“If it’s the right job for you, it’s the right area for you,” explains Joanna Kurowska. Discovering the joys of hospitality more than ten years ago, the vice-president and managing director, UK & Ireland, started in the heart of it all – a hotel. As director of a “beautiful resort in Croatia”, as Kurowska describes it, it never occurred to her that she could be doing anything different: “I loved being in the hotel, understanding how it is and what it is to be in a hotel.”

For her, that hotel felt like home for many years before the corporate life called her back, where she combined her financial experience with the hotel operational side in the UK and Germany, before she returned to the UK two years ago to drive hotel performance in the UK and Ireland hospitality market. “Whatever is happening in the UK and Ireland, at the end of the day, it’s on me to make sure that it is happening in the right way,” she says. “Anything from operating the existing hotels, opening new hotels, supporting development for the new assets and new brands, all of it is part of what I do.” It is down to Kurowska to ensure the smooth running and growth in the market.

And for IHG, this only keeps growing. “And when I say growing,” says Kurowska, “it means signing new hotels, opening hotels and taking care of our existing estates.” Earlier this year, for example, IHG announced nine new hotels across five of its brands in the UK and Ireland. The general plan for the coming year, as Kurowska explains, is made up of three pillars. Firstly, to safeguard the groups reputation and maintain its values and purpose, secondly to drive performance. “For example, [in 2022] we refreshed our loyalty programme to ultimately increase the values to our investors, our guests and our owners.” The IHG loyalty programme boosted 77% of total room revenue in 2022, in combination with mobile applications, added 12.2 million loyalty members, and won multiple awards too. (These numbers include IHG’s 2022 full year results up to 31 December 2022.) And finally, of course, to keep growing the hotel with new deals and opening new hotels. One that Kurowska is particularly keen to highlight is IHG’s first Vignette Collection in Liverpool.

“[I’m] very much looking forward to this hotel. It’s our most recent brand that’s only a year old and our first collection in the country.” Another interesting hotel opening she points to is the voco Zeal Exeter Science Park opening in 2024 in partnership with Zeal Hotels. The first life cycle net zero carbon hotel for both businesses is “one to watch” as the first of its kind in the world. With a vision to be built and operated in a more planet friendly way, this is one project that Kurowska is particularly proud of.

Shifting expectations

With the pandemic is slowly becoming a distant memory, many in the hospitality industry are looking forward to the future. But it is undeniable that the pandemic has had a significant impact on every industry and, to some extent, accelerated a number of changes. However, as Kurowska emphasises, the pandemic was not “this one big, cataclysmic event that happened and suddenly the world was different”. It is possible, she continues, that the world was changing, and the pandemic simply spurred on more focus in particular areas. “I think there is a lot that there is to be said about the trends and the way people travel, people connect, people work.

“It is not only our industry that might be seeing those shifts, it is just that there is a shift in what we value in life.” For instance, some things have remained consistent; connections and spending time together has not changed, but the way in which we do this has changed. “Using [Microsoft] Teams as a medium, it has become a very acceptable way of meeting people without any other introduction – right there is one small change, but it’s massive.” Online meetings and calls have removed the necessity of travel and enabled working from home while maintaining connectivity, which are major consequences of the pandemic. While the pandemic has not fundamentally changed the world, Kurowska points out, it has opened up conversations that might not have happened before.

Across hospitality, the major trends happening across the travel industry are happening pretty much across all markets and the globe, says Kurowska. “The trends towards blending leisure and business; that trend towards working from anywhere rather than working from home; the focus of the industry on the next generation of travellers and next generation of consumers – those are common threads and will exist in all markets.”

When talking about trends and changes in the market, Kurowska asks herself what change means to her as a leader and how to lead differently in future. “If I think of the next generation of travellers,” she offers as an example, “Naturally the product, the service and the culture need to be adapted to the needs and expectations of this generation.” But, she continues, hotels cannot forget the generations that came before and need to take into account what they might need too. There is a necessity of “planning for the future but being respectful and mindful of everything we have”.

Technology, adds Kurowska, is what will change the world of travel and hospitality industry. “[People] usually get very excited about seeing how much the technology is ultimately going to replace what we do,” she explains, “But I’d rather bring the conversation back to, paradoxically, the use of technology and showing the true value of empathy and true value of human reaction.” This is what Kurowska predicts will characterise the 21st century. The ability to relate to one another is what differentiates a hotel as a “human industry”, and using technology to emphasise the human connection will be important.

Hospitality’s new frontier

For Kurowska, the hotel guest has fundamentally not changed for centuries. “This business has been around for years in different guises and different ways, but basically it has become a business intrinsically linked to humans, travel and forming social groups,” she explains. The idea of travel is fulfilling a desire or curiosity, wherein hotels are necessity along the way. “The role of a hotel is, therefore, to create an environment when these desires can be fulfilled the right way.”

The best way to achieve this is to understand why guests are travelling and adapting to the particular occasion. This could appear differently in a luxury versus limited-service hotel, she continues, and might be easier for some hotels if they are located in beautiful places compared to an airport hotel. Ultimately, understanding why a guest is there and adapting to their needs is key purpose of a hotel, even if the tools have changed over the years in meeting guest expectations. This comes back to empathy, as Kurowska adds, which “trumps everything”.

IHG is a global hospitality company consisting of 19 brands and nearly 6,200 hotels in over 100 countries, and is inspired by its mission statement, true hospitality for good. This is not a strategy, Kurowska makes clear, it’s a purpose – and this is what differentiates IHG from other brands. By shaping the group’s culture, brands and representing its commitment to making a difference, people can “see the value that is deeper than just a pure commercial interest of a business”. For instance, employees at IHG dedicated 57,000 hours to making a positive difference in 2022 and female corporate leadership representation at the vice-president level is above 34% globally. IHG also saw a 3.4% reduction in its carbon emissions in 2022.

And that is what true hospitality for good is for IHG and Kurowska; a viable business that does good, creates jobs and opportunities, but is also sustainable for the future. “Sustainability means being here for the generations of the future, in every aspect of what this means,” explains Kurowska. “We call it ‘Journey to Tomorrow’.” Made up of two important elements, which emphasises that this is still journey and how important it is to prioritise building a better future. It all comes back to doing good for the planet and people as a hotel.