One-on-One with IHG's Julienne Smith

“My story is one about real interest in real estate,” Julienne Smith stated simply. “That's really what got me here. I've never worked in a hotel, and I didn't go to hotel school,” said the chief development officer (Americas) for IHG Hotels & Resorts (IHG), a multinational company that offers more than 946,000 rooms globally. “I learned franchise development and owner relations through just doing it, having mentors and following people's leads, and being open to opportunities and moving when there was a good opportunity—taking a leap of faith.”

What’s Out There?

After being introduced to real estate development through working as an assistant to a construction company salesman, Smith was promoted a couple of times, then found “I kind of hit a ceiling. I thought, well, what's out there?” Her grandmother, who was a Manhattan executive in the 1940s and 50s, had advised her to find a company that aligns with her values or that she was interested in, and then take any job. So she took a part-time job as an assistant at Marriott's development office on the west coast and never looked back.

Smith was with Marriott for three years, Hyatt for almost 14 and has been with IHG almost five years. “My role is to grow the system size of IHG through retaining existing hotels and adding new hotels to our system, so we balance our desire and need to grow with growing sustainably and with what owners want to build,” she explained. The company has 19 brands and has added eight of those 19 brands in the last six years. “An owner who might have started with us 25 or 30 years ago with Holiday Inn Express is now able to grow and have a Hotel Indigo or an EVEN Hotel or something else on the upscale side. So we're keeping them in our system, where perhaps historically they might have gone to one of our competitors and grown with one of their more upscale or upper upscale brands.”

Smith emphasizes that IHG intently focuses on the owner relations side of the business, explaining that the majority of IHG hotels, particularly in the Americas, are operated and owned by somebody else. “Making sure that they are satisfied with our product, satisfied with our engagement and our ability to work with them to make sure that their hotels are successful is critical to me, and what really attracted me to this side of the business.”

Sustainable Growth

Sustainable growth is important to Smith, who noted that the amount of runway in IHG’s markets means that the company is not building on top of itself in any given area. “We've got the ability to make sure that hotels can sustain themselves from a performance standpoint, [and] we have a very thoughtful process that we go through in notifying existing owners when new hotels are coming. They have an opportunity to discuss with us their concerns or their support in some cases. That all plays into really being owner-focused and making sure the owner mindset is paramount throughout IHG. We launch new brands to satisfy consumer demand to help us grow our loyalty program and owner/franchisee demand to make sure that they can continue to grow in the markets that they're in.”

Personal Growth

Smith acknowledges that she has been in a significant leadership role for about the last decade, and she appreciates the opportunity to help grow and develop people, even if, as she said, they have as much knowledge as she does. “There's a couple of people who report directly to me who have a few more years’ experience than I do. They've got a different perspective. I view them as an advisor as much as they might view me as an advisor, because we come from different perspectives. Together we can make the best decisions.”

Smith also challenges herself to grow through community engagement opportunities and serves on the board of Safehouse Outreach in Atlanta, which provides services to people experiencing homelessness. “I get a lot out of pouring into others in that way. I believe that comes through in my leadership style on how I engage with IHG. I enjoy pouring into owners and making sure that they're feeling like they're taken care of through our franchise relationship.”

Representation Matters

“When I started in this business, I remember being at the ALIS conference and seeing a sea of blue blazers everywhere. There were a handful of women, some of whom I worked with at the company at the time that I was with, who were in development, and their representation mattered to me. So I think about [the fact] that my representation matters to others. It's difficult, especially these days, for a young person to envision themselves in a role when there's no one like them in it. And I didn't have those words then, but that was the truth. I gravitated towards the women in the room because they were there,” she said. Smith stressed that representation encourages other women to believe that they can also rise in the development world. “Women in general negotiate a little bit differently. We notice things a little bit differently than men in general. That's why we want to be diverse, right? Because then you're the best team and you have the best outcomes from a business standpoint.”

Lifechanging Work

Since 2020, Smith has sat on the board for the AHLA Foundation, noting that its mission to give back to youth spoke to her. Providing scholarships for young professionals to grow their careers within the hotel business spoke to her heart, and since joining the board, she reflected on the difference it is making in combating human trafficking. “See Something, Say Something has actually saved a number of lives. And that work is just—that's life changing. And that I find to be more important than helping an owner realize the return on their investments. We're saving lives and changing lives, and helping the world be a better place. What I love about it is at the AHLA board table are all the brands, management companies, consultants, lenders—we're all together with one voice. We put our competition and competitive edges aside and we just think about what would be best for our industry, and I love being a part of that.” 

IHG Hotels & Resorts

Global Headquarters: United Kingdom
Structure: Multinational company that manages, franchises and owns/leases lodging
Portfolio: 19 brands and over 6,300 properties across more than 100 countries