Sophie Merven, Head of Communications, IHG Hotels & Resorts, shares her outlook for travel post-COVID from a global perspective. She also discusses how the organization was forced to rethink themselves and make significant changes as a result of the pandemic. Sophie also emphasizes the increased role of PR and earned media in the current environment.
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About the Host:
Host: DOUG SIMON
Guest: SOPHIE MERVEN
DOUG: Sophie, you had some great insight because you’re a global company when the pandemic was starting, how the rolling effect was happening. Is that giving you any insights into what a possible recovery could look like as we hope to enter the post pandemic period?
SOPHIE: Yeah, definitely. And thanks for having me, Doug. I’m excited to be chatting to you today. Absolutely. I mean, when the pandemic started, we literally could see it move from one end of the world and kind of start hitting market by market as it made its way around, which was the scary part. But it definitely allowed us to have a look at how the early markets were reacting, and it’s been the exact same with recovery. So, starting with China, China was the first market where we saw an uptick in travel and hotel bookings as the pandemic evolved, and we were able to increase security and all of that. So, in watching what they were doing, every other market was able to say, OK, well, that worked, that didn’t work, and we are bringing it back towards the rest of the globe, if you will. So, it’s been a really interesting sharing of best practices and strategies across the globe. I think the biggest takeaway for me being part of this really incredible global team at IHG is even though physically the borders are still closed between many, many, many markets, it’s almost like the borders between our team have opened up more than ever before. We were already a very efficient global team, but we had to really lean on each other and learn from each other. So, like I said, if there’s one market that suddenly sees an uptick in bookings, or a strategy that works, a PR program that worked everyone’s eyes on the sharing, share and reapply and just learning from one another, especially in the last six months, we’ve seen so much up and down. So, Europe reopened, Europe closed, Canada reopened, sort of, Canada closed. The US has been on a steady increase, which has been really great news, it’s really our biggest market in terms of hotel presence.
DOUG: And obviously the travel industry has been one that’s been among the most challenged during this time. That’s forced you to rethink your organization. Can you speak to some of the changes and then we can get into what are you going to keep from that, what’s going to last and what might go back, if anything? So first, what were some of the changes you have to make as you rethought the organization?
SOPHIE: Sure. I mean, it goes without saying that our industry, we don’t really need to explain how we were hit. It went from all hotels open to most hotels closed. So, it was a very dark, just kind of change of things and obviously impacted our business in a major, major way. Us then all our competitors, obviously, we’re all in the same boat. For us, it definitely meant we’re looking at the way that we were structured. We had a global team from a PR point of view, we had a global team, we worked really well together. But we were used to working on these bigger brand awareness campaigns. Things like having resources and tools and budgets to put towards them. It was a completely different ballgame, and we were blessed and fortunate to be able to do that. Of course, everything changed, and we had to really start embedding ourselves in the more commercial side of things. So, whereas before we might not have been called upon, everything we do, of course, in any marketing function will at some point needs to impact the bottom line. But more so than ever before we were tasked with, really we are tasked to this day, with figuring out every single thing we do as a public relations function, working with our stakeholders, how are we really trying to push ourselves to meet those commercial objectives. And, you know, from a just a personal level as a PR practitioner, I don’t know that I ever had to push myself that hard to work that way. So, things like embedding ourselves with our commercial team. We used to work more closely, we still worked very closely with marketing, but now we’re having to work with different teams to be more at a hotel level or to get different information, to work on promotions and find ways to leverage the power of PR to really get our message out there in a world where until recently, we still couldn’t really push a travel message. I mean, we’re still not really pushing a travel message. It’s a question of what are we even talking about.
DOUG: One of the choices you made was to amp up your news bureau and the idea of earning media is becoming more important in this environment. What are some steps you’re taking there, maybe advice for others and how do you strategize the message and see how it’s evolving? I know that’s a lot there, so you can take it one at a time.
