Telling A Brand’s Story - Kristen Freeland - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 158

Dan: Today's guest is a creative director with a superpower for storytelling. She's an award winning brand innovator who's responsible for the

design and experiences across most of IHG's family of brands. She's a design leader who specializes in bringing brands to life through innovative approaches, She is a director of Design Strategies at IHG in Atlanta.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Kristin Freeland. Welcome Kristin.

Kristen: Hi,

Dan. So nice to talk to you today.

Dan: It's wonderful to see you. And I, I, I just want everyone to know I have been dying to have this conversation for a really long time, but, you know, um, with relocations and life and just travel and work, it's just been hard to do it. But I'm just so grateful that we're here together finally. So, thank you.

And everyone, I know you're going to enjoy this with Kristen, so thank you, thank you, thank you. Um, so I think one of the many things that I'm intrigued by with you is your, the journey that you've had on your career path since finishing school. And I think a lot of people could get some inspiration and, um, I don't know, motivation for being on one path, but saying, you know what, let me try something else and then try something else.

And it's all okay, right? We're, we just need to be able to kind of follow our hearts. and be inspired. So I, I'm really happy to speak to you about that. And, but before we get into all of that, I just,

as I ask every guest, how do you define hospitality?

Kristen: It's a great

place to start. Uh, hospitality for me, it kind of was in my bio. It's

about the storytelling. I mean,

when we sit sort of in a brand

position, we're constantly trying to tell a

story. Sometimes it's an old story that we're breathing new life into. Sometimes it's a new story and a new audience, but everything that we do, everything we create, every space, every experience, the intent is to tell a story and deliver it successfully to our guests.

And the hope is in doing that, that then we become part of their story as well. There's really, I think, a beauty in the exchange of that. And, you know, with, I, she's family of brands and really every stop on my career journey. It's been the part of it that is most exciting to me, figuring out that voice, how to communicate what story you're trying to tell, uh, and hopefully forge a long lasting relationship with your audience because they want to be a part of your

story as well.

Dan: really appreciate how you talk about not just creating the story for the brand or the experience of the actual, of the building, let's just say, but also becoming a part of the guests. Experience as they go out. So I'm like, IHG is a pretty big company.

It's a leader within the hospitality world and beyond.

How, is there a way that you measure or know, like, how do you know if a guest who stays in one of your brands takes on that experience into

their own path?

Kristen: That's a great question. I think one of the things that's so interesting about sitting in the strategy

world is we have the benefit of having quite a lot of

input. From our guests, from our owners, from the people that stay with us, from the people that frankly don't stay with us. Um, and so we're constantly seeking out one is our story actually connecting.

I think almost to your question is what we're putting out there. Is it landing? Are they understanding the story that we're telling? Are they connecting with it? Are they coming back because of it? Um, and when we take on sort of our massive strategy projects, often the first part of that is quite heavy in the R& D because we ask them directly, like, what are we doing well?

What are we not doing well? What resonates with you? What brings you back? What maybe is a driver in your decision when you go stay with someone? Um, so we're constantly sort of Taking in that insight and using that to fuel our work. I think what's really important when we look at our guests, and if we look broadly, IHG and all the different guests that stay with us, it's important to acknowledge that they're real life human beings who evolve.

So we might be able to connect with them in one way today, but Two, three years from now that needs to shift. They're in a different life space or things around the world have changed. There's a way that we need to shift in how we tell the story and connect with them. So it's our job, frankly, to constantly hear from them, to solicit that information and, and make sure that we're connecting.

Do we do it well a hundred percent every day? No. Um, that's the reality I think, of any job, especially something that you're creating. It's just what happens, but what's important is that the conversation is constant and that the relationship remains strong over the years. We want someone to have a relationship with us and our entire family of brands for their entire span of their life.

And so with that, it has to be a two way sort of


Dan: And that also really hits home with me too, because I'm a firm believer You know, one of my core values is just adapt and improve. And I think that the, the,

genesis of where that value comes from is the, the belief, the hardcore belief that whatever has gotten us from wherever we were to wherever we are right at this moment, me speaking to you, let's just say, it's not going to serve me in the next week, month, year, decade.

Half century, hopefully, um, going forward. And even if we figured out if something lands and hits so well at this given moment, that's not going to say, because like you said, it's evolving. Everyone is always evolving. The providers and the receivers of hospitality, um, It's, it's constantly a shifting landscape.

I'm also intrigued by, you said you learned so much from the data of the, um, of the guests who stay with you, I guess, through, through surveys, through interactions, um, but you said something that really piqued my interest right

there, it's, you also learned a lot from the guests who don't stay with you.

Kristen: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Dan: tell, like, I also believe that, I don't know,

I have a really good, I guess one of the reasons why I love doing this podcast so much is I'm, I'm very good at hearing what's unsaid.

I think a lot of information can be heard from the neg, like negative space, not

in like negativity, um, but just in, you know, looking at a form you, there's the part that you're looking at that, you know, and then there's all the, all of this unknown. How do you gather data from those?

Who might not stay with you.

That's really intriguing to me.

Kristen: Mm hmm. So, one of the benefits of having 19

brands is there's something for everyone. But with that, we have to accept that everything

is not for everyone. So, a lot of what we do is in

talking to a group that might stay in a particular, say, subset of our

brands, is understand why Why this one? Why these over others?

