Meet the 'happy clappy' woman at hospitality's top table

Angela Brav, European CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group, talks sacrifices, scones and what women need to do to get ahead.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2016

If you’ve not been there, the InterContinental Park Lane is a very nice hotel, champagne-elegant and quietly bubbling. On the chilled club lounge on the 7th floor, with stunning views over London, Angela Brav is sitting on a sofa, making notes in a file.

Brav is European CEO for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), a FTSE 100 giant that includes such global chains as Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza. She’s American, but has been posted to the UK for the last five years.

‘There’s a huge difference between working here versus working in the United States. The British tend to be much more negative about things. If you’re not from here it’s almost a little extreme,’ Brav confides.

‘When I first arrived, the employees in my office nicknamed me the happy-clappy. I wasn’t really, I just saw the positives of this amazing city and region. It was more pronounced then than it is now. Maybe after five years I’m getting more like you.’

Happy clappy certainly isn’t what jumps to mind. Brav is too composed and reflective for that. But you can begin to see how the nickname stuck, once she gets onto the topic of the hotel industry.

‘I just love this business,’ she says, savouring it like she’s just taken a mouthful of the world’s most luxurious cheesecake. ‘I don’t know how else to say that. My best day besides spending it with my family would be... well even with my family sometimes I’d trade it for a hotel visit, depending on my daughter’s mood.’

Brav tells me she’s constantly on the lookout for new concepts in hotels around the world, pulling out her iPhone to find a series of photos of some chairs she found in a rival hotel’s lobby in Amsterdam. ‘They look like tulips,’ she grins, flicking through her selfies. ‘See?’

With zeal like that it’s rather surprising she’s not a convert. But Brav in fact started her career at the very bottom (‘can you believe it, I wasn’t born a CEO’) of the hotel industry, after she quite literally fell short of her childhood dream of becoming a professional tennis player. (‘I never grew,’ shrugs Brav, who still goes for a 5am run every morning.)

While she doesn’t recommend starting at the very bottom rung of the corporate ladder, Brav says the experience of working in roles from front desk through to night manager means she can better relate to employees at all levels.

‘It’s a hard job,’ she confesses, after ordering some scones for the table. ‘I mean there were times I wanted to kill myself. While you’re working hours on end ensuring everyone else is having a great time, and don’t have a Christmas, New Year or a holiday for years on end, it’s a big sacrifice.’

It doesn’t, by the sounds of it, get any easier as you rise through the ranks, particularly if you’re a woman.

‘Women – or anyone – have to be prepared to do what it takes. Unfortunately, in hospitality a lot of jobs in operations require you to travel a lot. If you have children, it may not work for many women. In my case, my husband decided he’d put his career to the side for a period of time so I could have mine, but a lot of women don’t want that - and there’s nothing wrong with that either.’

Brav’s agenda for our meeting – it’s no secret – is to show what a great career choice hospitality is for young and talented people. Presumably that means it’s worth the downsides?

A Holiday Inn open lobby, Helsinki - one of the innovations Brav has overseen. Credit: IHG

‘It’s a really amazing industry,’ Brav repeats, zealous again. It may be a hard business sometimes but it’s worth it. The word she uses – a lot – to explain it is caring. ‘Hospitality is about taking care of people. We need to truly, genuinely care, it’s in our DNA. So I have a real connection with my employees and love being with them.’

I steer the conversation to the elephant in the hotel room, AirBnB, and specifically how big will it get – at the expense of the conventional hotel industry.

‘It’s kind of the big question,’ Brav eases up, denying that the industry is facing some kind of existential threat. ‘It fills a need for people who are looking for that. I don’t believe it’s going to go away –‘

The scones arrive and Brav suggests we take a break to enjoy them. There follows a full ten minutes of convivial small talk, covering the virtues or otherwise of adding butter as well as clotted cream and jam to the scones (which were delicious by the way), to the distribution of proto-Indo-European language families across western and southern Eurasia, my degree choice (History) and the bizarreness of why people will listen to the same song many times over, but not watch the same movie twice.

I point out that a ten minute chit-chat break is unusual for an interview, albeit a welcome change. ‘Other industries have to rush and stay on track. We have to take the time to get to know each other. You should stop and smell the roses, don’t you think? And you might actually like who you’re talking to, if you get to know them.’

With only crumbs left on our plates, we pick up where we left off. AirBnb. Innovation.

‘Everything is tech – if you don’t have tech you’re not relevant. But to me innovation isn’t about putting people on the moon, it’s about continuously improving the guest experience. From that standpoint I think we’re doing an amazing job.’

Brav recently led a ‘repositioning’ of the Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express brands, which now centre around an open lobby, where guests can relax, eat and drink, as well as introducing the group’s low price promise (think John Lewis’s ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’) in an attempt to lure online reservations away from price comparison sites that customers erroneously believe are cheaper.

Brav can talk with great enthusiasm about anything from reservation technology and lobby formats to the speed with which the company can test new concepts by making cardboard models in warehouses and providing seed money to franchisees.

From the words to the tone to the scone break, the whole thing is very... on-message: hospitality is a fantastic and exceedingly friendly industry to work in. But the positivity and indeed the interest Brav shows in other people don’t seem fake at all, even to a self-confessed cynic. It’s actually quite infectious...

Brav smiles. ‘After five years, my staff are happier and clappier than I am.’

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