Women in travel
Issue Date: Mar 04, 2019

Driving innovation through collaboration


They’re movers and shakers. Their contributions have changed and continue to change the nature of travel, both in Canada and around the world. In this week’s issue, in honour of International Women’s Day on March 8, Canadian Travel Press’ series of profiles on Women in Travel continues with Dorothy Dowling, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Best Western Hotels & Resorts.

Prior to joining the Best Western executive team in 2004, Dorothy Dowling wasn’t actively looking to make a career change. But after being recruited to meet with the organization’s president and CEO, David Kong, she knew it was in her “Best” interest.

“David was just one of those individuals that for me was a transformative leader, I knew that immediately upon meeting him,” Dowling tells Canadian Travel Press. “I also knew at that point in my career that one of the most important things you can do is hire the right boss, and I knew David was going to be one of those individuals in my life and I didn’t want to miss out on that opportunity.”

Taking on the gig required a relocation from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Phoenix, Arizona, something the Canadian transplant has done often over the course of 30 years in the industry.

“I have moved I don’t even know, 16 times in my career,” she says. “Many places in Canada and the US, and I’ve loved all of them for all different reasons. I firmly believe you should embrace where you live and make the most of it because life is too short.”

Fast forward nearly 15 years and today, the senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Best Western Hotels & Resorts says she “fell into” the travel industry, while earning a joint Masters of Arts degree in sociology and leisure studies from the University of Waterloo in Ontario. With access to a large database, she began working on a longitudinal study on understanding tourism patterns for the predecessor to Destination Canada, which became her master’s thesis and led to a position with the destination marketing agency.

“That was an amazing foundation for my career, but it truly was not something that I had been engaged with as a younger person. It was something that I came to know through my graduate studies and then virtually never left the industry after that point in time,” she says. “One of the wonderful things about being in a small to big company in Canada is you get to touch a lot of different things in the business. I think it makes you a very well-rounded executive, and I never forget that those experiences have been incredibly important in my career. They have served me well, they have given me such a strong foundation.”

Better days, Best days
Dowling, who has received a slew of awards ranging from being named one of Forbes top 50 most influential CMOs multiple times and one of Hotel Management magazine’s 30 Influential Women in Hospitality in 2017, to receiving the Allied Member of the Year award at the GBTA convention in 2018, counts being part of Best Western’s transformative journey as some of the biggest highlights of the job.

Leading the change was when Best Western introduced its descriptor program by establishing three distinct hotel types, which required support from hotelier partners who weren’t certain it would be the right choice for their business at the time.

“We were under a single brand helm and we straddled a large diversity of product, and customers wanted to have a much deeper appreciation of what to expect before they arrived at our hotels, so that was how we took our one brand and made it into three, so that we had a solid mid-scale, a solid upper mid-scale and a solid upscale solution,” she recalls. “That was a real journey because at Best Western, we ballot every initiative that we do and we have to engage our hoteliers, and that was a risky decision for them. At that point in time, I think we were 67 years old, and we had always operated under that one brand umbrella, and for many of them, they made that leap of faith because they believed in the leadership team. And they wanted to give us the power to continue to evolve the company, so that was a very gratifying opportunity.”

Being tech savvy
The process became a platform to more transformative leadership, which allowed the brand to delve into more initiatives, such as being a leading hotel player in digital marketing through innovative partnerships with TripAdvisor, Facebook and most significantly, Google.

“We were on the leading edge with Google, we jumped on that train, we were the first brand to do that. And then because we were first with them they’ve continued to bring opportunities to us for us to continue to evolve, so that we can be represented on their platform,” she says, noting it again required another leap from hoteliers, as they had to pay to be part of that path. “We recognize that brand platforms are one piece of the puzzle for customers on a journey to choosing and quite frankly that 70% of customers start on Google, so you have to lean into some of these customers and understand how they’re evolving their solutions, so that you can partner with them to bring the right kind of business capabilities from your brand to be represented on their platform.”

In 2016, the company launched the
Best Western Virtual Reality Experience as part of a $2 billion brand refresh, which provides travellers with an immersive 360 degree look into its hotel offerings from pools, lobbies, and fitness centres, to parking lots, and rooms. Utilizing Google’s Street View technology, Best Western partnered with Google to collect photos of its 2,200 North American locations.

Joining the company at a time when many people thought Best Western was past its best days, she says utilizing cutting-edge technology and enhancing the customer experience helped propel the organization onto Fast Company’s list of The World’s Most Innovate Companies 2018, in the Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality category.

