Best Western: small hotels with a big computer system

We'll call him Bob Buchanan, of Kansas City, a second-generation American with roots that go back to the Highlands of Scotland, to heather on the mountainside, and the skirl of the pipes.

Indeed, he runs a nimble finger over the chanter himself, and the desire to see where his forebears lived, worked, fought, and played is getting stronger by the day. So, with the brochure in front of him, Bob selects a small hotel in Ballachulish, Argyll, picks up the phone, and dials a toll-free number.

The hotel sits on the edge of Loch Linnhe with its back up against an equally beautiful mountainside. It is a good hotel, offering bed-and-breakfast accommodation for between $25 and $35. But it is small, only 35 rooms, hardly a place with enough clout to have impressive international connections. Yet within less than a minute of picking up his phone in Kansas City, Mr. Buchanan is told that, yes indeed, there is a room available at the Ballachulish Hotel and that one has been reserved in his name during his coming visit to Scotland.

How is such remarkable efficiency possible? Bob Hazard, chief executive officer of Best Western International, explains: Best Western recently -- on Easter Sunday, to be exact -- threw the switch on a $15 million computer center to which all of its 2,600 individually owned properties worldwide are tied.

With this step Best Western joined a select group of international operations which provide "instant" booking service for hotels worldwide. But there is a difference. Other hotel chains with this service are in the more expensive bracket. Their properties are large and tend to be confined to the major cities. Ballachulich-type options simply do not exist. As Mr. Hazard likes to put it, the new reservations system "represents an exciting victory for the little guy" -- the operator of the small, intimate hotel. It is a victory, too, for the consumer, the Buchanans of this world who wish to escape the international sameness of many big-city operations.

While Best Western offers a wide variety of accommodation options around the world, it currently is promoting its bed-and-breakfast opportunities in Britain "because in an era of high-priced foreign travel, we believe these are bargains, " Mr. Hazard says. Prices similar to those at the Ballachulish are available throughout the country, and they include a substantial breakfast "that will sustain you clear through to dinnr."

Information and booking are available through travel agents or by dialing ( 800) 528-1234.

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