If having a colorful past is any indicator of having a successful future then Kristin Intress is exactly where she needs to be at present. Last November, Intress found herself at WorldHotels in Frankfurt, Germany, stepping into the C-suite as CEO of the luxury-hotel membership organization, now considered the luxury half of Best Western Hotels & Resorts. It was familiar territory for the veteran executive, who served in the same post for two years, starting in 2014, before stepping down to fulfill a personal, more-private agenda.
Being back at the helm of the 281-plus-hotel company—now in its 50th year—is just the latest adventure in a career compendium of almost three decades that has placed Intress in a variety of leadership positions, including some she created.
“I’ve lived a very bizarre life, but it’s very entertaining to say the least,” said Intress, a native of Marshfield, Wis., which is known for its medical facilities and clinic. “My father ran the research foundation, my mother was a therapist/tech nurse,” she said. Growing up, however, it didn’t seem she would be following in her parents’ footsteps to tread a medical-career path. While she thought of becoming a neurosurgeon, she acknowledged, “I was definitely the black sheep." Part of that, she feels, came from being dyslexic, which made traditional reading difficult. Intress instead turned to art at a young age, inspired by her mother, whom she categorized as “a great artist.”
“I was very good at numbers, too, so my mom said you’re either going to own a company one day or be a crazy artist on the street.”
In Search of Self
At 16, Intress took off “to explore the world” and landed in Minneapolis. By 17 she had a bevy of enterprises going, running a restaurant and teaching French among them. “Kind of just a couple of years exploring myself,” she said.
After some four years and thoughts of getting into healthcare, as well as business, still lingering, Intress joined the military with a goal of getting into the Army’s pharmacy program
“My whole family was military [reserve], my mother, my father, my brother, and everybody was deployed during the Gulf War, so I was kind of left stateside going: ‘Huh.’”
She did qualify, entering the 91-Q program, a preparatory path toward being a pharmacist. She also became the platoon guide and company command during basic training, ultimately earning the command general award out of a company of 400 soldiers. “Not many people want to be in charge because everybody looks to you for direction. I was [like], ‘Why wouldn’t you? At least you’re in control of your own destiny.’”
Words to Live By
It’s a premise that has served Intress well over the ensuing years. For example, an extended trip in the early 1990s to Scotland with her mom that included a two-week deep dive into healthcare systems turned into a three-year residency for Intress after she met a nightclub owner who subsequently became the father of her son. The duo started several restaurants and pubs, she said, adding, “That’s where I got my restaurant, my international experience, and realizing the challenges of not being an American in the international world, to opening your eyes up to understanding how to do business in your local market; that was a great lesson.”
When she had her son, she decided she didn’t want to raise him overseas. “So I brought him home when he was two weeks old, then back to America as a single mom.”
Her next adventure was getting a college degree—“I thought it might be helpful”— graduating a four-year program in two years at Winona State University in Minnesota with a business degree. But wait—there’s more.
In order to graduate, Intress needed to pull in some credits and took a class in theater. A course requirement was to appear in a play, which she did, winding up being selected to participate in the national Irene Ryan competition [think Granny on the 1960s TV comedy “The Beverly Hillbillies”], where she was spotted by a casting director and invited to fly to Los Angeles and audition for a movie. “So why not? Life is short," said Intress. "I jumped on a plane. Two weeks later I’m living in L.A."
She stayed in the industry for some seven years, doing a variety of projects, including appearing in movies and television—she starred in “An Angel on Abbey Street"—writing scripts and starting a production and a theatre company, she said. “But I got bored so I actually started working and running a medical company out in L.A.”
Subsequently looking to be better credentialed, she enrolled in and graduated from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois with an MBA. Afterwards, she spent close to three years in Chicago as the director of sales and marketing in the United States for healthcare company Mentice AB.
Heading to Hospitality
Her foray into hospitality—if you don't count her helping at a local Super 8 when she was 14—followed when she and a group of Kellogg cohorts decided to invest in and turn around Tennessee-based CRS InnLink (originally launched by ShoLodge). She later bought out her partners, becoming president/CEO of the company and launched its companion tech provider, Travlynx, growing the database from 700 to 7,000 hotels internationally.
After seven years, Intress in 2014 left the company in a transitional move ahead of its acquisition by Germany-based IHS GmbH, which included Trust International, WorldHotels and Nexus at the time, and segued to WorldHotels, which she found appealing, citing the passion of hoteliers and the welcome that drives the guest experience. “It wasn’t just about [their] making money; it was about helping create that [experience],” she said. “I was always very passionate about the brand before I took on the role [of CEO].”
Intress’ initial stint at WorldHotels lasted two years before a family situation—caring for her mom who had stage-four cancer—drew her away. The disease claimed her mother much sooner than anticipated and Intress found herself at loose ends. A trip to a fitness retreat, however, not only helped her heal from her loss, it also inspired her to create and launch her own similar business. Dubbed Fit Farm, the enterprise is an all-inclusive residential fitness camp for adults based in Nashville.
At the same time, Intress remained concerned about WorldHotels and, drawing on conversations she had had over the course of six years with Best Western Hotels & Resorts’ President/CEO David Kong, urged him to buy the company. So a year ago this month, the BWH Hotel Group became the parent company of WorldHotels, giving itself entrée into the luxury segment and adding close to 300 hotels and resorts globally.
In turn, Kong then urged Intress to come back to the C-suite and run WorldHotels, which is exactly what she’s been doing for the past three months.
“David and I are very aligned. I think we approach things differently, but it’s almost ironic when we talk about a strategy—without sharing information—we both have the same vision of a strategy. So that’s made it very easy. I think because I’ve earned his trust over the years he gives me a lot of latitude to do it the way I do it,” said Intress. She noted there’s a plan to be “cautious and conscientious” to ensure the brand retains its DNA within the overall group and that its Collections—Luxury, Elite, Distinctive, and now its new Crafted Collection—retain their hallmarks.
By the same token, Intress noted in time there may be crossover, for example, between select BW product such as Premier and Signature and the Distinctive Collection. “Keeping you in the ‘family’ is finding the right place in the family. We’re going to have [Distinctive] hotels that want to go to Premier because they might feel they get more traction from all of the channels that are available today,” she said. “Everyone’s very open to it ... we want the hotels to feel like they’re in the right place because it’s a win no matter where they go.”
In addition, a new partnership with star-rating arbiter Forbes Travel Guide will help in determining a hotel’s Collection classification. “We’re prequalifying hotels before they come in. So we’re using Forbes as our litmus test and Forbes will decide which collection they will go in. In the past, our developers did that,” said Intress. “Using a third party will really help clean up the different collections.”
Fifty Years and Counting
As it marks a half-century, WorldHotels is adapting to the industry’s 21st century momentum, Intress observed. “Luxury has changed. The world has changed in what we want as consumers. I think some brands do things really well and other brands are just hoping that their steady, safe market is going to feed them. You have to stay relevant.”
And like the WorldHotels’ CEO, be ready to carpe diem big time.