Practice Article

A 'sound strategy' for Intercontinental Hotels

Received (In revised form): 26th March 2009

Peter Jones

is ITCA Chair of Production and Operations Management in the School of Management at the University of Surrey. He has researched productivity for a number of years as part of a research programme designed to understand and improve operational performance in the hospitality industry. Since 1981 he has written or edited 12 textbooks on operations management, published numerous articles in a wide range of operations management and hospitality journals, and presented over 90 conference papers throughout the world.

Tourism and Hospitality Research (2009) 9,271-276. doi:l0.1057/thr.2009.13


In April 2008, Michael Spencer paused before walking onto the podium to speak: to 200 + General Managers (GMs) of Intercontinental Hotels from allover the world. He was about to explain to them the chain's new policy with regard to how sound was to be incorporated into their hotel's 'servicescape'. It was the end result of a 2-year project that had researched the role of background music, and other sounds, in the hotel experience. This was something that no hotel chain had ever attempted before, because of the sheer complexity and scale of the exercise. Spencer knew that getting the GMs to understand and take ownership of the 'sound strategy' would be key to its successful implementation around the world. At this conference, Spencer would play samples of music and other sounds that would be used to convey the Intercontinental brand. He knew that feedback would be almost instantaneous. Either the audience would sense that it matched their brand values - or not. It was make or break time .. , .

Correspondence: Peter Jones

The University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, GU2 7XH, UK E-mail:


Intercontinental Hotels is part of Intercontinental Hotels Group PLC (IHG) , the world's largest hotel operator in respect of number of rooms. In 2008, it was reported that the chain operated 585 094 rooms, in 3949 hotels. The company estimated that this results in more than 160 million guest stays =v=v year. IHG has seven hotel brands - InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites. IHG operates hotels in three different ways - as a franchisor, a manager and on an owned-and-leased basis. The largest part of our business is franchised, with over 3500 hotels under franchise agreements. Five hundred and seventy-three hotels worldwide are managed on management contracts with owners. And only 16 hotels (less than 1 per cent of our portfolio) are owned and managed by the company. This means that IHG's operating system focuses on driving demand for its brands, rather than managing properties. Thus, IHG's global hotel distribution system includes global advertising and marketing campaigns, 12 global call centres, 13 local language websites, and an SOOO-strong sales force. Its loyalty programme,

©2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1467-3584 Tourism and Hospitality Research Vol. 9, 3, 271-276 www.palqrave-joumals.ccm/thr/

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the same way as a logo and design system for a visual corporate identity;

a collaborative decision-making process to agree on effective channels and methods

, for reaching target audiences through the creation of a sonic identity within a consistent and all-encompassing sonic architecture.

Priority Club Rewards, is the world's largest hotel loyalty scheme, with 40 million members.

Intercontinental Hotels is the world's first hotel brand to provide destination-specific concierge websites and videos. In December 2006, Eric Nicolas - then Director of Global Brand Innovation for IHG - determined that the company should also break new ground with regard to its 'sound strategy'. As he stated, 'We realised that the guest experience involved much more than things such as fine dining and the thread count on the bed linen ... that is taken for granted in a luxury hotel. We had to look deeper into the impact we could make on our guests and in ways that were meaningful to them, We were intrigued by the way in which the sensory environment might influence the experiences they have and stimulate stories they might take back home. We felt that sound, and the way in which our guests come into contact with it, could play a major role in generating these personal connections'. Likewise, IHG's CEO, Andy Coslett, questioned, 'Why do we play 'The Girl from Ipanema' when no one in the bar is over 40?' (Time Magazine, 2007)


Sound Strategies (Ltd) are specialists in the design, development and deployment of communications strategies, using sound as the primary driver. The founders of the company recognised the impact of advances in information and communications technology, and developed rigorous systems of analysis and application to improve the aural positioning of brands. It has a specific methodology for achieving this:

an audit of the client's culture, image and communications strategy;

an analysis of the existing use of sound, and research into further 'sonic opportunities'; the development of an awareness with the client of the potential of sound through workshops and enablement strategies;

the provision of a brief for a sound-based positioning, composed and developed in

