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CJI Conversation: Best Western CEO Larry Cuculic on the Caribbean Market

By Guy Britton

Larry Cuculic took over as the newest chief executive officer of Best Western Hotels and Resorts towards the end of 2021, overseeing a company that is in the midst of a broad expansion push in the Caribbean in particular.

Caribbean Journal Invest caught up with Cuculic to learn more about Best Western’s Caribbean pipeline, where it’s looking to expand and the company’s pitch to owners.

Congratulations on your recent appointment as CEO. You have been with Best Western for 12 years now, how has that prepared you for the job at hand?

I was fortunate to have been an advisor to the Board of Directors and senior leadership team over the last 12 years and I am confident that my diverse experience across our organization has provided a strong foundation for my new responsibilities.

During my time as General Counsel, I had the opportunity to develop a deep and wide understanding of the organizational structure, the needs of our hoteliers, and how our company can best drive results to their hotels.

In addition to my role as General Counsel, I oversaw the Call Center, directed the Human Resources Department, supported our development efforts, and have international brand-level experience.

What might hotel developers not know about you already, that makes you unique?

I am committed to serving this organization with the same values that have defined my life – integrity, honesty, and humility. I am proud to bring my varied life experiences to my role as President and CEO, all of which shaped me into the person I am today.

I graduated from West Point, the United States Military Academy, and served in the Army as a Judge Advocate officer after graduating from Notre Dame Law School. I served in the military for 20 years prior to beginning my corporate law career. My military service molded me into who I am today, teaching me values of honor, leadership, commitment, and teamwork.

I promise to remain true to my values as I work with our hoteliers to continue our track record of success as an iconic global brand.

How many brands are in the Best Western portfolio? Can you give us an overview of those brands?

BWH Hotel Group is a leading, global hospitality network comprised of three hotel companies, including WorldHotels Collection, Best Western Hotels & Resorts and SureStay Hotel Group. The global network boasts approximately 4,700 hotels in over 100 countries and territories worldwide*. With 18 brands across every chain scale segment, from economy to luxury, BWH Hotel Group suits the needs of developers and guests in every market.

Details of each brand can be found here.

Are there particular brands that appeal more to investors and developers right now?

We’re fortunate to offer a worldwide family of 18 brands, from luxury to economy. The major influence on all development today is the generational shift in demand across the world. The younger demographic really desires a unique experience, local cuisine, something unexpected and a photo moment at every turn. Our WorldHotels Collection, BW Premier Collection, BW Signature Collection and SureStay Collection soft brands, boutique offerings like Vīb and Aiden, along with our upscale Best Western Premier brand, answer this call. We see a big future for all of them across the Caribbean.

Which brands have seen the most growth in recent years?

The soft brands, including WorldHotels Collection, BW Premier Collection, BW Signature Collection and SureStay Collection, offer independent owners and operators a unique connection point with our revenue-driving engines. We are seeing strong growth in these soft brands, which give the guest a trusted and comfortable experience, while also delivering support to hoteliers who seek to operate an independent property.  

Why is the Caribbean important to Best Western?

If there is anything we have learned in recent years, it’s that people will always be passionate about traveling – vacations are a celebrated pastime and at BWH Hotel Group we recognize the importance of having hotel offerings in key vacation designations. As travelers plan their island getaways to the Caribbean, we are committed to remaining top-of-mind to our loyal guests.

There are several current Best Western development projects in the Caribbean. Can you tell us about those?

BWH Hotel Group has just added two beautiful hotels to our Caribbean portfolio and have one additional signed and under development now. In December, the Aruba’s Life Vacation Residences became a member of our BW Signature Collection soft brand, offering guests the opportunity to “live like a local” while enjoying one- and two-bedroom apartments, complete with kitchens, living rooms, and dining rooms in a resort with a café, bar, and a convenient location just minutes from the beach. We also opened the Brion City Hotel, a BW Signature Collection in downtown Willemstad, Curacao, in the heart of historic Otrobanda at the iconic Queen Emma bridge.

Earlier in 2021, we signed an agreement for a new-construction Best Western Premier Hotel in scenic Dorado, Puerto Rico. The 125-room full-service hotel will welcome visitors to the beautiful beach in Dorado, as well as a new multi-discipline health center being developed at that location. It is expected to open in late 2023.

