INTERVIEW: EMMA KING, HEAD OF PREMIUM, LUXURY AND LIFESTYLE DESIGN, EUROPE, IHG RESORTS & HOTELS
As part of NEWH’s online BrandEd discussions, where creatives come together to explore ideas, Sophie Harper played moderator for another of the global events earlier this year in conversation with Emma King to find out more about the brand design of three of IHG’s premium and lifestyle brands.
Leading IHG’s Interior Design team in Europe, Emma King is responsible for the design, development and product quality of all new openings and refurbishments. Having joined IHG eight years ago, she has established herself as not only a brand ambassador for a number of IHG brands, but also as a well-known and highly respected figure in the industry (with a penchant for fast cars and well-timed humour).
For the NEWH BrandEd session, Emma gave a presentation to a large online audience of designers to tell us more about IHG’s premium brand collection (the equivalent of four-star properties in the regular marketplace), with a focus on the brand design schemes for Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, and voco. “Crowne Plaza is our business brand, Hotel Indigo is our boutique and lifestyle brand, and voco is our newest brand which is for conversion hotels,” Emma says. “Each of these have a very different look and feel but essentially most of them have the same level of service and the same characteristics.”
Emma’s presentation starts by looking at the Crowne Plaza brand and she tells us how much work has gone into repositioning the brand over the last couple of years in a partnership with Conran and Partners, which has resulted in an amazing transformation. “This is a business brand in the main, but we want to provide this feeling of being upgraded to a kind of business class lounge experience. We’ve got over 420 hotels worldwide and we’re growing fast as a brand – Crowne Plaza is one of the largest upscale hotel brands in the world.”
She tells us that they strive to be the first and the definitive choice when it comes to business class stays. “We have our target guest which we call ‘the modern business traveller’. We always refer back to the guest – that’s where our research starts: who is going to stay at the hotel and how can we design better for them. The modern business traveller has a mindset of positive connectivity and a work/life blend. They work hard, they play hard, and they’re choosing Crowne Plaza as a brand in order to meet their achievements.” So what does this mean in regards to design style? “Well,” she says, “it’s quite architectural, we use natural materials, and it’s relatively fuss-free with a touch of bold colour; we call our style ‘new modern’.”
Emma explains that they split the new modern style into three subcategories in order to measure it, which are: Purposeful, Restore, and Inspire. “We layer them up in different ways and we review the designs in sort of a percentage form. Is the design functional – that’s the purposeful part, can you relax in it as well as work in it – that’s the restore part, and is there something that makes you think ‘wow this is amazing’ – that’s our inspire layer.”
One of the brand’s key functions is to support productivity and Emma describes the sorts of design details that add to each layer to tick every box. “If it’s a work or business occasion or an event, we like to incorporate thoughtful details like wireless charging and ergonomic design. After a long day we want to promote relaxation and rejuvenation through soft and warm details. We try to encourage natural plants to be used in the space as well as natural materials. ‘Inspire’ is like the brightly coloured suit lining that just gives you that flash of personality. That pop of colour that energises, surprises and delights you in an interior scheme. When all of those three styles come together, this is what our ‘new modern’ looks and feels like. It’s quite contemporary, it’s architectural, it’s picking up on some colours but it’s quite muted in its palette.”
Some of the brand’s most successful recent openings include Warsaw, The Hub and Emma shows us imagery of the hotel as she talks through the different design elements. “It has very clean lines, and there’s a balance there between the warm and the cold materials with the gold and marble. We’re using these mixed materials and timber to create an overall harmony between the space. We keep furniture clusters loose so they can be moved around for meetings and gatherings and in the bar you can see the plants come to life in the design with the wood and the stone keeping that natural palette and the bold colour in the furniture that gives a bit of balance to that.”
She talks about some of the brand hallmarks, from flexible studio or meeting space to ‘monument walls’ that greet visitors with unique features and the datum line used to both connect and break up space – all subtle design details that differ in appearance but that keep the consistent feel of the brand through each Crowne Plaza hotel. “When it comes to restaurants within the hotel, we don’t feel they need to follow that very strong brand look and feel, so they’re developed on more of an F&B strategy rather than the brand look and feel but we still use accent colours that pop against more muted tones.” She adds. “A huge amount of work goes into research from our brand team, who will take existing Crowne Plaza guests, guests they want to target, and different focus groups. We do all kinds of things, we build model rooms where we can watch people use the room and find out what they like and what they don’t like, so it really helps us develop the room design. I have some great ‘oversharing’ stories,” she laughs.
