the same goals and objectives.”

Cuculic has already begun thinking about those goals and objectives for the company under his leadership, including driving brand revenue to its members. “We are in a tremendously strong financial position right now,” he said. “What our hoteliers expect from Best Western is that we drive revenue to them. Not just revenue, but I think brand revenue is very important.”

To do this, the company will focus on, the mobile experience and “well-thought” marketing and advertising “where we are spending our money wisely, such that we have the maximum return on ad-spend is going to be tremendously important,” he said.

The company will also focus on providing guests with secure customer care. “I think that’s an evolving matter all the brands are evaluating right now,” said Cuculic. “What is the guest expectation going to be? Best Western’s always provided a great stay for value that meets their expectations. Then the question is: Where is the industry and where will our hoteliers go? So, we’re looking at brand standards.”

While looking at those brand standards, they are also keeping in mind that there are increasing costs for hoteliers. “Energy costs, insurance costs, food products are all going up,” he said. “Labor is certainly going up. So, what we need to do as the brand as well is evaluate how they can operate as efficiently as possible so that their bottom line is protected. You can raise rates all day long and try to be successful, but you also have to very carefully manage expenses.”

He will also focus on the brand’s loyalty program, Best Western Rewards, which has more than 40 million members. “We can build upon that,” he said. “We have a pay with points program that’s voluntary right now. We’re asking our members to make it mandatory across all brands, and I’m very hopeful that will pass. They are Best Western rewards points that should be used and can be used if they can buy down a rate at a hotel, such that our hotels get that business if they compete in both markets. Pay with points is an important initiative for us, and we are very hopeful that our membership will pass that because I think that will just make our very strong loyalty program even stronger.”

As Cuculic prepares for his new position, he has one ultimate goal in mind. “I want to make sure everyone understands that this is a great company,” he said. “I am honored and privileged to assume this position. Mr. Kong has been so terrific in the past 20 years at building this company to what it can be and as he closed out his convention speech, he said ‘The best is yet to come.’ I agree with him, because this is a truly iconic powerhouse brand. I look forward to the opportunity to serve it.”