Michael Spencer is one of the co-founders of Sound Strategies. He has had an international music career as a performer, education head and consultant with, among others, the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Opera House and a number of Japanese Arts Organisations. He advises on large-scale corporate, community and educational initiatives, including past and current consultancies with the Association of Japanese Symphony Orchestras, the National School for the Arts (Iohannesburg), the Development Disability Council (Florida), Welsh National Opera and the Norwegian Film. Institute. Spencer is also the director of Creative Arts Net, a company specialising in using the arts in a wide range of educational contexts, through which he has instituted a variety of training programmes for teachers' organisations, educational establishments and corporate clients (including Barclays Capital, Unilever, PriceWaterhouse Cooper, and Saatchi & Saatchi), and speaks regularly on arts-based training methods.


Intercontinental Hotels first approached Sound Strategies in 2005, and a brief was agreed on. This stated that Sound Strategies will 'define from research and analysis what we call the Unique Emotional Proposition (UEP) of the brand. This constitutes the words and sound that describe the aural translation of a normal positioning statement. As such, it provides the essence to which later implementation decisions refer, and ensures continuity regardless of the delivery system and context employed .. [We will also]


©2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1467-3584 Tourism and Hospitality Research Vol. g, 3, 271-276

'Sound strategy' for Intercontinental Hotels *"

indicate style, tone, rhythm and melody for the Intercontinental Hotels brand'.

There then followed a 2-year research project that investigated every aspect of the 'firm's use of sound - in advertising, as background music in the hotels, in DVD training materials and so on. Every potential stakeholder was researched - the suppliers of music, managers and staff, brand management team, competitors and customers.


Phase 1 - Identifying Intercontinental values

To establish the values of the brand, three pieces of research were undertaken. The first consisted of one-on-one interviews of I-hour duration with members of the senior marketing team against an agreed topic menu. The second method consisted of an analysis of the hotel chain's promotional brochures and marketing material. The third was a reviewofDVD recordings made at Intercontinental Hotel managers' conferences to identify key words and phrases used by the presenters.

Typical quotes from interviewees were as follows:

World's first international brand with global network.

No specific nationality.

There is a spirit of heritage within the group.

Brand DNA flows through, but each hotel is an ambassador for its own town.

The content analysis of marketing materials produced 19 key phrases, listed under three main headings - the Intercontinental Life (with phrases such as 'Individual living', 'Space and relaxation' and 'World of possibilities'), Material Benefits ('luxury', 'international' and so on) and External and General Descriptors ('Right brand, Right Place, Right time') - while key words from the review of internal conference speeches included Vision, Innovation, Emotionally rewarding, Ambition, Consistency, Local customs, Trust, Admiration for Group, Gain knowledge and Influencers,

Phase 2 - Positioning the sound strategy

From this research, Sound Strategies developed a positioning statement, divided into three main areas:

The Intercontinental Hotels brand persona - this includes how the brand is to be seen by trade and business audiences, and assembles the essence of the brand.

Marketing factors affecting the sonic prograITIlne - geographical strategy and target guest typology.

Abstract concepts to be articulated sonically.

The brand persona was described as follows: 'The Intercontinental Hotels brand should be seen as a genuine international network with no specific nationality. Although each hotel has a local emphasis through its heritage, a positive spirit flows through all venues. That spirit is generated by its people, atmosphere and differentiation from competitors. This is exemplified by the staff who have a passionate commitment to serve the guests and show how value can be added to their visits. Words such as 'open', 'happy', 'genuine', 'progressive' appear to be accurate in terms of staff attitudes and have a corporate application regarding external positioning. The brand persona is one of ambition, 'trying to be in a leadership position' regarding innovation, vision, new technologies and influence within the industry'.

The sound strategy would also be affected by the chitin's strategies and markets. The future for the chain would be in resort growth, with the development in multi-purpose sites. Asia, and Japan specifically, was expected to take the lead. The United States will be of growing importance to the brand. In the shorter term, there would be a greater focus on China. There would continue to be a trend from management towards franchising, with a greater emphasis by guests on leisure as an addition to corporate requirements. The target guest was thought of as ambitious, and probably only two steps away from a board


© 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1467-3584 Tourism and Hospitality Research Vol. 9, 3, 271-276

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of the GM's to replace equipment which may well have been added recently'.

