IHG Sets Up for Chinese Growth, Shares Insights for Hotel and Hospitality Professionals

By Stephen Powell Senior Vice President, IHG Worldwide Sales | November 02, 2014

IHG launched the first China luxury hotel brand, education program to train and hire talent and is mapping customer travel patterns as its expanding into Tier Three and Four cities

Chinese travel has come a long way since China opened its borders to welcome international travel in the late 1970s to early 1980s. In the1970s, President Richard Nixon visited in efforts to begin improving relations with China. Until this visit, which Nixon referred to as "the week that changed the world," Americans had not seen China in person, photos or news coverage in at least two decades. My first trip to China was in 1984, and I can recall a time when traveling there was only possible if you were being hosted by a Chinese travel bureau and often times, entering the country as a foreigner was limited to diplomats and government relations. I remember a limited infrastructure made up of bicycles and box cars, unpaved roads. Now, we witness modern marvel cities with record-height skyscrapers and a steady flow of business, entertainment and holiday travel in and out of China.

IHG opened its first Chinese hotel just after the Chinese borders opened for western travel in 1984. Since then, we've increased our count to nearly 230 hotels and we will nearly double the number of IHG hotels in China over the next 3 to 5 years – a strong testament to the warp-speed of Chinese growth. I am proud to say we are the largest international branded hotel company in China and we're also the international brand with the longest presence there.

Holiday Inn was our first brand in China, in Beijing – and to date, we have more InterContinental Hotels & Resorts in China than in any other country. On an international level, as the brand gained traction in the marketplace, it became the address for Americans abroad in foreign countries. Through the years, diplomatic events have taken place in our hotels as they have been synonymous with the foreign US traveler as their home away from home.

To say arriving at this point of growth has been a walk in the park is a severe understatement. It's no easy feat to achieve what we have. As I prepared to write this piece, I asked myself: "How where we able to accomplish this?" And something always on my mind, and likely your minds as well, is "What's next? Where do we go from here?"

As China grows, we grow. We don't aim to only keep up with its growth, but to be strategic with anticipation and purpose. We conducted typology research which grouped together Chinese cities and hotels by business patterns. For example, one city can be driven more by pharmaceutical manufacturing businesses where another powers-up a technology hub of global consumer electronics companies. Business taking place in hotels, in both of these industries, has rigid requirements with little in common. As a result of the unique industry demands of the customers we serve, we train our hotel sales teams to service corporate guests by understanding individual industry distinctions such as regulatory requirements for conducting healthcare meetings, for example.

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Guest Service: A Culture of YES

In a recent global consumers report, 97% of the participants said that customer service is a major factor in their loyalty to a brand, and 76% said they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them. And since there is no industry more reliant on customer satisfaction than the hotel industry, managers must be unrelenting in their determination to hire, train and empower the very best people, and to create a culture of exceptional customer service within their organization. Of course, this begins with hiring the right people. There are people who are naturally service-oriented; people who are warm, empathetic, enthusiastic, pleasant, thoughtful and optimistic; people who take pride in their ability to solve problems for the hotel guests they are serving. Then, those same employees must be empowered to solve problems using their own judgment, without having to track down a manager to do it. This is how seamless problem solving and conflict resolution are achieved in guest service. This willingness to empower employees is part of creating a Culture of Yes within an organization.  The goal is to create an environment in which everyone is striving to say “Yes”, rather than figuring out ways to say, “No”. It is essential that this attitude be instilled in all frontline, customer-facing, employees. Finally, in order to ensure that the hotel can generate a consistent level of performance across a wide variety of situations, management must also put in place well-defined systems and standards, and then educate their employees about them. Every employee must be aware of and responsible for every standard that applies in their department. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.