Robert Shepherd, Chief Development Officer, EUROPE InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)
Chief Development Officer, Europe, of leading hospitality group IHG, Robert Shepherd, talks to Can Faik on what IHG have planned for the next few years…
IHG is a global organisation with a broad portfolio of hotel brands, including InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Hotel Indigo and many more.
IHG franchises, leases, manages or owns nearly 5,200 hotels and 770,000 guest rooms in almost 100 countries, with nearly 1,500 hotels in its development pipeline.
What was your background in hospitality prior to working for IHG?
Prior to IHG I worked for WS Atkins, much of the time being based in Dubai where I was Deputy Commercial Manager for the Jumeirah Beach Resort Development, which included the Burj Al Arab tower hotel, 600-room beachfront hotel, International Conference Centre Sports Centre, Dubai Marina and the Wild Wadi Aqua Park.
Dubai was iconic for me and my career. I went out there as holiday cover for my boss for two weeks and ended up staying for four years. By the time I returned to the UK office, I was jointly leading 25 surveyors. It made me see the importance of understanding different cultures and building trust to underpin successful, collaboration and teamwork, all of which play a huge role in my career today.
What does your current position involve?
I’ve been with IHG since 2001 and am now responsible for delivering high-quality, profitable growth across our Europe region, with all brands and business models. I lead an integrated team of developers, designers and hotel opening experts, collectively responsible for delivering great new hotels; from prospecting and contracting, through design, construction and pre-opening, until we hand over to Operations 30 days after the opening.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I love the opportunity to experience the result of all the hard work we have put in as a team. Being able to see deals through from signing to opening and watch guests interact with the spaces and engage in an experience is incredibly rewarding and a very tangible result to observe and reflect on, so we keep doing it better and better every time. Being able to enjoy spending time in our hotels is an incredible privilege.
The hotel industry is always changing and I enjoy the challenge of making sure we are one step ahead of the game. When my design team work with our brand team, for example, to review the guest experience, social trends and explore innovation opportunities, it is an exciting and energised environment in which to work.
What are the complexities of meeting the demands of shareholders, fulfilling the growth of your management team and delivering the brand’s values to the guests?
At IHG we have a clear ambition to be first choice for hotel owners, for hotel guests and for employees. I have a strong belief that we need to deliver a differentiated guest experience; one that guests are prepared to pay a premium for and become loyal to the brands. This is what delivers return on investment for owners and we will look at the Owner ROI when developing our innovations. If we also empower our colleagues to deliver on these points, we will be a first-choice employer and we’ve won many Top Employer awards, which tell us we are getting a lot of this right. If we continue to deliver all this, the shareholder returns almost take care of themselves.
What will IHG have to do to stay one step ahead of its competition, especially in the luxury hospitality sector?
Continuing to innovate is key and I mentioned the product and service innovation already, but another key area these days is the technology, which so often enables many guest experiences. The process of travel is an experience in itself and not always an enjoyable one. Guests want seamless experiences and more control throughout their whole journey with us, from the booking process to their stay. In April last year we announced our partnership with Amadeus and that we will be rolling out a new Guest Reservation System (GRS) in 2017. It will enable us to deliver an enhanced and more personalised guest experience across every stage of the ‘Guest Journey’ – which will lead to better commercial outcomes for our owners.
As far as the luxury sector goes, InterContinental will further establish its position as the world’s largest luxury hotel brand this year, as we are due to open nine additional InterContinental hotels in 2017 in places such as Ljubljana, Singapore, Washington and Los Angeles. We’ve also got more InterContinental hotels in the pipeline and I’m very excited by the redevelopment under way at the Hotel Dieu in Lyon, which will open as an InterContinental in 2019.
What are IHG’s unique selling points?
We have a diverse portfolio of differentiated brands, a proven strategy that delivers, a global network of hotels and owners and a best-in-class delivery system. IHG Rewards Club has over 100 million members and that loyalty base from our guests is unparalleled in hospitality. It means that we can keep them loyal by understanding, and then targeting their needs, ensuring a solid revenue stream for our owners.
In addition, while owners appreciate our global scale, they also want to know that we are present in their market with our support services and in the local language. We never lose sight of providing strong local support for our owners and their hotels and adapt our approach depending on the market.
With 12 brands already in the IHG portfolio will a 13th be added soon?
