Developing a Stellar Career: IHG’s Julienne Smith Has Taken a Road Less Traveled by Women Hospitality Executives

Julienne Smith

Historically, the development side of the hotel industry, compared to other areas such as marketing and HR, has not seen many women leaders. But Julienne Smith of IHG Hotels & Resorts is proof that rewarding career opportunities exist in that field. On July 1, Smith began in her new role as chief development officer of the Americas region, following the retirement of Joel Eisemann from the position in June. Smith, formerly senior vice president—development, transactions, and asset management with IHG, became involved in development at the very beginning of her 20-year hotel career. In the early 2000s, she joined Marriott International’s Lodging Development group in Newport Beach, California, as a development assistant.

“I connected with a gentleman who was leading Marriott select-service development at the time. During the first year of working for the team, I was able to do small-market studies. I took pictures of hotel projects and talked to the consultants and general managers within the market. I loved it,” she recalls. “I also had the opportunity to accompany the development team to the major conferences and meet all the hotel owners, who are just fantastic entrepreneurial businesspeople with the hospitality heart.” After three successful years with Marriott, Smith joined Hyatt Hotels Corporation in 2005 as director of real estate and development, overseeing the growth of Hyatt’s select-service brands throughout the Mid-Atlantic and eventually Northeast regions.

In 2014, she was promoted to senior vice president development & owner relations, responsible for Hyatt’s franchised and managed development in the United States and Canada. She then joined IHG in July 2019, bringing with her an approach she cultivated in her previous roles.

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“What I learned at Marriott, continued to implement at Hyatt, and then brought here to IHG is that owner focus,” Smith stresses. “We have several consumers: shareholders, because we’re a publicly traded company, and hotel guests. But then we also have owners. And those are people who are investing their own money, their own capital, to build and open a hotel. So that’s my customer focus. That’s my basic business.”

Developing the Right Skills

The ability to create and maintain great working relationships with owners is one of the three main skills Smith believes are essential to success in her field. “It’s market intelligence—understanding how the market is shifting; it’s relationship building—having relationships with people who are building in those markets or who own in those markets; and it’s the ability to negotiate with those individuals,” she explains. “So I think it’s a trifecta of qualities that make people successful in development.”

While some of these qualities and skills may come naturally, others must be acquired. And realizing which ones must be learned or enhanced is an important step in furthering one’s career. Smith found that relationship building, which requires understanding others’ perspectives and how they are likely to react in certain situations, was a talent she already had. “But I learned the market analytics—understanding the demand driver, the amenity access, and so on, in a given market. And then the negotiation piece is something I have had to learn over the years. That was not innate to me—knowing what was important to the owner while getting ahead of the negotiation and anticipating what might come.”

Building an Owner-Focused Team

Smith’s well-honed abilities will surely aid her in filling the “big shoes” left by Eisemann, who had a 30-year career with Marriott and a consulting business prior to joining IHG. “He transformed the development organization into one that became diligent, process-oriented, and strategic,” says Smith. “And he built a team over the last 10 years of his tenure that, in my view, is best in class, embodying the adage that development drives strategies. He also mentored everyone on how to have an owner perspective in all that we do. I plan to continue to have the competitive integrity that he built and continue to be creative in how we approach deals.”

Like Eisemann, Smith intends to prioritize the caliber of the development team. “The senior leadership team I have in place now have been with IHG for several years, except for one; we recently hired someone to lead the MLAC (Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean) region who’s just going to be dynamite.” These proactive individuals are essential to supporting owners and ensuring the relationships with IHG stay strong. “People want to do business with people, not a stock symbol,” she says. “So my goal is to align and grow my team around being mindful of balancing growth, which is an important initiative for us, with owner support.”

Promoting Women Leadership

Ensuring that women take advantage of the dynamic career opportunities on the development side is also important to IHG, and to Smith. “Half of the development team are women, and a third of our directors and above are women,” she notes. “So it’s not just women in support roles, which was largely the case 20 years ago. It’s women in leadership roles: directors, VPs, and senior vice presidents as well.”