Next up, Emma tells us about the Hotel Indigo brand, a beautiful boutique lifestyle hotel offering that has been hugely successful for IHG over the last few years. “Hotel Indigo is really, really fun to work on. I worked on this brand way before I joined IHG, and when I did join IHG, one of my first projects was to work on the brand’s look and feel… since then we’ve developed quite a nice design story – a nice language for the brand.”
Similar to Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo has a target guest: the ‘explorer’. “We have what we call a neighbourhood story as part of the design and this helps guests feel as though they’re exploring by staying at the hotel. The explorer sits in three modes: ‘leisure’, ‘business’, and ‘local’,” Emma says, “so there is an element to the hotel design where we want people who live locally to come and enjoy the hotel. For example, the bar and restaurant offers are targeted to people who live locally as well as the hotel guests.”
Building on the brand success in Europe, each hotel is totally unique and the design is based on this neighbourhood story – a 15-minute walking radius of the hotel, “Anything within that radius is captured and can be used as part of the story and as part of the design. Once a project is signed, we supply this story along with our design brief for the designers to reference back to each time. It couldn’t be more different to Crowne Plaza, because it’s all about storytelling.”
Emma tells us that they stick to four creative principles when working on a Hotel Indigo: ‘unique discovery’, ‘rich in personality’, ‘always approachable’, and ‘strikingly beautiful’. “When we’re talking about unique discovery, we’re celebrating the neighbourhood with thoughtful details – so these are always intended to surprise and delight the guest. Adding in personality, we’re really playful with the materials we use, and we layer those to create a really rich environment. It is bold and we intend to keep the brands really aspirational while being totally accessible – it should feel like a quirky home from home. Strikingly beautiful is about creating those ‘wow’ moments for your Instagram post or an event. We intend to capture unique environments and talking points along the guest journey. It’s always a bit of fun and interesting. Then approachability, again, is really important. So the brand should make you feel welcome at all times and always included, and you should feel inspired to explore the town or city you’re staying in through the design of the hotel.”
Emma shows us images of Hotel Indigo, The Hague, which is in an old bank building. “We typically get a lot of older buildings to convert with this brand, which gives it much richer detailing and architectural features. Here you can see how the dining area makes the most of the high ceilings and the period features. As part of this whole fun part of the brand, when it comes to features that are already there, for example, this old bank vault, we kept the door but converted the room into an old speakeasy bar, then behind the vault door is a meeting room.”
Having recently opened Hotel Indigo Bath; in a city full of Georgian architecture, Emma tells us how they were able to use local reference points and history as inspiration within the design of the hotel. “We used things like plaster ceiling rose detail as artwork behind the beds. You can see there are little touches of reference to Bath and then large-scale geometric patterns, which is quite Georgian.”
“We usually have two or three different room types in the hotels.” Emma shows us another beautiful guest room image from Hotel Indigo Bath, this time with mellow greys and mauves, “this is the Romance and Mystery room’ so legend has it that the authors of Bath had quite the lifestyle, so this represents some of the tales, it’s been given a modern twist, and it’s all a bit fun.”
I ask Emma if it’s difficult to maintain a level of brand identity with such unique properties and she says it can be. “It’s really difficult! Every single one of them we try to keep on the same level of quality of finish. We’ve got another lifestyle brand, Kimpton, which sits in the luxury collection rather than the premium collection. A big part of my job is to keep those brands apart and stop what we call the ‘brand blur’, because then the brands almost lose their credibility if they don’t have that consistency, and even though they’re all different, having that consistency is so important for a company like IHG and all of our owners.”
Emma tells us more about IHG’s newest brand, voco, and describes the benefits of the brand to independent hotel owners. “It has been an opportunity to sign up smaller, more independent hotels. One of the reasons the smaller hotels end up signing with an operator like IHG is due in a large part to the booking system for the hotel. If they stay an independent hotel, they have to use a large booking system and those big hotel websites take a much larger percentage of the guest room revenue than IHG would, so it’s of benefit to them. What we want to bring to the table is our branded approach, to make sure it’s consistent and that we can stand behind it and put our name on it.”
