Phoenix-based Best Western began in 1946 out of an informal system of referrals between independent hotels in California. They came the only hotel reservation service that covered the entire United States in the early 1960s, and the largest motel brand with nearly 700 properties. Up to that time they had a marketing partnership with the predecessor to Quality Inns (then Quality Courts), as Best Western was largely West of the Mississippi River and Quality was to the East.
The Quality partnership ended in 1964 as Best Western launched eastward with ‘Best Eastern’ hotels. In 1967 the east name was dropped, everything consolidated under the Best Western name.
Today there are over 4000 Best Western properties. They are all independently owned, but most of the big hotel chains own very few of their own hotels. Best Western remains true to its roots as a hotel booking platform, a referral system, that’s tied together by a name and reservations system along with Best Western Rewards. There are some common rules for properties expressed in a unified front desk manual.
Hotel booking ‘associations’ were common in the 1930s and 1940s, publishing directories of independent ‘member’ properties. This grew as domestic travel grew, as automobile ownership spread.
Best Western was founded by M.K. Guertin, who was born in Liberty, Texas in 1891. He moved to California in the 1920s and worked at a family member’s hotel. He bought his own motel in 1933 and built a membership network of his own as Gary Hooover explains,
When he and a few close friends founded Best Western in the late 1940s, he immediately hit the road, inspecting 507 motels up and down the west coast, driving 4,956 miles in twenty-nine days. He accepted no payment for his time or travel expenses – Best Western had become a labor of love.
As Guertin signed up new members, he required each to become an informal inspector on Best Western’s behalf. If he heard of a prospective member, he’d send an existing member to the property to see if it met his high standards. If he heard that a member was not keeping their property up, he’d call another member and tell them to check on it. Unlike United, Best Western under Guertin did not hesitate to kick out a poor performer – Best Western has forced out as many as 15% of its members each year. By 1951, Best Western had grown to 197 members.
Back then properties were almost all independent. Only Hilton was a national business. The first Holiday Inn didn’t open until 1952, growing to 415 properties within a decade.
What I never knew, though, is that like early marketing associations for independent hotels, Best Western was organized as a non-profit. And even as it introduced advances in lodging – “[i]n the mid-fifties, they banned coin-operated “Magic Fingers” from beds in the belief that they cheapened the overnight experience” and added “the first national reservations system, placing a teletype machine in each motel” – it has remained a non-profit.
They continue to offer baseline property standards, a reservations platform, and group buying of supplies and consulting services along with a loyalty program. As Hoover reminds, they aren’t alone i the world operating in this way but are “like the French Relais & Chateaux (over 500 members) and Logis de France (2,400 members).”
Best Western’s member hotels rejected a management proposal to convert to a for-profit corporation to more easily access capital markets and invest in technology. So they remain a hotel member-owned non-profit association today.
(HT: Jeff W.)