“At that time, many thought we were past our best days and to be recognized by that company last year, I mean we were in the top 10, but to be No. 6, I think that’s quite an achievement,” she says. “We’ve really had an opportunity to build and transform this organization into a very relevant consumer brand. I look at it and I say okay, we’re No. 8 in the world from a size and scale perspective, but I think we punch at about the No. 4 or 5 position because I think we’ve innovated, and we’ve co-innovated with partners. We went from one brand to three brands seven years ago, we’re now 13 and soon to be a few more, and all of those have been journeys in terms of evolving and listening to what the customer expects.”

A day in the life
In charge of directing all marketing and sales strategies, overseeing the brand’s loyalty program, consumer and field marketing activities, advertising and public relations, Dowling says her job comes down to two things: being the revenue driver and leader across new business and business retention, and bringing the customers’ voice to her business partners, the executive committee and hoteliers.

“Sometimes that’s serving information that they don’t want to hear. Sometimes we don’t have the most beautiful baby and we have to think about how do we improve, how we actually take our brand forward, so we can be more responsive to where the customer sees us,” she says. “It’s really around the top line revenue, I have to be focused on bringing the customers in and optimizing the channels that they come through and the rates. Then the second piece is really bringing forward that voice to make sure that we’re listening to that customer and learning from that customer and evolving to respond to that customer in terms of their needs and their wants.”

During her tenure with the company, she’s implemented measures to increase market shares and contemporize the brand. She rebranded the company’s loyalty program to Best Western Rewards, increasing its membership to more than 35 million and more than doubling its revenue contribution percentage to hotels.

As for her best career advice, she believes it’s important to continue to invest in being informed and to surround yourself with good teammates.

“A lot of people that I have met over time, they sometimes think they have arrived and I don’t think you ever arrive. You have to continue investing in your learning,” she says. “Our business moves too fast, if you’re not constantly evolving what value you bring and you respect that everyday you have to earn your keep, someone will push you out of the way. That’s kind of the way my point of view has always been, but even more so today than before.”

Through it all, she counts the opportunities to work with hoteliers and business partners in a very collaborative way as one of the perks of her position.

“I love the opportunity to co-innovate. I think that’s something of where I bring value to Best Western because I think the exposure you get from multiple partners allows you to see things differently,” she says. “I’m a big believer that everything today is about the do-it-together framework, that none of us have the ability to really see holistically all of the kinds of things that we need to be informed about. So by leaning into partners and leaning into our hoteliers, I think we just are so much better, we’re so much more effective. We’re so much more informed in terms of how we approach the kinds of challenges that the business environment presents to us today.”

Get to know Dorothy Dowling

What was your first job ever? My first job, I taught swimming lessons and I was a lifeguard at Scarborough Parks and Recreation.

Do you keep track of how many countries you’ve been to? If so, how many? I wish I had done that early on. I’ve been to six continents, I’ve been to all of the US states, all of the Canadian provinces, I’ve been to a lot of countries in Europe and Asia, but I haven’t kept track.
How often are you on the road for work? I typically do about 200 nights a year, so a lot.

What’s a piece of career advice that sticks with you today? When I immigrated to the US, my husband gave up his job, he became a stay-at-home parent for my son, I could never have achieved the kind of career without my husband. He’s been an amazing business partner and personal partner to me my entire life. I had a woman, early on when I had made that choice to come to the US, and she said to me whenever you are going into a tough negotiation for that job, Dorothy, or for that compensation you feel you deserve, you put your husband on one shoulder and your son on the other because women generally undervalue and often do not articulate their why very well in terms of how they deserve more. She said, if you are fighting for your husband because you are the bread winner, and fighting for your son’s future, you will do it better. So, I’ve always kept that in my mind, and it’s served me well over the years.

How do you stay competitive? A) I’m a big believer in that you have to put yourself in the shoes of the customer all the time, so I embrace the technology of today, I try to bring it into my home, and I try to use it because I want to try and experience things as our customers do, so that I can understand how that journey is evolving from their point of view. So, if you look at our home, we have Google Hubs, and we have Alexa everywhere and, in many cases, I have them side by side, so I can see how each one of them handles some of the natural-based searched mechanisms that we have today… So, it is about that quest for knowledge, so I would say it’s around having an experiential based approach, trying to live the world as different customers do. B) It is leaning into our customers, our big buyer customers, our partners. Our hotel partners around the world and really hear from them and learn from them and be open to the kinds of messaging that they’re giving to you because sometimes that isn’t so easy to hear because sometimes they point out all the opportunities for improvements. C) The third is really just investing a couple of hours every day to become more informed because there is so much information that if you don’t take that time every day, you’re not going to understand the competitive landscape, you’re not going to understand the consumer landscape. And you’re not going to understand the macroeconomic environment that we all need to perform in.