The aim of the brand is to take a unique property and add a minimal layer to brand it. Emma explains how IHG offers reassurance through its brand standards, but with voco you get an even blend of reliability and comfort but somewhere that’s also indulgent and different. “It should be dependable, but not vanilla. Our target guest here is somebody who’s not overly trendy: they’re not looking for a Soho House experience, and they’re not a business traveller, but they’re somebody who’s an experienced traveller and knows what they want.”
Explaining that the brand is flexible, Emma points out there are still certain standards that need to be in place to make a hotel brand dependable, “We came up with the brand’s tagline as being ‘Reliably Different’. The aim is to provide a great customer experience that’s unstuffy, informal, and charming. When we set the brand out it was always with the mindset that we would simply dress an existing hotel. Of course as brands evolve we’ve had to look at new builds as well, but the core of the brand is this existing hotel approach and taking them on and making small changes to design and service – we call this ‘small changes, big impact’.”
There are a few things that are really important for the brand to be consistent, “Things like the lighting,” says Emma, “is it flexible for the guest, are they able to make their own ambience in the room, making sure that all the furniture and furnishings are of good quality; we provide our own premium bed experience as well so there’s a mattress and bedding package the hotels can buy that’s approved by the brand. We make sure there’s this service aspect that is friendly and hassle-free, I think that’s a really important part of the voco brand. When we originally set it up, we had loads of ideas about having a host and we imagined him to be like Fred from First Dates – he’s charming, he makes you really want to come in and sit down and be part of the atmosphere and he’s got that kind of independent spirit to him. But also practical things like making sure there’s really good WiFi and the tech is good and there are USB sockets, making sure there’s really great food or coffee, and ensuring there’s a really great shower experience – bed, shower, tech are all really important.”
The design style is residential in look and feel, that sort of home away from home feel again. “It’s very friendly, it’s approachable, it’s reliable,” Emma says. “Essentially, we are dressing these hotels if that’s what they need. Some of them might need a full refurb and we have design guidance for every kind of eventuality, but the idea is that if you took on a quality hotel product, you could just come in and dress it and make it look like the voco brand. Initially we set out a colour and materials palette, so if we were going to add on these extra accessories, [it would explain] how would we do that and what colours we would use. We set up our own brand colour wheel and initially I had issues with this kind of idea – I kept imagining these beige hotels with yellow cushion covers, but when we started exploring the colour palette more we thought well ok, if you’ve got a beige hotel, then maybe you bring a bit of navy in and that makes it fresh and feel bright and instantly updates it. You can bring a lot of freshness and harmony into an old room just by using colour. It’s really important to get that brand identity across at the beginning of the customer experience.”
Emma shows us images of the reception area of voco The Hague, where hints of navy and honey yellow can be found behind the front desk. “When it comes to the restaurants though, it’s a lot less about the colours and more about the overall space and F&B concept, which is botanical, so we’re using a lot of plants, a lot of natural materials and textures. Hopefully you can see from the three brands how this is totally different from a Hotel Indigo and a Crowne Plaza – it’s a lot more casual in its approach. We have a whole range of voco artwork that we can supply to the hotels, a lot of these hotels are on a small budget so in order to transform them we have to come up with new ideas that won’t cost the owners too much money.”
Emma shows us images of voco Grand Central, Glasgow. “This will be our flagship voco hotel that we’ve been working on with Goddard Littlefair. You can see how the colours come together in this one and where we’ve used existing bits of furniture. We’ve used colour blocking quite a lot; it’s a really strong trend at the moment, but it’s a really chic and efficient way of bringing colour into that space without painting the whole wall – it brings some of that crazy height down and makes it feel more intimate and calmer.”
Emma’s presentation offers a refreshing insight on the brand values that can be broken down and offered across a large-scale portfolio. And even though there are similarities with each – from the focus on service and ease of use, friendliness and approachability, it’s fascinating to see how the design narrative is so different for each brand and how that ultimately translates to a personality and the common factor for the success of any hospitality brand – the guest.