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How Creativity and Technology Drive the Future of Hospitality

HOTEL EXECUTIVE – While most in the hospitality sector are more than eager to leave 2020 in the rearview window, it was also a year that amplified innovative thinking, creative strategies, and new technologies within the industry that kept the most nimble of properties and players top of mind. And many of the steps taken to keep and attract guests will remain long after the return to business as usual.


The 354-room InterContinental Houston – Medical Center is reviewing its recent successes and challenges while also keeping an eye to the future. Located at the gateway to the world’s largest medical center – a destination that annually attracts thousands of patients and visitors from around the globe – and moments from top attractions ranging from a world-class museum district and Hermann Park to the Houston Zoo and Rice Village – is already thinking about a life after the coronavirus.


The acclaimed property lived a unique story in 2020 with experiences and actions essential to its success. Those components include preparation for the unknown, open communication with guests and local businesses, and a dedication to enhancing traveler safety and service.


Embracing Protocols


As a hospitality hub of the Texas Medical Center, it was vital for the hotel to stay open and accessible to medical staff, as well as visiting patients and their friends and families. Almost immediately, property management decided to assist the surrounding community in the best way it knew how, by providing top tier service to guests, but with a revised and refined protocol for cleanliness. This methodology, called the IHG Way of Clean, included deep cleaning with hospital-grade disinfectants, face-covering requirements, minimizing or eliminating contact points in areas like check-in, and implementing procedures based on local authorities’ guidance, such as social distancing in public spaces and dining areas.


The IHG Way of Clean model also armed visitors with useful resources on local guidelines on the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a supply of masks and sanitation kits. Already a top stop for international clientele due to the strong pull of medical tourism, these actions further cemented the hotel as a premier destination in the Texas Medical Center for patients and medical staff alike.

Even with new vaccines already in the process of being distributed, the programs adopted at every level of the hotel from leadership and food and beverage to valet will undoubtably remain in place for the foreseeable future.


Debuting New to Market Tech


As the pandemic continued and escalated through the summer, property leadership sought a way to provide an even greater level of safety within its walls. In September, InterContinental Houston – Medical Center became the first hotel in the world to install the Integrated Viral Protection (IVP) Biodefense Indoor Air Protection Filtration System, a cutting-edge technology that greatly reduces the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by cleaning the air every 15 minutes, killing 99.999 percent of all airborne coronavirus.


Adding to the already comprehensive set of protocols set in place through the IHG Way of Clean, IVP was conceived by Houston-based entrepreneur Monzer Hourani in conjunction with scientists from the Superconductivity Center of Texas at the University of Houston, Galveston National Lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and the University of Texas A&M Engineering and Experiment Station. Hourani is also the founder of medically focused real estate development company, Medistar Corporation, which owns the hotel.


Built to eliminate SARS-CoV-2, anthrax spores, and other airborne contaminants by way of a heated filter that does not impact ambient air temperature, IVP mobile units were deployed throughout the hotel, servicing the main lobby, acclaimed Safina restaurant, the Naturalist Cafe & Lounge Bar, and a dedicated meeting and event floor spanning 18,000 square feet of function space.


This ongoing initiative has proven to be a much-appreciated step in providing guests and staff peace of mind and adds one more piece to a new playbook defined by 2020. The IVP platform is anticipated to grow on property as the company works towards the development of insertable filters for HVAC units.


Perking Things Up


The rise of the staycation as an important counter-COVID business strategy equated to local and drive market experiences playing an increased role in hotel marketing and sales. In late 2020, the InterContinental Houston – Medical Center launched its Guests Perks program in partnership with Rice Village, a neighboring amenity and one of Houston’s premier, pedestrian-oriented outdoor retail districts.


Providing exclusive offers for hotel visitors during their stay, the inaugural group of showcase retailers included independent, homegrown offerings, as well as top national brands such as Athleta, MAC Cosmetics, Madison Reed, Mendocino Farms, Sephora, Shake Shack, and White House Black Market.


Not only has Guest Perks been a success when it comes to guest satisfaction and community engagement, but it could not have come at a better time within the greater timeline of the pandemic. Tapping into the local economy, which has also suffered in 2020, the perks program has been a creative way to increase engagement at the hotel as well as at surrounding restaurants, shops and small businesses, while creating a stronger sense of place for the property.


Learning from Customers and Communication


Exceeding service expectations grows business and personal relationships with guests. While it should always be a top priority, customer service will play an even greater role in the year ahead and will directly correlate to a hotel’s success. A well-prepared staff and efficient systems enhance the guest stay, allowing the property to focus on each customer with engaging and genuine personalized service. Just as important as the overall experience is the hotel’s attention to minute details – an imperative at the InterContinental Houston – Medical Center given the sensitive needs of those guests and their relations managing serious health issues.


The InterContinental Houston – Medical Center has created an environment where feedback is welcomed and has seen improved guest engagement through targeted, open communication between visitors and staff members. The property motivates its team take input to heart, and to let guests know that such participation assists them in making improvements.


Encouraging honest guest reviews as part of an open dialog with their customers has led to more organic and helpful intel and has been a useful tool in driving exposure to potential business channels. At the height of the pandemic, the engaged communication between guests and staff members generated a wave of positive reviews on Tripadvisor, pushing the InterContinental Houston – Medical Center to the top 15 hotels recommended in the Greater Houston region in a matter of months – and ultimately the receipt of a Traveler’s Choice Award, bestowed to the top 10 percent of properties in the world for excellent service. In addition, the hotel has been named the best among InterContinental Hotels & Resorts in the U.S., Canada, and Caribbean in terms of guest satisfaction.


While the recognition itself is worthy, it’s also proof that the focus on the customer experience has created loyal guests who are now boosters for the hotel.


Checking in on 2021


Making necessary adjustments to existing hotel management systems and thinking creatively from a marketing and customer service standpoint will continue to play a role moving through 2021. The implementation of successful programs such as the IHG Way of Clean and Guest Perks shows a careful thoughtfulness for the immediate future and will help provide guests with both the confidence and incentive to travel again.


The distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine and easing of health guidelines forecasts a strong second half of 2021 with the InterContinental Houston – Medical Center situated to serve a variety of audiences. A return to an ordinary world will mean more guests working at, servicing, or receiving treatment at the Texas Medical Center, an increase in longer haul business and leisure travel and the return of major citywide events like the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo – the world’s largest livestock show and richest regular-season rodeo – at nearby NRG Center and the Offshore Technology Conference, just north on the METRORail at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

It is important not to leave growth to chance, so building on recent programs to increase and retain customer satisfaction remains a priority at the InterContinental Houston – Medical Center. A focus on further increasing the hotel’s reputation means investigating additional ways to use the space already available to them with enhancements eyed for the rooftop pool deck, the potential of health and wellness programming activities and more private dining experiences.


While there is light at the end of the tunnel, 2021 will not be without its challenges. With a vaccine and boosted traveler confidence comes a resurgence in demand for memorable stays. The InterContinental Houston – Medical Center is poised and prepared to serve the upscale travel sector within and outside of the medical market through curated guest experiences while embracing new technologies and marketing strategies that will be a permanent part of how business is conducted moving forward.


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