October 13, 2021 | By Joyce DiMascio

There was a time a few years back when a new hotel opening was rare.

That’s all changed, with record levels of investment around the country by major operators like IHG Hotels & Resorts.

According to Leanne Harwood, IHG Hotels & Resorts’ Senior Vice President and Managing Director for Asia Pacific and Japan, 10 new properties will be added to the brand’s portfolio in Australia in 2022 and a further 13 are on the way over the next few years.

They will be located “all over the place” she says, including on the Sunshine Coast, in Brisbane, Melbourne, Wagga Wagga and more.

Harwood is a mighty force – influential, focused, commercial and very supportive of diversity and promoting women. Apart from her enormous brief with IHG in the region, she recently became the first woman in 54 years to head up the Accommodation Association.

She spoke to micenet about all things hotels as well as her mission to rebuild the appeal of careers in the hotels and hospitality sector.

Harwood says that as we come through the pandemic and associated lockdowns, we face major staffing challenges.

“When you go through a crisis like what we’ve been through, we want to come out better than when we went in,” she says. “So, there will be a different approach to running the hotels.”

That approach was being looked at pre-COVID, but changes have now been accelerated.

The hotel operating model has been “flipped on its head” from all the learnings that have come out of the past 19 months.

“We have modernised the way we think of the traditional hotel environment,” says Harwood.

At the centre of the changes are more flexible workplaces for employees.

This involves more opportunities to work from home for non-customer facing roles. In addition, there’s a new approach to the placement of staff overall within IHG.

Hotels have had had very established practices when hiring teams and this has involved training them up department by department with placements of up to two years per area.

She says that model will be changed with new recruits given the chance to experience all parts of the hotel from front-of-house to food and beverage and operations.

“We’re getting rid of the silos and allowing employees to fasttrack through different areas of hotels.

“We have embraced that people want to work in different ways,” she said.

InterContinental Hayman Island Resort is one of IHG luxury properties

At the core of this new model is to try to create an environment that makes working in hotels and hospitality appealing given the enormous impacts of the pandemic on the talent pool.

“There are limited international students, limited people on working visas and many people have turned away from industry – we need to get people back to our industry.

Harwood says the HR challenges are the greatest ever faced by both IHG and the hotels sector generally.

IHG has a mammoth staffing need – it must find 6,000 employees for its Australian and New Zealand operations, she said.

Harwood says through her work with the industry peak body, hotels are collectively talking to governments about these labour and skills challenges.

She says it’s important to start to think differently about apprenticeships and to continue to support initiatives for disadvantaged young people by setting them on a pathway for a career in hotels. She said one such successful program has had a retention rate of 91 percent.

When you talk to Harwood, no matter which hat she’s wearing – as the boss of IHG or as the President of the Accommodation Association – you know she’s on a mission to make a difference.

Her passion is to help rebuild the reputation of the hotel sector in the eyes of potential employees – she wants to help position careers in the sectors as inspirational both to candidates and their parents. Without strengthening the employment pipeline – opportunities to rebuild the sector will be constrained.

“Young people can have exciting careers in hotels, they can work around the world and have a lifelong career,” she says.

Reinstating the reputation and the appeal of a career in hotels is critical. “We need to get people back to our industry, build their confidence again.”

Getting people back into hotels as clients is also an important goal for IHG – especially for corporate meetings and events.

A focus on safe meetings

Since the start of the pandemic, IHG has introduced a wide range of measures to make the hotel experience safe. They’ve also introduced greater flexibility into contracts and have invested in new technology to enable the delivery of premium hybrid events.

Across their Crowne Plaza Hotels brand, they have introduced Crowne Plaza Connections, a hybrid meetings offering designed to help people stay connected across cities and borders.

IHG is still not seeing many corporate events going ahead, other than smaller state-based events, due to travel restrictions and the volatility of state borders across Australia. The company says most customers are more open to postponing than cancelling.

“We’re seeing the majority of events postponing into 2022, which is causing compression in hotels from Q2 onwards,” said spokesperson Chris Waite.

“Right now, the average size of events remain smaller i.e., around 50 to 80 pax, however there is growing confidence in some markets for larger national conferences especially in pharmaceutical, medical, automotive, logistics [and] real estate.”

Association and incentive business is returning at a slower rate. Government social distancing requirements, particularly measures like the one person per four square metre rule is resulting in some clients needing to adjust their number of attendees to work within with guidelines.  Domestic is still very much a focus for 2022, although with more talk of international borders opening, requests are coming for offshore destinations, he said.

IHG has recently opened Crowne Plaza properties in Hobart, Adelaide and Sydney, in addition to renovating four other Crowne Plaza properties in Coogee Beach in Sydney, Melbourne and Hawkesbury Valley and Terrigal Beach in regional NSW.

Overall, IHG Hotels and Resorts has 16 brands including nearly 6,000 open hotels in more than 100 countries, and a further 1,800 due to open over the next five years. Its brands include Regent Hotels & Resorts, InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Hotel Indigo, HUALUXE Hotels and Resorts, EVEN Hotels and voco Hotels.

The recently renovated Crowne Plaza Hawkesbury Valley

With the reopening of international travel to Australia and the easing of restrictions, Harwood is optimistic about the future.

She is a powerhouse and formidable leader. It’s hard not to be captured by her drive and energy. She has a big picture view of the whole industry – as well as within IHG Hotels and Resorts.

She’s vibrant, articulate, warm and a straight talker. There’s no doubt that as the first female President of the Accommodation Association she is going to be a force for change.

And that has to be good for all hotels in Australia and also for others who are willing to make the industry their passion.

As she said in her social media post on International Day of the Girl this week.

“I am where I am today because I am a determined individual and I sought out opportunity. BUT I also have had inspirational women who have supported, cajoled, challenged and inspired me on my journey. Thank you my Wolfpack.

“Now let’s help the next generation of girls take on the world.”

Hotel Indigo Adelaide Markets