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‘There is enormous opportunity in the mid-scale segment’

InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG) is getting all set to debut its ‘limited services’ mid-market brand Holiday Inn Express in Ahmedabad later this year. The chain, which runs brands such as InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, among others, is betting big on India. As Chief operating officer, South West Asia, Mr Chris Moloney, based in Gurgaon, points out, the pipeline for 47 hotels here in India, is the third largest for the company globally. Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

How many hotels will you be opening in India in the next few years?

We have a current pipeline of 47 hotels which is the third largest pipeline for our company globally. These hotels will open between now and 2016. Our goal is to operate 150 hotels by 2020. This year we will open five hotels including hotels under Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn brands. Over 80 per cent of our upcoming properties are going to be under the Holiday Inn or Holiday Inn Express.

Why are you betting so much on the Holiday Inn Express brand in India?

Typically, a majority of the hotel room inventory has been built in the upper upscale. With nearly 740 million domestic trips happening primarily in the business and MICE segment, there is an enormous opportunity for the mid-scale brand. Another aspect is that the average number of days spent on business travel in India is about 27 days. And no one brand owns this space. Business travellers usually stay in different hotels depending on the locations rather than travelling by brand. We believe Holiday Inn Express is a value brand targeted at the business traveller segment. It is a brand that will have key hallmarks that will focus on quality breakfast, quality sleep and quality showers— basically convenience for the business travellers. We would not run restaurants on our own but outsource this space to partners.

InterContinental has launched two new brands ‘Even’ in the US and ‘Hualuxe’ targeted at the Chinese market. Are you planning any brand customised to India?

Unlike China, India has very strong hotel domestic brands. And whether there is a need to launch a domestic brand for India, time will tell. We still have other brands such as Indigo and Staybridge that have not been launched in India yet.

With real estate prices so high, isn’t it a challenge to build economy and mid-scale hotel in the country? How do you meet this?

The cost of real estate is significant which makes the gestation period longer. But we in our joint venture with Duet are organising the operations of hotels in a way that some of the space typically used by back office or services is not being built in the Holiday Inn Express hotels. (Intercontinental has a JV going with Duet India Hotels Group to develop 19 Holiday Inn Express brands). We would do some functions such as accounting from our office here in Gurgaon. We are also trying to use technology and processes such as pre-fabrication to build hotels efficiently and faster. We are also trying to build in multi-use development such as taking up the upper floors of a mall of an office complex.

City, hotels hope fresh ideas bring in tourists

CARBONDALE — City lodging tax revenue in fiscal year 2012, which ended April 30, looks to be slightly off pace from the previous year’s total.

The city took in almost $624,000 in 2011, or an average of $56,722 a month. Through 11 months of the recently completed 2012 fiscal year, the city saw $563,853 in tax revenue, or an average of $51,259 a month.

If the city collects the monthly average, tax revenue will be down about $9,000. However, April 2011 receipts came in at more than $60,500, and if hoteliers collected that amount in the final month of fiscal year 2012, then revenues will be close to matching the previous total.

A $317,500 portion of the city’s 8 percent hotel tax has traditionally been used to promote tourism and overnight stays in the city. When the city ended its relationship with the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau, its longtime promotions partner, it freed up money to be used for marketing by other agencies.

The city

City staff will compose requests for proposals to be approved by the city council as the market for services is now wide open. Mayor Joel Fritzler said he expected the process to take about three months.

The belief at city hall is fresh eyes and ideas may lead to better results.

City Councilwoman Jane Adams has been critical of the return on investment the tourism bureau gave the city and has questioned the effectiveness of the tourism bureau’s marketing, especially as it related to increases in hotel revenue.

Hotel revenue rose from less than $4 million in fiscal year 1996 to almost $8 million in 2011. Adams said an increase in the number of hotel rooms and the creation of the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, which CCTB helped promote, did more to increase revenue than tourism bureau initiatives.

The hotels

Trace Brown, who owns the Holiday Inn, said he was “totally happy” with the job the tourism bureau did in promoting the city. Brown is the immediate past president of the tourism bureau’s board of directors, and he disagreed with Adams’ criticism of the bureau’s performance.

“Hotel business in Carbondale has been fantastic,” Brown said by text. “We would not have built the Holiday Inn if it wasn’t. … Believe me, we’re in business to make money, and if CCTB was doing a bad job I would be the first to complain and I’m not complaining!”

Brown’s hotel has been the largest contributor to the lodging tax, adding between $12,000 and $22,000 a month in 2011 and 2012.

Paul Lewers, who has owned the Train Inn in Carbondale for five years, operates on a much smaller scale than the Holiday Inn. His contribution to the lodging tax ranged between $45 and $336 in 2011 and 2012.