SOPHIE: Yes, you’re absolutely right. So, one thing I mean, there’s a few different reasons we landed on this, but obviously, news bureau is an engine in itself that we were already running at a very good capacity. We had to really double down for a variety of reasons, mostly that at the base layer of PR what are we trying to do? We’re trying to generate earned coverage for our brands, our master brand, our various hotel brands, for our executives, whoever it is we’re trying to talk about. So, the news bureau function just really had to double down, and everyone in our team across the globe is tasked with at least a portion of their job as news bureau. Also, something that we can manage internally and run internally. So, not being able to work with agencies to the capacity that we used to. Running a news engine globally just allowed us to have that steady drumbeat of, it’s kind of classic PR 101, it really is what we needed to do. And then really pushing ourselves to just be really connected, really connected. We live in a world where there’s cancel culture, and it’s so easy to go out with the wrong message to the wrong person, not intentionally, we never want to offend, and pushing a travel message has been really touchy in the last year. People aren’t getting on planes for the right reason. We had to follow CDC guidelines. We have to make sure really, really dot the I’s and cross the T’s on this one to make sure that we were just really connected to the press, to the editors, the reporters. What were they looking for? What are they looking for? We’re constantly chatting with them to find out, like, what is your angle, what are you comfortable talking about right now? What sentiment, what’s the consumer sentiment? What are people wanting to see? At one point, for example, we got to, people were done hearing about COVID. Yes, it existed, it was there, but we heard from reporters, this might have been more of America’s angle, if you will, but we heard from reporters, you know what, we’re ready to talk about something a little bit more lighthearted. So, then we shifted to, OK, could we show beautiful photos, imagery of hotels that one day we’ll get to travel to again.
DOUG: And that gets to sort of shifting the message to more aspirational. And what you’re really talking about is an increased sophistication that’s now required to earn media. You need to put more resources and effort into it, including thinking smarter. One of the things that you have, and a number of organizations also share, is the multiple moving pieces because you’re a franchise organization. So how are you navigating some of that as we wrap up and maybe some of the best practices, and again, like I say, things that might continue going forward because the increased urgency to survive has made everyone sort of pay attention, the hair on the back of their necks’ up, we’ve got to figure out what we’ve got to do? How do you sort of continue that kind of momentum as things hopefully change for the better?
SOPHIE: Well, I mean, it’s a lot of hard work, but really, we have a really dedicated team and we have a team that covers off all the different audiences. So, as you mentioned, we are a franchise business which comes with a lot of complexities. We have hotel owners, we have management groups, we’ve got general managers, we have guests, we have a variety of audiences. And so, at the end of the day, what the PR team really tries to do, or what we do, is we have to cater to every audience. We’re constantly thinking, who are all the audiences? Is it the same subset, do we need to add anyone in there? And how do we tailor the message to each audience? So, obviously a message that goes to a guest is going to be different or adapted to a message that might go to an owner. But we are organized in a way or structure. We’ve got teams dedicated to each audience, and what we do is we come together, and when we have anything that we’re going to push out, we really push ourselves to always think in a real 360 way. And I think that that has been one of the best practices we’ve tried to employ. We used to do it a lot before, but I think we’ve gotten even more rigid about it. So, we always keep all the audiences in mind. Who do we need to talk to, how do we communicate to them, what are we telling them? There’s some obvious things, and then there’s other messaging you realize, well we could benefit from that. How then will the hotel interact with the guest? I mean, we are seeing people book hotels, people are starting to travel again in the US, for instance, so how is the hotel responding to a guest? For instance, we launched our IHG Way of Clean. So, it’s a whole new clean program that was absolutely necessary in this day and age with the pandemic. How does that come to life in the hotel, how do we communicate that? And it goes two ways. So, it’s just really staying, again, staying as much with the reporters as with our other key audiences in the franchise model, it’s just staying really in tune with all of our different groups and making sure that we are communicating the right thing at the right time with the right method.
DOUG: Well, you’ve really kept our audience in mind with these great tips sharing what you’ve been experiencing. Thanks so much for participating in the program.
SOPHIE: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.