A look at the birth and growth of InterContinental
A look at the birth and growth of InterContinental
21 DECEMBER 2016 9:40 AM

Seventy years since InterContinental Hotels & Resorts got its start, hoteliers say properties under the brand’s name are seen as social hubs around the world. 

DENHAM, England—InterContinental Hotels & Resorts has been a social hub for travelers since the launch of its first hotel in Belém, Brazil, in 1949.

Just ask Kirby Payne, president of HVS Hotel Management, who lived in a few InterContinental hotels while his father, Phyl R Payne, served in controller and general manager roles.

“(InterContinental) always meant first-class. I always thought of it as good restaurants and active nightclubs, and very importantly, I always thought of them as being the social centers of their cities,” Kirby Payne said.

“The InterContinental hotels in every city around the world, from Belém going on, was the place with the fine restaurant, the ballrooms and the lively nightclubs that were the social centers, the society centers of each of those communities.”

The company was founded in 1946 by Pan Am Airways, whose global expansion was encouraged by the United States government.

Payne’s first hotel home was InterContinental’s first-ever property, the InterContinental Hotel Grande in Belém, Brazil. He moved in with his mother and father at age 4, when his father took on a controller position at the hotel in 1951. Phyl Payne became the GM at the hotel in 1953 or 1954, according to his son.

“This was so long ago in such a remote area that, for instance, the irons for ironing sheets and clothes were heated with charcoal,” Kirby Payne said. “That hotel had all kinds of things, like only one telephone on each floor. If a guest got a phone call, the phone attendant would go to the room and get them.”

InterContinental Hotels & Resorts’ first hotel, the InterContinental Hotel Grande, opened in Belém, Brazil, in 1949. (Photo: Courtesy of Kirby Payne)

Since he was the GM’s son, Payne said he got away with a lot. The maintenance men at Hotel Grande made him a treehouse that had running water and electricity, and a shoe-shine box, which he still owns. He said he would sit out by the elevators in the hotel and shine shoes for “ambassadors and all kinds of people.”

In 1958, Payne and his family moved into the Jaragua InterContinental Hotel in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. That property and another sister property, he said, were owned by the then-dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo.

“Both of those hotels were wired with listening devices and everything, and I can remember us saying on a Sunday, ‘we’re going to go for a drive’ or something like that, and the car would be waiting for us,” Payne said.

The Payne family’s hotel suite previously was home to former president of Argentina Juan Perón.

“After about 11 months to a year, my family got thrown out of the Dominican Republic on like a week’s notice, and about a month later, Fulgencio Batista (former president of Cuba) moved into our apartment,” Payne said.

An InterContinental Hotels Corporation ad from “A Room with a View” 50 Years of Inter-Continental Hotels and Its People. (Photo: Copyright Inter-Continental Hotels Corporation, 1996)

A continued reputation
Some things about the InterContinental brand have changed over the years, but Payne said hotels under the brand still hold reputations as social centers in their cities. That’s more evident internationally than it is domestically, he said.

“For instance, the (InterContinental Barclay), next door to the Waldorf (in New York), clearly isn’t the Waldorf, it clearly isn’t the Plaza, but it’s definitely right up at that level,” he said. “I can’t think of anywhere else in the United States, besides New York, where the hotel is famous like the Barclay.”

The Barclay, built in 1926*, underwent a 20-month, $180-million renovation and reopened in May 2016. Hervé Houdré, who has served as GM of the Barclay for seven years, took the hotel through the renovation and helped relaunch it after. He said the renovation is a “testament to the brand.” 

“Our goal is to make the InterContinental Barclay, if not the standard barrier of InterContinental, maybe one of the three top hotels in the company,” he said. “One very exciting goal is to reposition the Barclay in the luxury segment. We have an incredible presidential suite and a more incredible penthouse suite, which is just being opened as we speak.”

There are some industry factors that will make repositioning the Barclay quite the task, but Houdré said he’s prepared to take on the challenge.

“We are in a challenging market at the moment. New York City, as a whole, is in a challenging market because of oversupply and the competition with Airbnb, so we have to really deliver,” he said. “We feel that we are extremely well-positioned—one, thanks to the location of the hotel; two, thanks to the renovation, which was a great success and very much appreciated by our customers; and three, we want to deliver great service.”
Another challenge lies in the fact that the InterContinental brand is less well-known in the United States, Houdré said.

“We’ve sort of upgraded the brand because we felt (10 to 15 years ago) there was a lack of brand recognition in America,” he said. “There’s great brand recognition in Europe, and I can attest to that because, since I started to work 38 years ago, InterContinental was always the hotel you wanted to work for.”

Jason Moskal, VP of lifestyle brands at InterContinental Hotels Group, said the brand continues to “provide a unique global view that no other hospitality brand can, given our (experience) over seven decades and being in almost 70 countries.”

“As I know the brand today, and when I think about its (founding) back in the ’40s in Brazil, the original intent of the brand was to really provide this haven, if you will, for global travelers to stay while they were away from home,” he said, “and starting that kind of journey and story in Brazil around this aspiration for world travel, I think that is exactly what the brand continues to deliver today in modern travelers’ terms.”

As of 30 September, the InterContinental brand was comprised of 63,742 rooms in 186 hotels, according to the company’s website. The brand also has 58 hotels in its pipeline.

Correction, 21 December 2016: A previous version of the story had an incorrect opening date for the hotel.

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