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Any other business

Half a million rooms to choose from

Richard Northedge meets Andrew Cosslett — whose company, InterContinental, opens a new hotel every day

21 November 2007

12:00 AM

21 November 2007

12:00 AM

Most hotel-group bosses like to be at the opening of each new property in their chain. Some claim to have slept in all of their establishments or even to have spent a night in every room. Not Andrew Cosslett. His company is the biggest hotel group in the world. It has 572,000 rooms in more than 3,800 properties and is opening a new hotel every day of the year.

Cosslett, the 52-year-old chief executive of InterContinental Hotels, has not yet visited all of his existing estate. ‘I couldn’t even keep up with the ones we’re opening,’ he admits. And the task will get harder. ‘We’re opening one a day and signing up two for the pipeline.’ There are now 1,400 hotels in that pipeline, being planned and built.

He does a mental sum and qualifies his boast — but not to downgrade the statistics. ‘We’re not just opening a hotel a day somewhere round the world, we’re opening a Holiday Inn a day, never mind the other brands.’ Those other brands include InterContinental and Crowne Plaza. They may sound as American as the Major League baseball he sponsors, but they are now as British as the Manchester-born Cosslett.

Holiday Inn is the top brand in China, targeting domestic customers in inland centres as well as foreign visitors. Just as the hotel chain’s US development followed the building of freeways, Cosslett is rolling out the brand as China’s road network grows. He has 70 hotels open there now and a target of 125 by next year. He has signed up 16 new deals so far this year, of which the most exciting is a 66-storey development in Nanjing. At 1,400 feet, it will be the world’s tallest hotel when it opens next year.

Cosslett likes facts. Like Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind, they are the basis of his decision-making. ‘I do not want opinions about right and wrong,’ he says in his Mancunian accent. ‘Let’s get the facts.’ He likes size too, even if it means running a huge hotel empire rather than owning one. The vast majority of those 3,800 hotels are either managed or franchised. Just 21 of them actually belong to InterContinental even though it provides the names above the doors, the centralised booking systems and the standardised methods of folding bed-corners and mixing cocktails.

He has sold £3.6 billion worth of hotels since he joined three years ago but still receives a fee for managing them. And despite handing that money to shareholders, InterContinental’s market value has risen to nearly £3 billion. ‘That’s a pretty good story,’ he says with satisfaction.

InterContinental (in which Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay’s Ellerman Corpora-tion, a sister company of Press Holdings which owns The Spectator, has a 10 per cent stake) is employing the asset-lite model in China too. ‘We’re managing for Chinese owners, so they don’t want our money. That’s why we’re profitable in China now.’

Cosslett may not get to every opening, but he will be in Liverpool when the first ‘Staybridge’ extended-stay suites open next year before this US brand is rolled out across Britain. Liverpool is where he began his working life, as a sales rep for Wall’s ice-cream, driving his Ford Escort between corner shops. At the time he was a graduate trainee with Unilever, which sent him straight to Liverpool. ‘It was a tough induction but the right one: they make sure you’ve got the stamina. You learn a lot on the road as a salesman — especially how head office seems to be completely out of touch with what you’re doing.’ It is a lesson he remembers now that he is in InterContinental’s Windsor head office.

In 1981 he launched the Vienetta ice-cream cake. ‘I think my name is on the patent,’ he says proudly. ‘It was one of the first ice-cream products in the world to be patented — and probably the most successful ice-cream launch ever.’ Cornettos followed, and then promotion to fish fingers at Unilever’s Birds Eye division.

The group was into fish farms too, and asked Cosslett to devise a marketing strategy. It meant moving to Edinburgh. ‘I was in fish markets at 4 a.m.,’ he says, but the markets might be in Tokyo or Paris. ‘I’ve always had a wanderlust and here was an opportunity to move into a general global position.’

He moved to Cadbury Schweppes in 1990 as managing director of soft drinks, and after four years running its Australian operation he was made president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He found himself hauled before a select committee of MPs blaming the confectioner for child obesity. Cosslett told them bluntly: ‘I don’t think a Curly Wurly is dangerous.’ Stocky rather than fat himself, he still eats chocolate every day.

Cosslett also chairs Duchy Originals, Prince Charles’s organic food company. The royal connection got him invited to George Bush’s White House dinner for the newly wed Charles and Camilla — he sat next to vice-president Cheney — and on to the committee that promoted the Concert for Diana in July. Cosslett was at Wembley tapping his toes with his two children. Which act did he like best? After an embarrassing pause he says, ‘On the day, Status Quo got the crowd on its feet. They’re an old favourite of mine.’

That may be Cosslett the guitarist speaking. He occasionally jams with his teenage son’s group in the garage at his Buckinghamshire home, and has just played to an audience of 4,500 Holiday Inn franchisees in Dallas as a prelude to telling them the chain is about to have its first revamp since its launch in 1952. That will mean new logos, bedding and bathrooms, and the marketing men have even devised a special smell and sound for the chain. It will cost $1 billion, but the franchisees will pay.

Rebranding those 407,415 Holiday Inn rooms will take three years. ‘This is not like launching a chocolate bar,’ he explains. ‘We’ve spent the last two years collecting a fact base. You suspend your judgment until you’ve seen the research. We’ve spent our time collecting the data: now we’ll spend a number of years refurbishing the brand.’ And in case Mr Gradgrind is listening, he adds, ‘Somebody books into a Holiday Inn every three seconds.’

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