We grew our SureStay Hotel Group brand this year with The Lodgings, a SureStay Collection at the Providenciales, Turks & Caicos airport. Super convenient for visitors as they arrive or depart Turks and Caicos, and just minutes from the beach, the hotel offers superior accommodations and a restaurant and bar with a fun vibe.

Are there new Caribbean Best Western development projects in the pipeline?

Yes, as we continue to expand our Caribbean presence, our active pipeline includes multiple projects in St. Croix, Antigua, the Dominican Republic, and Barbados.

Which Caribbean Islands are you represented in now and what is notable about your hotels in those destinations?

In addition to the Aruba, Curacao, and Turks & Caicos locations, we also have hotels or resorts open in Belize and Puerto Rico:

Our Belize hotel is the Best Western Plus Biltmore Plaza Hotel. This full-service, garden style hotel in Belize City is the perfect starting point for exciting day trips to any of Belize’s great natural attractions. Simply head inland to visit one of Belize’s Ancient Mayan Cities or beautiful rainforests.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, the full-service Best Western Plus Condado Palm Hotel is perfectly located for guests visiting the upscale Condado area, or who wish to explore nearby Old San Juan or venture out to the historic forts, rainforest, or other attractions.

.The Best Western Plus Condado Palm Hotel.

Visitors to historic Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, in the western part of the island can enjoy the unique experience of staying in the former monastery for the historic cathedral. This boutique-style property is just steps from many restaurants and shops on Mayaguez Plaza and a short trip to beaches and other attractions.

What islands are you targeting for future development, and would you consider growing in other destinations, as well?

We can envision at least one hotel in each of the 32 nations of the Caribbean (33 when Cuba reopens), and for now, believe that the following islands best align with our guest demographics and performance potential: Bahamas, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Martin, and on a beach in Turks & Caicos. As travel patterns and guest demand are dynamic, we’re always open to thoughtful consideration of other destinations, as well.

How important is business travel to your brands? What about leisure travel, particularly in the Caribbean?

Our brands are in a desired space in the industry, with strong demand from both leisure and business travelers. Our hotels have performed well throughout the pandemic and into recovery, particularly as leisure travelers continued to travel and sought to “get outside” as travel resumed. We also pride ourselves on delivering a strong product offering and experience for business travelers. Developers are attracted to the BWH Hotel Group portfolio because we can deliver business from multiple segments including leisure, business, group, and others.

What do you look for in a development partner?

Each hotel or resort is individually owned and operated, and that has contributed to the success of BWH Hotel Group for more than 75 years. Over the years, we’ve leaned into the expertise of our hoteliers and developers, and we believe our best owners and operators are those individuals or companies who truly know and understand their local markets. These leaders in our organization understand the local dynamics, embrace the concept of warm and welcoming hospitality, and create a unique stay experience for today’s modern traveler.  

What makes Best Western’s brands attractive to developers in the Caribbean?

We are proud to bring a very strong value proposition to prospective developers in the region, offering flexibility and creativity in our hotel offerings while providing sales, marketing and technology platforms that provide superior revenue. For example, our GLō and Vīb lifestyle brands deliver a fresh, hip, and modern experience while still embracing local flair and design. Our soft brands, including WorldHotels Collection, BW Premier Collection, BW Signature Collection, and SureStay Collection, allow owners to maintain their own identity, culture, and reputation, while benefiting from the strength of a global hospitality powerhouse.

The benefits of being supported by the BWH Hotel Group brand include strong demand from nearly 50 million loyalty members; proprietary channels to reduce reliance on higher-cost OTAs; low, negotiated OTA commissions for guests who do choose to book through these channels; a global sales team dedicated to generating demand; robust support, design, and supply programs; and of course, our fee structure, which is among the lowest in the industry.

What is your outlook for 2022 and beyond?

We believe the outlook for 2022 is very positive for both the Caribbean and North America. BWH Hotel Group is continuing to build across its portfolio of 18 brands, each of which bring a unique value proposition and experience for guests. We expect that travel will continue to recover and we plan to continue growing our footprint in the region during this time, adding four hotels and resorts in 2022.

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