Responsible business is part of our DNA

Responsible business is part of our DNA

Frequently labelled greenwashing by the public and an indulgence by investors, corporate responsibility (CR) initiatives had a troubled early few years. Even today, its role and value has yet to be fully recognised by wide sections of industry. Moreover, a backdrop of reputational crises with a cast including politicians, bankers, media owners, corporate titans and tax-dodgers alike has materially impacted on trust in, and credibility of, institutions around the world. So how can organisations rebuild trust, and place issues like sustainability and responsible citizenship at the very heart of business and brand strategy?

Lisa Basford, Director, Global Corporate Responsibility, Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), believes it all comes down to having an approach to responsible business that underpins the company’s strategy, covering all areas from risk management to corporate governance.

“At IHG we say that ‘being a responsible business is part of our DNA’ and we have complete senior-level buy-in, which is a key ingredient for success. Certainly, for us, the fact that our leadership team speaks regularly about the importance of trust and CR so strongly, is essential. We also have a CR committee reporting directly to the main board, which highlights just how important the issue is for our business. When I’m working within the CR team and trying to drive internal engagement, for instance, having that senior-level buy-in is crucial to making it happen. I know this isn’t the case for many other organisations. Indeed, I have attended a number of external events on CR and one of the challenges I often hear from my peers is getting senior leaders to buy into what they’re doing.”

At IHG, CR is about making a positive impact on the world around it, while also building its business. “We talk about the concept of ‘shared value’ and have put that at the heart of our CR strategy. This led to the development of our three core CR programmes, which focus on the two areas where can make the most difference: the environment and the communities in which we operate.”

The first of the programmes is IHG Green Engage™ system. “This is our group-wide, online sustainability programme,” explains Basford. “All our hotels have access to a tool that allows them to track, measure and report on their carbon footprint and utility consumption. It’s a fantastic-award winning tool that helps hotels to manage their impact on the environment and make changes that lower costs in the hotels.”

Second is the IHG® Academy. “At the time it was launched in 2006 in China, it was very much a pioneering global collaboration and we now run it globally in our hotels with more than 700 programmes worldwide. Basically, it involves working with partners in the local community, such as local community groups and organisations, or schools and colleges, to give local people an opportunity to work in the hotels or corporate offices. It gives them access to skills and training that they wouldn’t otherwise have had. It’s been a phenomenal success and something that our hotels very much get behind and support. It really makes them feel part of their local communities.”

Thirdly, there’s the disaster relief programme, entitled IHG® Shelter in a Storm. “Colleagues from all around the world raise funds throughout the year for this and it means we can act at a moment’s notice if there’s a crisis in the vicinity of one our hotels or corporate offices. That involves offering support to impacted colleagues, to guests staying in the hotel, and to the local community where the hotel is based.”

There has been a great deal of strategic thought behind the three programmes, explains Basford, all of which are very much about putting the hotels at the centre of the communities in which they operate. “There are many things we could do as a business of our scale, but the reason we went for these three programmes was because they absolutely match and mirror what we’re all about – and I think this is critical to the success of any CR programme. Hotels use a lot of water and energy, for example, so there’s a clear need to minimise that. Hotels drive economic growth, therefore we wanted a programme that gives people skills and training in the areas where the hotels are based. Likewise, the IHG Shelter in a Storm programme is about putting the hotels at the heart of the local community and making them beacons in times of crisis. Often, with disasters, it’s the local hotel that people come to – not just our people, but people from the local area.”

Because the programmes underpin IHG’s business strategy, it makes it much easier to articulate the story around trust and CR, says Basford – again, a key part of the success. “There are more than 350,000 people working across our hotels and corporate offices globally. That’s a huge number of people for us to impact with the story, and each of these people, in turn, can get their local communities on board. That stakeholder engagement – of which I’m only drawing on one example, the employees – is absolutely fundamental. After all, if we, through the art of storytelling, bringing our programmes to life in a language they understand resonates with them and makes them feel part of it. They then feel it’s their responsibility, not just ours. As such, it becomes a collective responsibility. It also makes them feel proud to work for our hotel brands and really drives colleague engagement – a great force for good throughout our hotels.”