Given her focus on promoting diversity in hospitality leadership roles, Smith was asked to serve on the Advisory and Planning Committee for AHLA’s ForWard. Launched in 2018, ForWard is a year-round platform for engaging and promoting female leaders. “Who I am today, as a development professional, a wife, and a mother, really does carry with it responsibility to pay that good fortune forward, and to help mentor and sponsor people for growth,” she says. “Sponsorship plays a big role today—we’ve got mentorship, which is people sharing their experiences—and we now have a focus on sponsorship. That’s the shift I’ve seen in the diversity and inclusion movement over the last few years. It’s not just about sharing your experience. It’s inviting people to come along with you and giving them the opportunity to meet the influencers within the organization or within the industry.”

Apart from ForWard, Smith is an active member of several hospitality industry organizations including the AHLA Foundation Board of Trustees, and The Castell Project. She also serves on the IHG Global and Americas Diversity & Inclusion board, and sits on the board of Kaleidoscope Inc., a nonprofit child welfare agency that serves children and families in Chicago, where she used to reside.

“I would say that I’m pretty active in giving back to the community; that’s been an important part of who I am. And here in Atlanta, I’ve been very active in Love Atlanta, which supports many charitable organizations across our city. It’s not just about the business side,” she concludes. “It’s also about reaching a hand out to those who are less fortunate.”

Growth Opportunities: Optimizing IHG Hotels & Resorts’ Development Pipeline

One of Julienne Smith’s motivations for joining IHG back in 2019 was the significant brand development opportunities she could take part in. Prior to her latest role as chief development officer, she focused on developing IHG’s luxury lifestyle premium brands, helping to launch the soft brands voco Hotels and Vignette Collection, both of which are conversion friendly. “We have a tremendous opportunity to continue to grow those,” she notes.

“Conversions continue to offer great advantage for current and prospective owners, and we see plenty of growth potential for the voco Hotels and Vignette Collection brands—both of which are new among the IHG portfolio,” adds Matt Frankiewicz, senior vice president, development, Americas, IHG Hotels & Resorts. “In fact, we’ve opened six conversion voco Hotels in the Americas to date and are actively working on building our pipeline for future growth.” The company is also focused on developing its upper upscale Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants brand. “We actually franchise Kimpton now; that’s a brand we didn’t franchise a few years ago,” Smith notes.

Also ripe for growth is IHG’s large portfolio of midscale and extended-stay brands, which “really carried us through the pandemic. Candlewood Suites and Holiday Inn Express continue to thrive as category killers for us in the new-build growth engine side.” avid Hotels and Atwell Suites are two other midscale brands that show promise for further expansion. The former, an upper midscale brand, is particularly suited to the “bleisure” market. “I think Atwell Suites will continue to grow and be well received,” she says. “It’s a longer-term stay product where we’ve created a two-story lobby, a more active bar-focused space, and then a quieter space where people can work. Many people are working in hotels, in shared spaces, even more than they were prior to the pandemic.”

And in response to “the deep interest from the ownership community to build dual brands,” IHG has introduced an avid/Candlewood Suites dual-brand prototype. “We have several signings and one that’s about to start construction. I see this growth opportunity happening more in secondary and tertiary markets,” Smith observes.

“While dual branding is not a new trend, we’re pursuing efficient, creative, and even atypical opportunities to pair two of our 17 global brands together,” says Frankiewicz. “Through dual branding, we can deliver a broader range of services and choices to our guests while also creating efficiencies in design and back-of-house operations. We’ve opened several new dual-brand hotels this year—including a joint Hotel Indigo and Atwell Suites property in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood—and are on pace to open more in the coming months, such as our joint Holiday Inn and voco Hotels property in Chicago’s River North submarket.”

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George Seli is the editor of LODGING.

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