We have an excellent portfolio of differentiated brands, suited to particular guest needs or occasions. Where we have developed new brands it has been to fill a gap in the market in which we have identified sufficient demand that we can grow the brand to a meaningful scale and deliver sustainable returns for our owners.
Our position on mergers and acquisitions is also very clear. Where we identify a need that might be filled with an acquisition that aligns with our asset-light strategy, if the price is right, we will make it happen. Kimpton is a great example of this approach and we just opened our first ‘international’ Kimpton, here in Europe; in Amsterdam.
What are the most exciting new openings coming up?
We just opened Kimpton – De Witt in Amsterdam. Our first Kimpton in Europe, it will bring Kimpton’s unique guest experience to the market and we have started work on our Kimpton Paris property now too. We are opening 11 Hotel Indigo properties in the next 18 months or so, and we just opened in Warsaw. Later this year we will open a fantastic property in Aldgate and another in Bath; we have really lifted the design for this brand and evolved the restaurant and bar concepts too. Our InterContinental Lyon is being developed in a spectacular property; the old Hotel Dieu, featuring vaulted archways and cloisters, bring luxury to life by restoring a grand dame of a building. That’s one of the most exciting things about the job… the regeneration and restoring life to old buildings and in many cases, seeing how that can regenerate a whole community and bringing employment opportunities.
Is IHG looking at any countries in particular for development opportunities?
Our strategy in Europe is to achieve high-quality growth by focusing on key cities across Europe with high numbers of international travellers, where we benefit from global brand awareness. In addition, we seek to build national scale in the UK and Germany and to seed future scale in Russia and the CIS region. Our goal is to build a leadership position in those countries. Our focus on these priority markets ensures that we are able to concentrate investment in brand-building and developing critical infrastructure – for instance, by adapting our websites to the local language and deploying dedicated sales teams.
What are the personality traits that define a successful and happy hotel proprietor, in your opinion?
I believe it is three things – an absolute passion for delivering great guest experience, high-quality standards and an attention to detail. The passion and standards set by the owner of a hotel, aligned with the belief in the brand set the tone for the entire team in the hotel and inspire them to deliver great service, which leads to healthy returns on a sustainable basis.
Have you noticed any particular trends in hotels in Europe compared to US and Asia?
Hotels in the US and Asia are generally bigger, on average, whereas in Europe we find smaller, more restricted sites. As a result, room sizes tend to be smaller in Europe. But I also think that in Europe we counter that smaller size with great design… more design-led product. Kimpton was founded in the US by Bill Kimpton, after a visit to Europe during which he enjoyed the number of boutique hotels so much, that he took the concept back to the US.
Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel interior design?
Hotel design has always moved with social trends and in recent years we have seen a growing desire for great design, for individuality and even for personalisation. We can see this mostly in the rapid growth of the lifestyle and boutique sector. We are seeing this in the evolution of our Hotel Indigo designs, which reflect the local culture, character and history of the surrounding area. In Europe, we have 21 Hotel Indigo hotels and another 18 in the pipeline, with openings coming to The Hague, Warsaw, Cardiff and London Aldgate this year.
How important do you feel hotel design has become when launching a new hotel?
Design has always been crucial in attracting guests to hotels and establishing the rate they are prepared to pay – the difference is that it is becoming more intrinsic to guest needs, expectations are getting higher, and the trend for the more unique, especially in the higher-rated segments. Guests no longer just want a nicely decorated room to sleep in, the space should inspire them aesthetically. That certainly doesn’t mean that the value for money segment doesn’t deserve or require great design; it absolutely does and an attention to detail, with quality that represents good value for money.
What would you say are the three best places you have ever stayed?
I love our InterContinental Davos, the Lake District England and Western Canada; seeing the bears and whales while staying on Vancouver Island made for a wonderfully memorable trip.
Where currently ranks highest on your travel wish-list?
I’d like to do a trip down to New Zealand and experience their great outdoors.
Let’s finish with the issue of personal and work life balance. How do you aim to achieve a good balance and what do those closest to you think of your attempts?
I have always been driven to deliver results and be part of a winning team. Sometimes that stretches you and you can become a bit too focused on the work, but I have a wonderful wife who has known me since I was 17 and can tell me how it is! We are also lucky to have two great children who are both at university now, but throughout their childhood, I always found time to be with them and do new things together. I haven’t always got the balance right but looking back, I don’t think I would change anything and I feel very privileged to lead the life I have.