Basford provides the example of IHG Race Around the World, which supports the IHG Shelter in a Storm programme. “Now in its 5th year, this is a week-long global fundraising event that takes place in September. Last year, we had 64,000 colleagues taking part around the world, with all sorts of things going on to raise money and drive awareness, from corporate sports days to team building events and from colleagues climbing mountains to kayaking. All that means we are able to act quickly and decisively if there is a disaster, which sadly there often is.”

Only recently, she explains, IHG had to activate IHG Shelter in a Storm, following the earthquake in Nepal. “The Crowne Plaza Kathmandu-Soaltee was very badly damaged, but a lot less so than many of the buildings in that location. Our hotel staff were phenomenal in looking after hotel guests. Indeed, the first reaction was to make sure every guest was accounted for and able to get home, and also those in the local community, many of whom were terribly affected. One of the key aspects of making sure such programmes work – and indeed, an aspect Basford sees as becoming increasingly critical across CR more generally over the next five years – is working in partnership with other organisations. “For IHG Shelter in the Storm, we work with partners such as CARE, who are experts in disaster relief and disaster preparedness. Ultimately we are hoteliers, but we do have access to funds, so we work with them to ensure our money is spent in the best way on the ground so that we can provide immediate relief. With Nepal, this meant we were able to offer support quickly and decisively following the disaster and we are still working with CARE to help rebuild the local community.

IHG also works with partners within the hospitality industry. “For example, as members of the International Tourism Partnership (ITP), we helped to deliver the Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative (HCMI), which is an industry-wide approach that we collectively agreed on. We are working with them now on a similar programme for water and will continue to explore ways that the industry can work together to be a force for good.”

Meanwhile, further partners include experts in CR, such as Business in the Community (BITC). “We appreciate all the learning we can get from outside the industry and with BITC, we interact with them at a very senior level, sharing knowledge, right down to the grass roots stuff and best practice, which we roll out into our programmes.

“Goodwill Industries International is an organisation we work with in the US to help deliver the IHG Academy programme, along with others elsewhere. I can’t stress just how important these partnerships are and we are therefore looking to develop them further in the next few years.”

The kinds of barriers that exist to achieving success are usually very industry dependent, believes Basford. “With us, for example, there’s the issue of us being a predominantly franchised business, which means the bulk of our hotels aren’t actually owned or managed by IHG. That could potentially cause challenges, but doesn’t stop us progressing. What we try to do – and what others in the field are increasingly doing – is to turn such barriers into a positive. With the franchised estate, for instance, we collaborate with the IHG Owners Association very closely to help deliver our goals. A fantastic example is at the end of last year, in partnership with the IHG Owners Association, we announced that the IHG Green Engage system would become a global brand standard that will be in all our hotels by the end of 2015. Together we agreed what the hotels needed to do, the toolkit that was required and what enhancements were needed to roll that out to all the hotels in our portfolio.”

Basford doesn’t believe the poor reputation that CR has suffered in the past remains a barrier. “As long as your strategy isn’t a bolt-on, and that you can always tell your story by linking it back to your commercial and business goals, then I think it becomes integral to your business,” she explains.

As for the biggest opportunities for marketers and brand leaders to leverage CR to create value for customers and community, Basford says it has to be story telling. “Storytelling is how we build an emotional connection and relationships with colleagues, owners and consumers,” she explains.

“Just looking at the example of consumers, our research tells us that our guests are more interested in CR than ever and really want to know what we’re doing. We see it particularly from corporate clients, with many b2bs now asking about our supply chain, carbon footprint and CR before they sign deals. We have to be able to answer these questions quickly and tell that story, otherwise, it’s lost business. We are increasingly hearing questions from leisure guests too. So in marketing, it’s essential to have really compelling stories about what we are doing and to prove that it’s not just on the periphery.”


Lisa Basford Global Director, Corporate Responsibility InterContinental Hotels Group

Responsible business is part of our DNA

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