Thus, the following five major criteria were used to evaluate alternative suppliers:

appointment or partnership. They were seen as 'refined', 'cultivated' and 'elegant', with an interest in the arts and culture, and wanting a choice of new experiences. The hotel is not necessarily their sale destination, as they want to travel and explore the surrounding environment. It is expected that the brand positioning, especially in terms of luxury, will extend into the hotel's individual design, style, art displays and use of fabrics. Music will play a role in this concept. Above all, guests should feel the differentiation and not consider that they are in another international hotel like all others.

Finally, Intercontinental Hotels had already developed a number of catch phrases and strap lines as part of their marketing. These too had to be 'captured sonically'. Such phrases included 'An Enriching Experience', 'A World ofPossibilities' and 'The Intercontinental World'.

Phase 3 - Reviewing and selecting suppliers

Sound Strategies then consulted 10 potential suppliers of music to the hotel industry. Sound Strategies' report on this activity states, 'In analysing the submissions of each contributor three significant points became apparent which we would suggest are critical in selecting the most appropriate supplier/so

1. The degree to which their offering is based on their own proprietary equipment and the implications arising from this; cost to each property, flexibility regarding staff involvement both in control of and contribution to content, number of units required, servicing and upkeep etc.

2. Genuine understanding of the subtlety of the brief particularly with regard to locale, property characteristics, dayparts etc., and a willingness to drill down further.

3. Authentic cultural links with the musical influences of the different regions.

In the case of" 1" above, consideration should be given also to the wide variety of systems already in place and the reluctance on the part

Fit with the brief brand, target guest and so on.

Music choices: selection, programnllng, regional/local

Staff involvement

Equipment implications

Property relevance

The initial review of suppliers prioritised a firm that specialised in providing in-flight entertainment for airlines. Sound Strategies reported, 'This company showed both in their selection of music and the rigour they brought to their presentation a responsive and creative approach to the brief They gave good representation in each of the three silos and demonstrated empathy, in particular with local styles. Whilst their core business concerns the provision of unified programme content, their experience is considerable across a wide range of clients, both within brand and entertainment contexts. The practical issues surrounding product implementation seem to be well covered with a range of formats on offer that have to be delivered on strict schedules (provisioning of aircraft has to achieved within tight time confines). They have global presence involving local producers and the other aspects of their business such as archival transfer help to enrich their offering'.

Phase 4 - Involving managers in acoustic workshops

In January 2007, a selected group of managers were invited to participate in a workshop aimed at further developing the Intercontinental sound strategy. This was held. at the world famous and iconic Abbey Road Studios in London. The aims were as follows:

1. To impart a broad conceptual awareness of how music (sound) works, and understand its place within a global and historical context.


© 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1467·3584 Tourism and Hospitality Research Vol. 9, 3, 271-276

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'Sound strategy' for Intercontinental Hotels *

2. To give participants a direct physical experience of music-creation in action, gain insight into the process and develop a basic toolkit for assessment and evaluation that will enable more informed and effective decision-making.

3. To explore and understand the challenges inherent in using music and sound to create more effective corporate positioning strategies by creating a contained exemplar case study.

4. To stimulate discussion around current practice and consider methods of improving implementation across the brand.

S. To gain a degree of personal satisfaction and curiosity from the exploration of new pathways of experiencing music and sound.

Participants began by building on basic musical elements and exploring them using the resources available. In small groups, they then proceeded to collect, assemble and combine sounds (percussion, strings, keyboard and simple wind) to achieve as close a match to their conception of the brief as possible. These results were recorded and groups/individuals made refinement suggestions around their chosen sounds, with the sound engineer acting as a consultant to add reverb, modulation, flitering, looping, echo and so on.

The workshop marked a significant milestone for the whole project, and was something to which the brand team often refers. As one participant, Jenifer Zeigler, a senior Vice President, observed, 'I can see now that there is a type of music that fits with our brand as against something that doesn't'.

Phase 5 - Interviewing hotel General Managers

Current policy within Intercontinental allowed each hotel's GM to select and play whatever music he or she deemed appropriate. GMs appreciated this autonomy, and hence a key element of successfully implementing the sound strategy was to ensure that GMs accepted the new approach. It was mainly for this reason that GMs were interviewed. Although the

interviews did elicit additional information about the brand, they were also designed to raise GM's awareness of the importance of the aural environment.


