In the midst of technological development and navigating globalization, the travel industry is still largely about experience. Traveler productivity can be affected by the quality of their travel arrangements.
That is why it’s so important to align with a forward-thinking and service-oriented partner (much like we are) to match our ideas and customer-centric offerings.
The InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) is one of those partners, with a finger on the pulse of technological development, but feet firmly planted in the realities of customer-service industry.
World Travel, Inc. caught up with Elie Malouf, CEO, The Americas, IHG, to find out more about the opportunities and challenges our partner is facing in today’s hospitality industry.
You studied Engineering in college. When did you start in the hospitality business, and what drew you to it?
Throughout my career, I've been involved in building places for people to have experiences. I spent my early career in real estate development, and coincidentally two of the properties that we built are currently in the Kimpton® Hotels & Restaurants portfolio. I've always enjoyed hospitality. It's a dynamic industry that's constantly changing, and I'm very pleased to be a part of it. There’s always a new development or innovation around the corner.
We’ve seen mergers across the industry. What do significant mergers in the hotel industry mean for travelers? For Travel Managers? For Hotel Groups?
The hotel industry is a very competitive one, and that’s always been the case. IHG has a strong position in the industry, with a well-established long-term strategy to continue growing. We have more than 5,200 hotels in almost 100 countries, across a portfolio of diverse and well-loved brands, and we see a lot of opportunity for growth.
We’ve always said we’d look at M&A where it makes sense, and it has to fit within our brand-heavy asset-light strategy. Our acquisition of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is a great example of this. Kimpton complements our global branded boutique Hotel Indigo brand, and we see huge potential for the brand globally. Since the acquisition, we’ve already signed two hotels outside of the Americas, with several others under discussion in key global cities.
M&A isn’t the only way to grow our business. When we see white spaces in the market, we’ve created brands to meet the evolving needs of consumers. For example, we launched EVEN Hotels, the hotel industry’s first holistic wellness brand, here in the U.S., and just recently announced that we’re bringing the brand to Australia and New Zealand. In China, we created the HUALUXE Hotels and Resorts brand, the first upscale international hotel brand designed specifically for Chinese guests.
What’s the timeline for bringing Kimpton fully into the IHG® family? What are the practical barriers and/or opportunities that have to be dealt with first?
We're being very thoughtful and careful with how we integrate Kimpton into IHG®. The uniqueness of the brand is what first attracted us to it, and we're committed to preserving that. We're making good progress on integrating various elements of the business, ensuring that we're doing what's best for guests and owners.
We're very proud of the growth that we've achieved for the Kimpton brand in the short time since we've acquired it. In fact, 2015 was the best year yet for the brand in terms of signings and openings. In 2016, we opened six Kimpton hotels, including the first outside of North America, announced the signing of the first two properties in Europe in Amsterdam and Paris.
What are the benefits of the IHG Rewards Club program?
There are the functional benefits, which are the traditional elements of a loyalty program: earning points that can be redeemed for travel, merchandise or experiences. But there are also the benefits of a more personal relationship and the sense of inclusivity from belonging to the largest hotel loyalty program in the world. We know our members, and we treat them like individuals, providing them with personalized offers that are specifically relevant to them.
Hotels are known to go above and beyond when it comes to high-touch, personal service. What’s the most farfetched or unexpected service you’ve ever heard of being offered by a hotel?
One of my favorite stories involves a Holiday Inn Express® hotel that went above and beyond for a guest who left behind something valuable. A family accidently left their two-year-old son's stuffed tiger at the hotel. Before sending it back, the GM took the tiger on an adventure around the hotel, snapping photos of him eating pancakes at night, drinking coffee, helping with laundry and greeting guests at the front desk. She turned what could have been a bad experience for this little boy into a fun memory that his family is sure to remember.
What is a unique amenity offered by any of the chains in the IHG family?
I really enjoy what we’ve created with the EVEN Hotels brand. It’s the industry’s only holistic wellness brand. Other hotels try to incorporate fitness or eating well, but EVEN Hotels is the only brand that brings it all together in one experience.
The Athletic Studio at each EVEN Hotel is three times the size of a standard hotel gym, and the equipment is as good as or better than what you’d find in boutique gyms. Training equipment was built into the guestroom design, and we also offer nearly 20 different training videos. We’re incorporating what people are using in their fitness routines in everyday life, because they shouldn’t have to get off track when they’re on the road.
There was a time when the hotel restaurant was just a restaurant off the lobby. Things have changed in the past decade. What’s the best hotel restaurant you’ve ever been to?
I have had so many wonderful experiences at our hotel restaurants that it’s impossible to pick a favorite, so I’ll mention two.
Luce, at the InterContinental San Francisco, has been recognized with a Michelin star since 2010, and the team there does a fantastic job of incorporating seasonal and local ingredients. They have an extensive award-winning wine list that is continually updated to match the cuisine. The hotel’s bar, Bar 888, is the nation’s premier grappa bar offering one of the finest selections of grappa and grappa cocktails.
On the other side of the country is Mr. Purple, the rooftop bar and restaurant at the new Hotel Indigo Lower East Side. Located on the hotel’s 15th floor, the two terraces offer sweeping unobstructed 360 degree views of New York City, and it’s an incredible place to watch the sun go down with a drink or bite to eat. The seasonal cocktail menu includes rotating small batch spirits, so you feel like you’re trying something new every time you visit. It’s been getting great response so far, with high Zagat ratings from guests.
What industry-changing developments are coming, particularly in the hospitality sector? What do we as consumers get to look forward to, and/or what should we prepare to be able to manage?
Technology is increasingly playing a role in the hotel industry, and it enables the interactions that we have with our guests, which really start before they stay with us.
We were one of the first companies in any industry to pilot a Facebook Messenger Bot, an application that performs automated tasks. We’re testing the bot as a customer service tool to interact with guests and enhance the pre-stay experience to confirm reservations, answer questions and collect stay preferences.
We are also in the process of deploying our industry-leading IHG® Connect platform, which provides more bandwidth and state-of-the-art Wi-Fi technology. IHG® Connect-enabled hotels will feature dedicated access to accommodate increased demand and volume. IHG® Rewards Club members log in once, and then they’ll be recognized and automatically connected at every IHG® Connect-enabled hotel.
Mobile technology has an immense influence on how we do business with our guests today. The use of mobile devices is rapidly increasing, making it important to use this technology in ways that make guest interactions easier. For example, we’ve found that at check out, there is no strong need for in-person interaction. With that in mind, we are rolling out mobile check out technology, which is now live in 1,800 hotels.