InterContinental’s World Turns: What the hotel chain is up to

Gloria Steinem wrote in a recent interview with Ben Hirschler of The New York Times: “InterContinental is an intensely conservative kind of company.” Perhaps, but InterContinental is fiercely committed to transforming itself, changing the world and winning over new customers in a world of luxury that is evolving, even if not always in the hotel chain’s interest.

That is especially true in Europe, says James McGregor, who has been InterContinental’s global chief executive officer since 2011. Not even 100 years after the chain’s establishment in London by British entrepreneur Thomas Drew, which launched the first chain of luxurious hotel rooms and restaurants for corporate travel, Mr. McGregor has been tasked with bringing travel experiences back to life.

InterContinental and its brand manager in Europe, James Molyneux, agreed with the same challenge: How do you make the brand relevant in the 21st century? Those ideas came from, a series of events that the company recently hosted in the U.K. and Germany.

Here are five things we learned from a special behind-the-scenes story on InterContinental Hotels’ work to bring the 1960s American glamour to the world.

1. The trips helped InterContinental transform

Perhaps to use a phrase from another era, we were “Off the hook.” We were at Löwenbräu, an aquatic center in Zurich, Swiss Alps, and Venice, Italy. Already inside the hotel, we chatted with some of the business travelers we work with. After a spectacular meal in the lounge, the room was transformed by the InterContinental head of design: murals and a spirit of the 1960s were inspired by the artist of the same name, Günter Nunzel, who transformed middle-class households with his paintings of the scenes from simpler times. The result was stunning, as we mingled with clients and employees. By the end of the week, the hotel was literally transformed.

“It was a chance to walk in customers’ shoes,” says Jørgen Lindholm, managing director of The Starmount Hospitality Group (a partnership between InterContinental and Löwenbräu that manages a series of hotel projects in Europe, including the aforementioned 2016 Löwenbräu). “It was a different way to get their feedback. We were very impressed by the way they took it to their hearts, and they were happy that we had truly captured that moment, that vibe. And it was a very big difference to working with people who aren’t used to seeing [something like that].”

2. The outlook was more international than the previous decade

When the 20th century ended, the focus on regional expansion had ended. But in the era of Google, Uber and Netflix, and in the wake of the 2016 election, younger travelers are more open to a new way of seeing the world, says Mr. McGregor. “Those millennial travelers are very fond of their digital natives, very keen on social media and very conscious of who they are connecting with and what message the brands send to those people,” he says. But while that new focus has been helpful to InterContinental, it’s forced the company to do a lot of listening.

“We’ve gone from being an American-focused brand to being more global. The world is growing increasingly global, and we’re a global brand,” Mr. McGregor says. “Of course the time you get to this position is different. I remember very fondly the days when InterContinental was the hotel for a client who was essentially from any part of the world and wherever the head office was — be it Paris, London, New York, Bangkok, Beijing — was the hotel for that person, and you looked at InterContinental as the brand for those travelers. It was very much based on that relationship.”

To change course, Mr. McGregor directed his staff to increase diversity within the brand’s brand managers. Now, he says, “the modern-day bicoastal line at the highest level is a strong, strong, strong, strong focus.”

3. Don’t try to age the brand

In a business that seeks to maintain its high status, there is no concept called “ageing” — it’s not even a word. As Mr. McGregor says, “we’re not concerned with what someone looks like at 77 or whatever. The job is to capture that moment; the job is to be relevant.”

4. Choose locations wisely

InterContinental hotels are not as high-profile as

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