As the travel giant launches a huge new campaign and revamped loyalty scheme, Connor Smith, VP at IHG of masterbrand strategy and awareness, talks caring and creativity with LBB’s Laura Swinton
“I’ve always said, ‘IHG is the brand you didn’t know you loved’.”
Connor Smith is VP of masterbrand strategy and awareness at IHG Hotels and Resorts. Within the hospitality giant’s portfolio of 17 brands and 6,000 hotels, there are plenty of famous names that travellers know well. From InterContinental Hotels & Resorts to Holiday Inn and Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants.
Over the past few years, though, the company has been on something of a journey to create greater cohesion. In February 2021 it launched with a brand new name - before then, IHG Hotels and Resorts was known as InterContinental Hotels Group. In August 2021, it launched its 17th brand, the luxurious Vignette Collection. They’ve also completely redesigned their loyalty program, introducing IHG One Rewards and launching the IHG Rewards mobile app. And now, the group has launched its biggest global campaign for a decade, Guest How You Guest, a joyous, stylishly imperfect tribute to the quirks and individuality of the group’s guests and brands.
“ It felt like the perfect time for our brand to step into the spotlight and let the world know who we are, what we stand for, and connect all of our 17 amazing hotel brands,” says Connor of the starting point for this exuberant new creative from Grey New York. Connor says that the time was ripe to help people ‘connect the dots’ for people and encourage them to explore more of their brands and locations.
With a clearly defined business aim, the next step in developing the campaign was to identify the consumer need where IHG and all of its brands whether they sit in the luxury or business travel space or even economy could come together. The creative campaign was driven by a WPP team, consisting of long term partners Ogilvy and Mindshare and newcomers Grey, who led the creative and strategic development. And they saw that, quite simply, after the proliferation of disruptive DIY travel platforms and the exhausting experience of holding it all together during the pandemic, people were ready and looking to be ‘looked after’ again.
“As we were starting to think about how best to introduce ourselves to the world, we saw a real opportunity to lean into our long-term value of True Hospitality for Good. We observed a cultural tension in the world; we observed that there’s ‘DIY-fatigue’,” says Connor. “There’s been a message in media for quite some time now that says if you just work hard enough you can do it all yourself; learn to sing like Mariah, bake bread like a star baker, create the perfect travel experience – you can achieve mastery of anything if you work hard enough. That, plus the world spending the last several years caring so much for others has left consumers feeling burned out, and simply ready to be cared for – to have someone else make the cocktail, make the bed, clean up after breakfast.”
The campaign therefore needed to remind people what it feels like to be a well-cared for guest - and the team at IHG were particularly keen that the creative captured the notion that ‘we’re real people taking care of real people, and when people are taken care of, they feel free to show up as themselves and live their best life.”.
Hence Guest How You Guest features vibrant imagery from New York photographer Meredith Jenks, known for her work in the fashion and editorial sphere. It shows a diverse cast of guests, from sports fans travelling for game day to elegant pyjama-wearing epicureans, enjoying different elements of the IHG portfolio and embracing their idiosyncratic quirks.
“We saw a unique opportunity to stand out from the crowd and be aspirational to all types of travellers by being authentic. Our campaign visuals depict a "perfectly messy" style that says, ‘come as you are.’ We’ve curated a combination of rich, colourful, and true-to-life travel moments to bring to life the foundation of IHG One Rewards’ reimagined approach to loyalty and showcase the freedom guests have to build their own experience at IHG hotels,” says Connor.
The series of vignettes shows people being guests exactly as they want to - and Connor says that during the creative development process, those characters and scenarios that emerged felt very familiar to the IHG team.
“As we started to think about how to show these moments, we realised we didn’t have to look that far. Much of the creative was inspired by how people actually behave in our hotels – where they feel they can arrive and relax and be cared for as their true selves,” says Connor.
But that emphasis on individuality was key not just to the creative strategy but the media strategy too. “By creating such a rich campaign universe, and leveraging a data-driven media strategy, we’re able to put the exact right creative in front of the right person at the right time, be it a city take-over in London or TV spots on Sunday night football. “
And that sense of individuality also feeds into how the reimagined loyalty programme and its app were designed. Extensive research with travellers, owners and operators revealed that guests want to travel ‘on their own terms’ and want to be able to choose their own paths. A desire to be looked after doesn’t mean that travellers are ready to cede choice and succumb to a one-size-fits-all experience.
The user experience design of the app and the mechanics of loyalty program is, says Connor, ‘rooted in choice’. It’s a mobile-first experience, reflecting consumer behaviour. It allows guests to book rooms, track progress towards Milestone Rewards and enjoy exclusive benefits for IHG One Rewards members.
“We’ve made sure to create a design with members in mind, resulting in an app that provides a smooth and intuitive experience for all customers, giving them more control and greater personal choice,” says Connor. “With this app and the in-person experiences at our properties, our goal is to put guests in control of their travel journeys through personal choice, valuable points and richer rewards. Additionally, as with the Guest How You Guest campaign, we are empowering guests to show up as their authentic selves and experience the heartfelt care only IHG hotels can provide.”
All throughout, the underlying challenge has been to drive such changes in advertising and customer experience, while striking the balance between building the IGH Hotels and Resorts masterbrand and championing the variety of the individual brands within the groups. But from Connor’s perspective, the very embrace of idiosyncrasy and authenticity of guest desires for a caring experience also give space for the individual brands’ approach to caring and looking after guests.
“At the end of the day, we are one family under IHG Hotels & Resorts,” explains Connor of that tricky balancing act. “Each brand is its own entity, but all share the last name of IHG. Just like in a family, each of our 17 brands have their own personalities, and we celebrate and market that, but we will always connect our individual brands back to IHG. This helps our consumers and reminds them they will be taken care of wherever they stay with us. Because what connects us all is our heartfelt approach to caring for our guests. We reward you for being you – no matter where you are from, no matter who you are. Guest How you Guest reinforces IHG Hotels & Resorts as a hotel company that takes care of everyone whether you are a guest staying at a Holiday Inn Express supporting your favourite sports team, taking work calls poolside at a Kimpton Hotels & Restaurant, or a couple celebrating an anniversary by ordering all the room service at an InterContinental.”
This transformational journey is not one that has occurred in a vacuum. Since the Covid-19 pandemic kicked off in late 2019, the travel and hospitality industry has been uniquely impacted. Lockdowns and travel bans strangled the industry. Nonetheless, as the world has opened up, visitors are returning.. Much has changed - surging energy prices, an accelerated adoption of e-commerce platforms amongst a whole suite of social, economic and technological changes. But as the group brings its transformation to the public, Connor reckons that, really, the business is doing what it’s always done.
“We know now more than ever that people want to experience the joys of travel and want to be taken care of in the ways that work for them,” says Connor. “As we look ahead, you’ll continue to see us highlight IHG’s approach to heartfelt care and personalization that puts our guests in control of their journeys. We also know that no two travellers are the same, and we embrace that. We want to show guests they can show up to any of our over 6,000 properties around the world exactly as they are, and we will handle the rest.”