Lewers said the majority of his business comes from tourism and many of his guests are interested in the region’s outdoor activities.

Lewers said most of his stays come from word-of-mouth recommendations and he did not think the tourism bureau did a good enough job of marketing the Shawnee National Forest, a driver of his business.

“Tourists want to know every option that they have going in, and right now there’s not a very good source to find all of that,” Lewers said.

Although Lewers said he thought talking about what the tourism bureau did or didn’t do is a moot point because the agency no longer handles promotions, he admitted he expected to see an improvement from the next agency to market the city.

“I think the next set of money will be spent a lot more wisely,” he said.


On Twitter: @DW_Norris_SI

Fond memories of a hotel exec

THROUGH my 23 years in the hotel industry, I have lived by a philosophy to never expect my boss to pat me on the back for things I accomplish.

Yvonne Loh (front row, second from left) with Johor Baru-based reporters during the 1990s.

Yvonne Loh with Lydia Shum during the late Hong Kong comedienne’s visit to the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza Johor Baru.

The nature of public relations and marketing jobs does not permit superiors to shower their staff with praises. Instead, I always make it a point to fulfil my own expectations and strive for self-satisfaction.

I always challenge myself to become better in my work, and  see how far I can push myself in achieving something.

It was this desire for self-satisfaction which drove me to pursue a degree in communication after spending most of the past 23 years in the hotel line.

I enrolled in a Bachelor of Communication course with Open University Malaysia in 2009. I regard this pursuit as a sort of written proof or accreditation for the work I have been involved in all this time.

It is a four-year course which is not that easy for people my age. I am a 48-year-old mother of three, and I believe my younger classmates are better able to memorise the material.

I usually need to put in extra effort when it comes to the lectures and other coursework. But I think this comes with the territory as I need to balance time between my family, helping out in my husband’s business and my own job.

I started in the hotel industry in 1989 when I became secretary to a sales manager at Holiday Inn (now Mutiara), Johor Baru. At that time, I was a certificate holder in secretarial science and my only aim was to become a secretary in a company.

But my career turned out differently as I became a public relations officer at the same hotel in 1991. I stayed with the hotel through 1992 when it underwent a major refurbishment and was rebranded as Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza.  It was the first international-level hotel in the state with a five-star rating.  I stayed on until 1997, and I learned  a great deal.

My first two years as a sales secretary exposed me to many aspects of sales. I had the privilege of having very good bosses at the Holiday Inn, including Marianne Lim and the hotel’s former general manager Beppi Forster.

They were far-sighted and left a deep impact on me as they gave me a chance to expand my skills.    Forster, who oversaw the development of Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza for more than 10 years, roped me into the Pernas Hotel Management company, which managed the Holiday Inn chain in the country, to work on another project.

I was entrusted to open up the Holiday Inn Pedu Lake resort in Kedah, which was the first resort brand  of its kind. I had to multi-task from my Johor base, and would occasionally fly up to Kedah.   This experience exposed me to the corporate side of the hospitality industry.

When I joined Pulai Springs Resort in 1998, I was part of the team which won it the 1st  FIABCI (International Real Estate Federation) for resort accommodation.   

It was a team effort that brought about this recognition, but I was immensely satisfied with being the main driving force behind it.

Then, in 2000, I joined the Sofitel Palm Resort which is now the Le Grandeur Palm Resort in Senai.  I would stay here for five years, before joining the Puteri Pacific hotel as its head of corporate communications.

The management of the Puteri Pacific, which is the hospitality division of Johor Corporation, was also overseeing the Sibu Island Resort and three Selesa hotel chains in Pasir Gudang, Johor Baru and Port Dickson.

After that, I joined the team that opened the Persada Johor International Convention Centre on Oct 16, 2006.   Persada Johor was the first large-scale convention and exhibition centre of world stature in the state capital. It could accommodate up to 3,000 people.

The challenge my team faced with Persada Johor was to create a buzz for its opening, as it was built at a part of town which somehow lacked a cosmopolitan feel. So we decided to open the convention centre with a bang.

We invited a Muar-based lion dance troupe and their counterparts for a Lion Dance competition. Mind you, this Muar lion dance troupe, though world champions, had never competed locally.

We also held an Indian Yogi convention and a mass buka puasa event to coincide with the opening of Persada Johor.

These activities were fruitful as they attracted crowds of thousands.

I left the Puteri Pacific hotel in 2007, and I left the hotel line for a while.

But I was still involved in related areas until I took on the marketing and communication portfolio for the Le Grandeur Palm Resort, Senai a month ago.

I suppose I am still very passionate about this line of work. If one were to ask me what my work is now, I would describe myself as a public relations and branding person.

My future plan is to impart my knowledge to trainees and students at a college or hospitality school.