Mter all this research, Sound Strategies proposed a sound strategy they called 'In the know'. 'In the know' was music that would underscore the core values of any Intercontinental Hotel by featuring music that has regional significance. Sound Strategies argued that, 'In the know artists represent the DNA of the Intercontinental brand'.

There were to be three types of artist that would make up the 'In the Know' playlist:

1. International Brand artists - represent the highest quality of the Intercontinental Brand. They are the best artists in the world. They are critically acclaimed, admired by their peers, and have global significance and cultural impact on the world stage. Guests would understand their stature and would recognise their style. The appeal of these artists transcends their local culture and sets a standard for every other artist. Artists in this category would include U2, Y 0- Yo Ma, Andre Bocelli, Henri Salvador, Salief Keita, Bob Marley, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis.

2. Local artists - would play authentic and cultural music of the region in which the hotel is located, so that the musical content of the hotel would be a dynamic demonstration of celebrating the individuality of the hotels and the places they are located. This would also illustrate the chain's commitment to the local community.

3. Emerging artists - artists of a very high calibre who one would expect to become regional or international artists in the future. Examples of such artists are Norah Jones, Corinne Bailey Rae, Paris Combo, Camille and Amy Winehouse.


© 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1467-3584 Tourism and Hospitality Research Vol. 9,3.271-276

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The strategy also defined music selection criteria in relation to the physical infrastructure of the hotel, its architecture and specific times of day. Sound interacts with its environment in very specific ways, which should be considered in the selection of music. Generally, high ceilings, glass and marble tend to make sounds bounce. High registers (that is, high-end percussion) easily bounce and can lead to sounds smashing into each other, creating an unpleasant cacophony. In addition, considering the wide variety of hearing anomalies, music in the higher registers irritates more people, more quickly. Thus, the music selected should be in the lower register (alto, baritone), with a shorter dynamic range (smaller musical arrangements: concerto instead of full orchestras), which can help to keep the 'bounce' to a minimum and create a more relaxed, intimate and pleasing sound quality. People should be able to converse easily over the music while still being able to discern that it is on. Thus, while the music contributes to the atmosphere, it does not dominate the experience.

The heritage of the hotel and age of the property should be a consideration in the music selection. A Baroque, twenty-first Century or modern design may demand a certain style of music be present, but it may also be important to revitalise the perception of the hotel by keeping the music relevant for today. In baroque settings, current solo classical artists (Y 0- Yo Ma) can be presented, and even other styles of music presented that underscore the true passion of the hotel.

The selected music should also reflect the natural biorhythms of the people. For instance

Softer selection in the mornmg, building to a mid-tempo during lunch.

From 1500 to 1800 hours, the pace of the music slows.

In the early evening, the tempo picks up, perhaps with a jazz selection as people meet for drinks before an evening out.

As we get later in the evening, the music can be more up-tempo and perhaps more adventuresome, tapering offinto a mellower mood later in the evening and throughout the early morning.

Finally, there was an emphasis on acoustic music, for a number of reasons. First, simplicity in musical arrangements underscores a cultivated, refined elegance. Second, acoustic artists tend to make more of a personal statement. This personal, individual approach creates an inviting, relaxing and interesting environment, while not dominating the audio space, allowing for conversation and hotel interactivity. Third, the acoustic model is very adaptable to various regions of the world. Without the demands of large orchestras or elaborate electronics, acoustic artists can be playing in a local club or cafe, which can compliment concierge recommendations for guests to experience an authentic local musical experience.


This case focuses on a little researched or understood part of the 'servicescape' - the aural environment. It is remarkable for a number of reasons, but perhaps most notably for being a major capital project for which the ROI was almost impossible to calculate. Investment in other aspects of the servicescape, such as furniture and interior design, can be financially evaluated, but the payback for investing in 'sound' is so intangible that it was impossible to gauge. However, the senior management team, through the process that Sound Strategies employed, became totally convinced of the value and importance of this initiative,so niuch so that the CEO, Andy Coslett, brought out his electric guitar as part of a keynote speech he gave to Intercontinental's staff.


© 2009 Palgrave Macmillan 1467-3584 Tourism and Hospitality Research Vol. 9. 3, 271-276

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