HOTELS Interview: IHG owners optimistic for 2012

The IHG Owners Association, a voluntary organization that represents nearly 2,000 owners and operators of more than 3,000 IHG brand hotels worldwide, serves as the owners’ voice in communication with IHG’s corporate office in Denham, U.K. — and it’s a group that’s not afraid to push back, whether that means challenging new brand standards or other corporate policies.

HOTELS recently sat down with Eva Ferguson, the president of the Atlanta-based association, to discuss IHG’s big plans for Crowne Plaza, the ongoing progress of the Holiday Inn brand family and what 2012 is likely to bring.

HOTELS: How would you assess the mood among your members right now?

Eva Ferguson: The good news is business is coming back — from an occupancy standpoint, not so much on the rate side — which is what we’re trying to encourage as much as possible. I do feel like the lending has lightened up a bit, so if they need to get financing it’s a little bit more available now. It’s still not great. But at least the business is coming back.

HOTELS: What has been your members’ response to the changes in IHG management?

Eva Ferguson: It’s been extremely positive because of Kirk Kinsell coming back. Kirk knows this company inside and out. He’s worked with this company for over 20 years. I think there is a huge comfort level that he’s back.

There’s also a huge comfort level with Richard Solomons. He has really embraced the franchise side of the business. He’s been very welcoming, and he looks to the association as somewhat of a point of difference in the industry for [the corporate office], because they have access immediately to their owners through us.

HOTELS: I understand, though, that the IHG Owners Association challenges corporate on many things. What are some of the things your members have pushed back on recently?

Eva Ferguson: We agree to disagree on a lot of things. For instance, if there are standards that they bring forward that we think are not good or not going to be the right return on investment or not sustainable — we’re looking at things very differently than we used to. We’re much more sophisticated about how we look at things. If they’re going to propose something, we’ve got to make sure there’s a return for the owners, that it’s a sustainable standard and it makes sense for the customer. So we challenge them constantly around those areas. It’s very collaborative, but we do push back a lot.

[For example,] there were a bunch of changes with the Holiday Inn relaunch. It was a very onerous process from the sign standpoint. It was a lot of bureaucracy. There were a lot of hurdles you had to pass, and we eliminated some of those hurdles because they didn’t make sense.

HOTELS: Speaking of Holiday Inn, what are your members excited about with its ongoing makeover, or, what are some ongoing challenges with that process?

Eva Ferguson: What we challenge them on is constant innovation. You have to constantly keep moving. The Hub is a good example of that constant movement forward. The room packages, the bedding packages — we constantly have to keep in front of what customers want.

HOTELS: What are your members’ thoughts about the upcoming Crowne Plaza revamp?

Eva Ferguson: We learned a lot from the Holiday Inn relaunch, and we want to be able to apply that learning to the Crowne Plaza relaunch so it’s seamless — ensuring that when they say you’ve got to have these lamps on your front desk, making sure suppliers can get them — the commonsense things.

I’ll give you one example [from Holiday Inn]. We had a bench that they picked for the front of the hotel, just a wood bench, made in Canada. So they were having to ship the benches into the United States to a distribution center. The Canadian hotels trying to get the benches couldn’t get them direct; they had to go to the U.S., then back to Canada. Those are the type of things — big companies don’t think through that stuff. That’s why we play such an important role. We bring it down to reality.

HOTELS: Overall, was there some impatience for a Crowne Plaza overhaul?

Eva Ferguson: Oh, absolutely. It has been long overdue, especially in the Americas. I think they’re [owners] are starved for something. They’re ready to make the investment. They’re ready to move forward. We have a lot of good product, and we have a lot of great product out there, and then we have a lot of average product out there. Globally, it’s an incredible brand. We’ll see a lot of change, I think.

HOTELS: How would you and your members assess IHG’s support during the ongoing economic downturn?

Eva Ferguson: During the [worst of the] downturn (2008-2009), we went to [corporate] and said everybody is struggling. No one has any money. Nobody’s traveling. We need to lighten some standards. We worked with them to eliminate or waive standards for a certain period of time that didn’t have a huge guest impact. I think we came up with a three- or four-page list of things. They’ve had to put those things back in now, but during that period, we said you’ve got to do this. Everybody felt like we had to work together.

Unfortunately the Holiday Inn relaunch was caught in the middle of all that, but it had already kicked off before the downturn happened. One thing we were very adamant about, and IHG agreed with this, is we said do not push the deadline back. We said hold firm. Our hotels are going to be renovated when we come out of this financial disaster, so we’ll be sitting at the top. IHG stuck firm with the deadline, and it was really in everyone’s best interests.

HOTELS: What concerns are paramount for you and your group entering 2012?

Eva Ferguson: Governmental affairs is going to be a big thing. We’re going to really push that message that our owners get involved. A lot of time congressmen and senators meet in our hotels. We want to make a grassroots effort to get our owners engaged, because we think that’s the only way we’re going to make a difference.

HOTELS: What about beyond the United States?

Eva Ferguson: Things have been challenging, but not nearly as much as they have been here. Globally, I think we’re in good shape right now. That could change tomorrow.

China’s a big focus for us this year. It has been for the past three years, for me, but it takes that long to really build any continuity there and to build trust. We’re trying to bring them in and teach them the things that we’ve done here and in the rest of the world that have been successful.

Eva Ferguson
Eva Ferguson