HM sits down for a coffee with InterContinental Hotels Group Managing Director, Australasia and Japan, Leanne Harwood, to hear a great yarn about her hard-earned rise to the industry summit.
What was your first job in the accommodation industry and for how long?
My journey into hospitality started with Food and Beverage. As a twenty-something growing up in New Zealand, I was obsessed with skiing so, in order to fuel that passion, I started working in a bar in the evenings so I could ski all day. At the time the job was a means to an end, and the end was one I hadn’t anticipated.
It turns out I loved working in the bar almost as much as I enjoyed the slopes, and before I knew it, I had taken the leap to hotel F&B – and I continued working in F&B for another year before moving on to become New Zealand’s first female hotel concierge. The rest is history. I have worked my way up through the hotel industry ever since, moving into sales, commercial, operations and now my current role as IHG’s Managing Director for Australasia and Japan.
It just goes to show how amazing this industry is: I arrived without a formal education, started in the kitchen and worked my way up to become a Managing Director at one of the world’s leading hotel companies.
Can you tell us a funny, embarrassing or memorable story involving you from the early part of your career?
Several years back while working in the Middle East, I took a flight from Riyadh to Jeddah and, in accordance with local custom, I dressed in my Abaya (robe) and Shayla (head scarf).
Planes in Saudi generally don’t offer pre-allocated seating, so I ended up sitting next to a very kindly old Arab gentleman who took a bit of a shine to me. My two colleagues sitting nearby took great joy throughout the flight in trying to marry me off – which was mischievous on many levels, not least of which the fact that I’m already happily married! The courting process took a particularly unusual turn when the gentlemen started clipping his toenails in the middle of the flight – if there had ever been hope for him, it completely evaporated at that point.
And yes, the revenge on those colleagues was sweet. But that’s another story.
It’s been a challenging period but we know there are great stories out there. What is a great example of unique or superior customer service you’ve seen in your hotels lately?
I am genuinely floored by the amazing hospitality I see delivered every day by people who work in hotels (and restaurants, bars, cafes – everywhere!) These are a special breed of people who thrive on making someone’s day that bit better, and should be celebrated.
It’s been quite heartbreaking to see salacious coverage from some of the mainstream media around the government isolation in hotels, but our teams have done a spectacular job, showing up and doing the very best they can during incredibly challenging circumstances.
In fact, people coming to work in hotels every day are absolutely shining through, as they always do in the toughest of conditions. We have colleagues on the front line who have been giving it their all – and there’s some hilarious and innovative surprise and delight stories happening in so many of our hotels. We’ve seen games of Hangman being played between guests and colleagues on hotel doors between meal deliveries; pastry teams baking personalised birthday cakes; General Managers buying art packs for guests; eggs and toys delivered to kids over the Easter weekend; inspirational cards added to meal drops – and more! There are so many pockets of true hospitality coming out in these trying times – and, while it’s been tough and disappointing to see the headlines, the feedback and thanks our hotels have had from guests has been phenomenal – and so well deserved.
As I always say, true hospitality can’t be faked, it is inherently authentic. People who choose to work in hotels love being able to make a difference – whether it’s helping a guest to have an amazing stay or a colleague to have an awesome day, and that’s even more important right now. It makes me exceptionally proud.