From the December 1997 issue of Startups

You'd probably like to spend millions of dollars marketing and promoting your new company--but the reality is, you can't. You also know that effective marketing is a critical element of success. So how do you launch a champagne-style marketing program on a beer budget?

A few years ago, Best Western International Inc. faced the same challenge. Although the organization calls itself "the world's largest lodging brand," its marketing and promotion budget is limited.

To figure out why, it helps to understand how Best Western operates. Founded in 1946 by California hotelier M. K. Guertin, Best Western started as an informal referral system among member hotels. Global expansion began in 1954, when Canadian hotel owners joined the system. Today, independently owned and operated Best Western properties around the world offer more than 300,000 guest rooms in 75 countries. These hotels and motels span several price and amenity ranges and use their own names along with the Best Western label.

The corporation itself does not own hotels; rather, it's a nonprofit organization made of up member hotels. The organization sets standards member properties are required to meet, which builds consumer confidence and gives value to the label. It also provides a variety of support services, the most visible of which is a centralized, toll-free reservation system. But what keeps those reservation calls coming in is a powerful--yet affordable--marketing strategy that uses techniques that can be applied by businesses of all sizes in a variety of industries.

Key elements of Best Western's marketing approach include:

  • Strategic partnerships. Best Western teams with noncompeting businesses that share their market to offer mutually beneficial promotions. Last summer's Family Plan promotion was built on partnerships with Warner Home Video and DC Comics. Guests staying at a Best Western property under the "Have a Super Hero Summer" program received a DC Comics Batman-Superman activity book and a Fujifilm QuickSnap single-use Batman camera.

In a previous promotion, Best Western partnered with Snuggle fabric softener; Snuggle promoted the hotels in direct mail and newspaper ads, and hotels guests received stuffed "Snuggle Bears" and product coupons and slept on Snuggle-softened sheets.

"At Best Western, our partner relationships are selected on the basis of shared customers," explains Wayne W. Wielgus, vice president of worldwide marketing and sales for Best Western. The company looks for other companies marketing to the same demographic segments and then brainstorms ways to market jointly to those consumers. "Of course, with the potential of 65 million guest rooms to sell annually, that opens a lot of partner categories," Wielgus says. Although there is a strong emphasis on travel-related partners, Best Western looks outside the industry for partnership opportunities.

Partnering means companies can share marketing costs and reach a greater number of potential customers for less money. Partnering opportunities are limited only by your imagination; take a look at your customers and think about what else they purchase--it doesn't necessarily have to be directly related to your business. A house painter could team up with a fence company or a restaurant located near an automotive service center could offer free beverages to customers waiting for their cars to be repaired.

Though high-profile partners have a strong appeal, it's not essential that your partner be a household name. But don't be afraid to approach a large corporation with a partnering proposal; big companies are always on the lookout for low-cost ways to increase business, just as you are.

It's important to make sure your programs are indeed partnerships, with all parties investing and benefitting with relative fairness and all operating with complete integrity.

  • Target marketing. One of the simplest ways to control marketing costs is to target your program so you don't waste efforts reaching people who aren't prospective customers or by sending a message that is meaningless to a particular market segment.

"We dissect our customer base into several large segments: commercial business travelers, families, seniors, couples and so forth," Wielgus says. "This process helps determine not only who appropriate partners might be, but, because our customer mix changes according to the seasons, it helps determine when to market jointly with certain partners."

Best Western's "Super Hero Summer" program, for example, targets families with children traveling on summer vacations. Best Western's frequent guest program, "Gold Crown Club International," targets business travelers by allowing them to accumulate points--redeemable for gift certificates--based on lodging dollars spent.

Study the various segments of your particular market and develop focused campaigns to reach each one. Don't try to use the same ad to reach senior citizens that you use for young families; it won't work, and your money will be wasted.

  • Special and seasonal promotions. Tying promotions to seasons and special events allows you to use public awareness to build your own company. When appropriate, such promotions can also add an element of fun and overall appeal that may be more difficult to create without the seasonal link.
  • Consistent image. The Best Western brand name and distinctive logo are recognized around the world. Best Western has established clear guidelines for how the logo is to be used by member properties and strategic partners, which makes it easy to identify--whether it's on a sign outside a hotel or part of a grocery store's promotional display. Consumers recognize Best Western when they see the logo, and they turn to the brand with confidence.

The bottom line on low-cost marketing is this: The most effective marketing programs are not effective because the companies spent huge sums implementing them; they're effective because they were carefully researched and planned, targeted to an identified market, monitored for results and adjusted, when necessary, for maximum effect.

Tips From Business Start-Ups

1. Persuade other people to promote your business by offering discounts and premiums to selected groups. Offer a discount to employees of specific companies or members of an association, and those organizations will promote your company for you.

2. Give everyone you meet a business card--always, with no exceptions. Keeping your business cards in your wallet is a waste of money; they don't begin to work for you until they're in someone else's hands.

3. Don't reinvent the wheel. Look at what other successful companies have done--even those not in your industry--and adapt their strategies to your company and circumstances.

4. Get on the Internet. Create a Web site and look for other high-tech marketing vehicles.

5. Be a visible member of your customers' community; they'll remember you were there much longer than they'll remember an advertisement.

6. Create a referral program. Satisfied customers are your best advertisements; provide them with incentive to refer their friends and colleagues--perhaps a discount off their next purchase or a gift certificate to a local store or restaurant.

7. Use coupons carefully. Coupons are an affordable way to attract customers, but you want them willing to come back and pay regular prices--which they won't do if you regularly flood the market with coupons.

8. Sponsor something worthwhile. Sports teams, charities and community organizations are always looking for companies to serve as sponsors, and often the cost is nominal--especially when compared to the promotional value you'll receive.

9. Monitor your programs. Keep track of what you're doing, what it costs and what the results are. Make changes when necessary. Do more of what works, and stop doing what isn't paying off.


Jacquelyn Lynn, a freelance writer in Winter Park, Florida, believes that creativity and commitment are far more important than a big budget when it comes to marketing.

Contact Source

Best Western International Inc., (602) 957-4200