If Leslie McGibbon were superstitious, he would be reading more into the Changing the Guard ceremony taking place seven stories below him. Economic storm clouds are gathering over moneyed Mayfair and its luxury hotels. But here, in the members bar of the five-star InterContinental Hotel, McGibbon insists the world’s largest hotel company has a positive tale to tell.
He has just kicked off a global review of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)’s external comms support. Agency big-hitters, including Weber Shandwick, Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton, are scrapping over an estimated £3m pot. McGibbon is also overseeing the remodelling of the Holiday Inn brand and has just won the International Hotel Investment Forum’s 2009 young leader award, voted for by travel industry big wigs. So it is no surprise he is rather upbeat.
Strong communications performance, he says, is crucial for IHG, whose seven brands also include the Crowne Plaza and the InterContinental. The CEO spends 30 per cent of his time actively communicating with stakeholders and there is a $1bn annual marketing budget. The asset-light business model (it owns only 16 of its 4,186 hotels) means having a strong brand to sell to franchisees, the developer community and guests is crucial. But McGibbon argues a strong brand and consistent messaging must come from within.
To this end, IHG’s 330,000 global staff are being encouraged to work towards the ‘core purpose’ of the group – creating ‘great hotels guests love’. The firms’s 26 intranets have been merged into one, and a friends and family scheme has been launched. McGibbon says he tries to be open: ‘People can handle bad news, and they can definitely handle good news. What they cannot handle is no news.’ He advocates using more engaging methods of communicating internally, such as sending texts, setting up Facebook groups or using Twitter.
McGibbon is only 34 years old, and has the enthusiasm to prove it. Alex Pagett, non-executive director of VisitScotland, who gave him his first PR job at Stakis, pinpoints this attitude as his defining attribute: ‘He is a loyal, bright, and tenacious individual who will continue to pursue things when others give up. He also understands the slightly servile remit and that is one of his biggest strengths.’
Although McGibbon is open and friendly during the interview, he rarely strays far from the party line. This, says British Hospitality Association CEO Bob Cotton, is probably the result of a long in-house career that has turned McGibbon into one of the sector’s best practitioners.
‘He is easy, direct and typically Scottish,’ adds Cotton. ‘He has not lost his accent or his affection for Scottish football and he is not backwards in saying his piece.’
McGibbon joined the PR world by ‘happy accident’ after his mum suggested his career as a duty manager at a Stakis Hotel – where marathon shifts led to dramatic weight loss – was not healthy. He joined Stakis’ (now Hilton) corporate affairs department and now has 13 years of PR experience under his belt.
McGibbon clearly enjoys the variety of the role. But his most bizarre stories emanate from his time at Ladbrokes. He played poker with Boyzone and got the Playboy Bunnies to stop traffic in Piccadilly at the same time as writing documents about deregulating the gambling industry.
When he was setting up the world’s largest poker game ‘it went from the sublime to the ridiculous. I would get a call in the pub and I would be saying things like yeah Slim, I’m not sure if the Devil Fish and the Hendon Mob agree with that, but I’ll see what I can do.’
Today, McGibbon’s responsibilities are a little less colourful, but no less important. He will use IHG’s scale to position it as a shelter for potential franchisees. He also believes the recession is a ‘massive opportunity’ for the Holiday Inn brand to get its message out at a time when corporate travel budgets are being slashed and holidaymakers are downgrading.
Greg Dawson, comms director at IHG competitor Travelodge, believes McGibbon’s ability to fire on all fronts will stand him in good stead: ‘He maintains a good balance between managing a tough message in the City, and still being proactive with stories about IHG’s development in emerging markets’.
Not that McGibbon is daunted by the challenges. Perhaps this stems from his past. The Scot once played in the boys’ team for both Celtic and its staunch rival Rangers. If he can survive that, what is a little recession?
Leslie McGibbon’s turning points
What was your biggest career break?
Setting up an agency. Walking away from the safety and security of a big corporate entity focuses the mind and your skills grow dramatically. When you have six clients you are suddenly not worried about just one company. No-one can take it away from you.
What advice would you give to anyone climbing the career ladder?
Do not be scared to fail. Try things. My dad once told me you get footballers that try 100 things and get 50 right. Others try ten and get eight right. Be the guy that is trying 100.
Have you had a notable mentor?
Alex Pagett. He gave me my first job in comms. I had very senior exposure at a young age to the world of a CEO and how the City operates. I still speak to him, he is a wise old sage.
What do you prize in new recruits?
Enthusiasm and a hunger to learn. In this job you are the eyes and the ears of the company you work for. You can teach technical knowledge but not enthusiasm.
2006 VP then senior V-P global corporate affairs, InterContinental Hotels Group
2005 Founding partner, Parkhill Communications
2004 Director of external comms, InterContinental Hotels Group
2001 Director of comms, Hilton UK & Ireland, then head of media relations, Hilton Group
2000 Head of comms, Ladbrokes Casinos
1999 PR manager, Hilton International
1995 Graduate trainee, then PR executive and manager, Stakis