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Undercover Boss - CEO of Best Western, David Clarke

16th Jul 2010
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This series of Undercover Boss has got off to a good start with CEO David Clarke changing sheets, chopping veg and washing dishes in Best Western groups’ hotels.

Oooh I just love it when Undercover Boss is really ‘the boss’ going undercover, although I worry that there are seemingly so many companies who don’t know what their boss looks like!

However Best Western (or BW as I’m going to call them from now on) isn’t a conventional business. Instead of being a hotel chain as such it is more of a brand marketing franchise. The hotels which join it benefit from the marketing of the brand and BW makes sure they are up to their standards and worthy of the name they have invested millions in. So knowing the CEO is probably fairly unlikely for the average employee of a hotel which is affliated with the brand.

The recession has hit the mid-priced hotel market badly as people treat themselves with luxury hotels or go budget for value, and business travel isn’t as lucrative as it has been. So BW has launched the first ever TV campaign they have done under the slogan ‘Hotels with personality’. But the board are keen to know whether their megabucks idea has ‘cascaded down’ from the board to the franchise employees at the bottom. My hopes are not high for this prospect.

CEO David, incidentally, comes across as a right sweetie. "I expect a lot of others because I give a lot myself," he says at the beginning, before revealing he’s worked in the hotel trade for 40 of his 60 years. I seriously love him later on when he observes that he spends so much time thinking about the business, when ultimately it’s about people. When he visits a flourishing hotel which has survived through tough love and golf alone, he muses that it’s all very well spending thousands on the golf course but a bit of incentive or a pay rise to the employees wouldn’t have gone amiss. And he’s right. He meets some amazing people.

He visits a hotel which recently failed an inspection. In the kitchen he meets Wayne who is working 80 hours a week with a skeleton staff in a restaurant which is well, quite good, actually. Locals come in for a slap-up meal because the food is good and there’s only fast food available elsewhere. Personally, I’m impressed he’s making the soup from scratch – I think I assumed most hotels, especially the stretched ones, would just open a tin or reach for a packet mix as necessary.

Moving on, he helps with ‘maintenance’. Maintenance is gearing up for the next inspection – by this we mean moving rubbish things out and putting half-decent stuff into rooms, switiching the door numbers and generally cheating BW so when they come back they think there have been improvements when there haven’t been really. David is ashamed. Michael the maintenance guy is adept at cutting corners and the owners of the hotel are nowhere to be seen. We discover the main owner died last year and the rest of the family aren’t so hot on hotel management. The general manager has been left to do everything and the place looks like it’s falling to pieces.

Nest David goes to a flourishing hotel and gets a lesson in good people management from Leona. He’s waiting tables with her and despite his flapping over toast, she tells him he’s a natural and inspires him with confidence. Then she says: “We're like a family here. They're so good to you here. You get your overnight stay, you get a leisure club membership...” The message is: look after your staff and your staff will look after your customers and your customers will come back. Simples really.

But Leona has no idea what Best Western really is or means and hasn’t even heard of the television campaign. Oops. But you gotta admit, it's a long chain o' command from the CEO of BW to serving breakfast in a hotel in Kendal.

At the other hotel, where Golf is King, Steve is raking sand, trimming verges and moving grass like a beast despite having only just recovered from cancer of the vocal chords, the treatment for which he attempted to work through. The golf course has grown and helped the hotel make money but there’s no more staff and no pay rise. I can feel the nation rising up to demand a pay rise for this dedicated groundsman. David finds his mind ‘switching to the people more’. He’s really on the shop floor now.

David then joins Bev, the housekeeper, in the bedrooms. She’s cleaning like a demon. A filthy room needs to be spick and span in 15 minutes. Bev is meticulous and polishes up the taps David neglects, and explains how the girls work over their hours to make sure the guests are happy. Over coffee, her team chat with David and reveal Bev’s son has health problems.

It turns out he spent 16 years at Great Ormond Street, which saved his life. Bev’s pretty much on minimum wage but still gives to the children’s charity to say thank you.

David’s touched, but it’s time to return to the board room. And he is tough!

He explains they are in denial. He tells them there is an 'Astonishing lack of awareness. We don't exist. We're not on their radar. No-one knew about the advertising campaign!'

They have been patting themselves on the back. And they are not entitled to as although there are some great teams and people there is a long way to go...

The reveal isn't my favourite bit of the show, but it's emotional for some as he tells housekeeper Bev BW is giving £2,500 to Great Ormond Street and gives groundsman Steve his first family holiday in ten years at the plush Celtic Manor resort. He makes sure the board are aware of the failing hotel but we are sadly deprived the reveal with Maintenance Michael (who couldn't make it - shame, but not really a surprise).

Good news all round as we get the updates - Maintenance Mike is still at the hotel but it passed the test - hooray!

So what did we learn then kids?

It's a long way down from the top isn't it? Communication is a problem and the board probably have no idea. And I get the impression it's not just Best Western.

And yes, David, it's all about people...

What did you think? Was it depressing, inspiring or both?


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Replies (4)

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By alisonrbcm
16th Jul 2010 15:30


I suppose I half expected Undercover Boss to be all about finding all the corners being cut and things going wrong in an organisation. After all that’s what generally makes great TV. It was refreshing that this programme was, on the whole, the other way around – seeing great people doing good jobs and being let down by the company, and in some instances local management.

The biggest lesson for me was about really understanding the impact our decisions have on people. I know it can be very easy to make what seems like a logical decision without fully stepping into the shoes of those we’re wishing to influence and noticing the impact the decision will really have.

I’m so looking forward to seeing whether the other undercover bosses enter into it with such openness and insight as David. I’m sure certain mindsets could still avoid taking responsibility as David did.

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By glynlumley
16th Jul 2010 16:52

If you can wait that long, my post scheduled for Monday 19 July will give some thoughts on what we learned about inspections from this programme - swapping furniture and changing door numbers, that sort of thing!

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By Gareth Jones
22nd Jul 2010 22:40

Hello Charlie!

Agreed its a great series and i have high hopes for the one tonight about Tower Hamlets.  But i was less than impressed with the Best Weston one last week.  Firstly, as a marketing organisation they didnt actually employ any of the indiiduals concerned so it is very easy to say what should and shouldnt be done if you dont have to actually follow through and foot the bill etc yourself. 

Also although he was a nice enough guy, the CEO was in my opinion very old school.  The opening shots of him talking to one of his managers and 'being tough' made me cringe.  Its typical autocratic behaviour and there is no place for it in modern business.  The problem with that style is that the underlying intimidation (even if its slight and not forcefully meant) results in being told what you want to hear - in other words, you end up not being properly informed because people hold things back in case you 'disaprove' or get 'angry or tough'.  The fact that they had run a £1m campaign which had not even scratched the surface was indiciative of this i thought.

Dont get me wrong, the fact that he was prepared to step up and put himself in the spotlight was great and i admire him for that, but i just thought it was a little bit weak!

Watching the Tower Hamlets one as we speak though and its looking much better!


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By Charlie Duff
22nd Jul 2010 22:57

Hi Gareth

Yes it was quite an unusual business. I thought it was probably easier for them to point out some of the more negative aspects because they weren't directly responsible for the employees.

I'm blogging now about episode 2 - do let me know what you think once it's up!




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