Interview by Ahmad Fairuz Othman

Hotel lobbies become multi-use spaces

But since Courtyard by Marriott redesigned its lobbies with semi-private booths, better technology and a late-night food menu, he’s been holding court there, instead.

“Meeting in rooms or a restaurant was awkward,” says the chief operating officer of a computer software training company, who lives in Lee’s Summit, Mo. “This concept makes it much more comfortable.”

That’s the kind of reaction hotel executives are banking on as they transform their once-sterile lobbies into multi-use spaces where people can eat, drink, work, socialize — or all of the above.

The investment, so far, is paying off: As revenues from in-room amenities such as pay-per-view movies and telephones dry up, hotels are reporting higher food and beverage sales in their public spaces.

“Until recently, hotel guests would just pass through the lobby,” says Randall King, vice president of operations for the West Coast at the Dow Hotel Company. “The lobby was a dead space. Recently, we in the industry have made a concerted effort to bring the guest back to the lobby.”

Populating the space 

More than 50% of guests use the Link@Sheraton lobby/computer lounge during their stay, contributing to a 12% food and beverage sale increase in hotels that have them, Sheraton estimates. As a result, parent company Starwood is converting its lobbies at Le Méridien hotels into “hubs” with libraries, spaces for speakers to lead conversations, and a coffee/wine bar.

Since rolling out its “Refreshing Business Lobby” concept, food and beverage sales per occupied room, a benchmark for how much revenue is generated from a customer, have doubled at Courtyard by Marriott hotels, which Janis Milham, vice president and global brand manager for Courtyard, attributes to the lobby redesign. Since late 2007, 390 properties have had their lobbies renovated. By the end of this year, that will increase to more than 400 out of the brand’s 800 in the United States, Milham says.

At the Holiday Inn Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga., where the company introduced the “social hub” in June, food sales per occupied room are up 20%, and beverage sales are up 50%, says Verchele Wiggins, global vice president for Holiday Inn brands.

Expect hotel lobbies to continue to evolve for a hipper, more technologically savvy crowd.

Earlier this year, Hilton Hotels Resorts unveiled the lobby at the Hilton McLean in Virginia with more sofas, TVs and a technology lounge with a communal work table. Hilton Worldwide has also introduced different aspects of the design to its Hilton Garden Inns and Hampton Hotels.

Hyatt Hotels is converting all its extended-stay Summerfield Suites and Hotel Sierra properties into Hyatt Houses with lobbies resembling living rooms. The spaces will be functional for 18 to 20 hours a day, with the breakfast area turning into the H Bar at night. “We wanted to create a community where people are engaged to different degrees,” says Gary Dollens, global head of franchise and select brands for Hyatt. “They feel like they’re part of something because they don’t want to sit in their room.”

Happy or unhappy hour? 

Drew Roberts, a banking industry executive who spends so much time on the road that he doesn’t consider any one city his home, prefers to sit in his room after a long day of work.

“A hotel should be a hotel. If I go to the front desk, I should be able to check in without running the gamut of people who are transacting business that has nothing to do with a front desk function,” says Roberts, a member of USA TODAY’s Road Warrior panel. “Please go elsewhere to drink, socialize and make noise.”

While checking into a W hotel in Newark, Calif., David Simonson, a computer consultant in Antioch, Tenn., couldn’t hear the desk clerk over the noise from the lobby. “Moving a nightclub into the lobby is too much,” he says.

Stephani Robson, senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, calls the lobbies a “double-edged sword” for that reason. “For some hotels, this is a little problematic,” she says. “What happens is you get people coming and using it who aren’t guests. … For the guests, that can sometimes be frustrating, because they can’t use the space.”

So far, Brian Matos, a director at a reverse logistics firm who lives in Frisco, Texas, has managed to find a way to use the space — and meet some pleasant people. Once, he happened to sit next to a representative for Jack Daniels at a hotel lobby bar. “He paid my tab for listening to the history of Jack Daniels. Thank you, Jack!” he says.

A stop for coffee in the lobby of a hotel a few months ago led to a fortuitous meeting for Lauren Fix, who splits her non-work time between New York and Buffalo. The automotive expert struck up a conversation with a fellow patron who had been reading a car magazine. It turns out he was restoring a Pontiac GTO. She gave him her business card, and the next day, he called the sales department of her tubing business, Classic Tube, to order car parts.

“I’ve met some really nice people,” she says.

So has Ines Lormand, a second-language consultant for a publishing business in Houston who doesn’t like dining alone. She doesn’t mind spending a little more in the lobby, especially if it has a well-priced wine list. “Sometimes the weather is inclement or I am not really close to anything but chain restaurants, so I’d rather stay at the hotel.”