You've just traveled halfway around the world, and that garment bag you've been lugging feels like a Buick on your back. You arrive at your posh hotel, and an overly costumed valet grabs the bag, carries it all of 50 yards to reception and bids you good day. You are expected to cough up a tip. And you might not see your belongings again for another half an hour while the bag makes its way to your room.
That kind of hotel really annoys Andrew Cosslett. So do concierges who act as though they are always too busy booking dinner reservations for the royal family to talk to you. "If you're a frequent business traveler, the differences at the margin are the things that make a huge difference," he says. "So what happens to your bag when you arrive at a hotel tells you all you need to know about that hotel's understanding of you, right?"
Cosslett, 52, is a general among road warriors, CEO of InterContinental Hotel Group, the outfit based in Windsor, England, that is the parent for the 148 InterContinental hostelries worldwide, as well as Holiday Inn, Staybridge Suites, Crowne Plaza and Indigo brands. And under his command IHG is invading new territory. Last year the company planted 26 more InterContinental flags, up 40%, including in Los Angeles, Red Square, Tokyo and Chengdu; Holiday Inn added 700 franchises.
Yet as a former consumer-goods executive, Cosslett has seen the industry from the customer's vantage point, which has made him a why guy since taking over IHG in 2005. He had the company look at not just how IHG operated compared with other hotel groups but also how it compared with other industries. "You have to sort of deconsolidate, strip down all the things we do in hotels and go and ask why. Why do we do that? Why do we play the Girl from Ipanema when no one in the bar is over the age of 40? Why do we have to tow that pianist out? Why do we grab that bag off that frequent business traveler?"
The answers have led to some changes in InterContinental. The concierge no longer stares down from behind a lectern but sits in a more relaxed setting at a desk. And there's a find-it-yourself information terminal nearby too. "People want concierges to be more approachable and want to be able to actually access them," says Cosslett. "So get off the damn phone. Get rid of all your clobber and stop intimidating me and make me welcome." In London the company extended the idea of engaging customers by taking the housekeeping and other support staff on tours around the city to see it as visitors do. "The back of house now has posters of London and stories about London legends," notes Cosslett, "so they can talk to people knowledgeably about what it means to be in London."
InterContinental needed some attention. The company had bounced among a number of corporate owners, including Bass, the British brewer, then a successor entity called Six Continents that later busted up, leaving IHG as a publicly traded hotelier. Last year IHG earned $399 million in operating profit on sales of $1.6 billion. It has been busily selling off $1.3 billion in real estate while maintaining the management contracts. IHG returned $7.1 billion to shareholders in the past two years, but they want more: its prize properties in Paris, New York City and Rome may also go on the block.
That will let IHG invest in growth, because travel is on the verge of an unprecedented, even unstoppable boom, says Cosslett. In the West, baby boomer retirees will be heading for the airport, not the rocking chair. In the developing world, more than a billion people have been freed to travel. Chinese tourists alone will make 100 million trips annually over the next decade. The global village is here, and any company parked on its intersections is going to do fine. But in view of the coming tourism onslaught, Cosslett says, "it's a good time to see the Sistine Chapel if you haven't already." The concierge will be happy to provide the info.