What's the driver of preference? And, you know, it varies greatly depending on how someone's traveling. If it's business or leisure, if they have maybe their kids with them, depending on the location, you know, there's so many things that affect that, but they will give us a lot of great insight. And sometimes, you know, based on the sort of Project and the depth of the research that we're doing.

It might be a survey. It might be that we bring them into something we're studying. You know, we have an amazing design center here in Atlanta where we build and prototype things and we'll bring people into a specific space and experience and understand, like, does this work for you? Does this meet your needs?

Would you choose this brand? Because of whatever the thing is that we're studying. Um, and I love those opportunities to just have real life dialogue. I mean, I think there's, there's so much we can, we can gather in different ways, but nothing compares with being in a space. with someone and seeing if all of your sort of strategy and design work actually plays out through how they experience and receive it.

Dan: And for the, for the, for that, let's say cohort of humans who maybe have not stayed with an, at an IHG property before, how, how do you have that? And I love how many times you said the word relationship in the last part of the

earlier part of the conversation, how do you, A, find them and how do you.

Build that relationship with them.

Are you, are they in person focus groups? Are they, are you bringing them to your design center in Atlanta?

Like how does that whole

process happen? Like I'm fascinated by that.

Kristen: So it absolutely varies based on the project, the brand. We have an amazing team, quite a team in house that handles from Guest analytics and helps with surveys and things like that. Um, but I have been a part of some projects where we

do bring people in physically into our space. There's other worlds where we do surveys.

Sometimes we'll just do visualizations, um, to sort of express a strategy that we have and a few different ways that it could be realized and try to get feedback there. And it's something that, you know, prior to coming to IHG, I had not done in my career. Um, there were different ways that we gained insights.

But being there and working sort of hand in hand with our brand teams, with our analytics teams, that was all new for me. Um, and it was frankly an adjustment because, you know, as a designer, we're used to dreaming up amazing and beautiful things. And we have a profile of the guests and we, we think that we're succeeding in how we speak to them and what we've created.

But to get that real life feedback while you're in process, And actually say, okay, I thought this was, you know, I thought this was a win. And actually your feedback is telling me that it's not. So I need to go back and I need to rethink and rework. And ultimately it makes that end product as successful as possible because we've, we've taken in all that input.

But it's definitely an adjustment to the creative process. And one that I've now come to really respect and appreciate. And I find so much value in it. But in the beginning I was like, oh, this is, this is different. I have not done it this way before. Um, but you know, I think that's the beauty of also working in different environments and learning as you


Dan: So let's, if you were to take one of the brands from your family brands that you're working on. Um, at IHG and say, are the, is there an example of how can we put that? Like, okay. So you have the surveys from the two cohorts, the known guests, and then the guests who have not stayed with you, right? You're, you're piloting or creating or reinvigorating a new brand you pick.

Um, how do you know?

Are you starting the design process with that information

first, or are you starting, have you already started,

create a new, a brand or reinvigorate

a brand

and then present that to those two different cohorts?

Kristen: So I'd say it could

happen both ways because there's different types of input that we're seeking based on the project. Um, the one that I've been thinking of as we've been sort of talking about this, it happened on the front end and sort of midway because there were inputs

to To gain in the beginning to say, Hey, we have this product.

We, we think it should appeal to you because we've positioned it this way, but it's not appealing to you. Help us understand why. And then with those insights, we can start to develop a solution towards that. And maybe it's. Um, but then once we sort of have a few ideas on how we can do that, then we can test that with them, that same group or a different group, maybe even a broader group to say, hey, does this speak more to you?

Does this address, you know, what we're this need? Are we delivering in a way that, you know, is meaningful to you? And would that then influence you to stay here more, to choose this instead of other brands, other experiences? There's so many ways that we can sort of test that. And I think one of the things that we also do is we really focus a lot on the briefs that we build for our projects because there's so many ways to measure success.

Sometimes we're seeking To capture a new audience, new guests that we haven't spoken to before. Sometimes we need to look at costs or how do we take something that functionally or experientially is successful, but we need to deliver it differently from a owner sort of investment perspective, but based on whatever those sort of success metrics are, it's really important that we set up the project to really speak to that because.

You know, it, it ties into everything, frankly. Um, and so we, we focus a lot on the briefs that we build so that when we go to these groups, when we go even to our internal stakeholders, that we're asking the right questions and measuring the solutions the right way, because it can be so easy to get off on the wrong track, um, and,

and lose focus, frankly.

Dan: Yeah, and you kind of, I would assume also you kind of have to, I can't imagine how much work goes into creating or either creating a brand or evolving or having a revolution within a brand. Yeah. But there must be so much work, but it's almost like you have to check your ego at the door and let the data.

Okay. At some point, you have to take that step, right? But then you have to be able to adapt and improve based on what the data is. So in those two different scenarios where you're getting the data and then embarking on a new brand. Or renovate or reinvigorating a brand. And then the other one where you've, you've kind of, you're going down that path and you're adjusting

based on the data you're getting back.

What does, is it, is the data in a spreadsheet? Is it a, is it like, how, how are you getting that data and then filtering that into, The kind of work that you and your teams are working on

and adjust. And, and I guess your deliverables,

Kristen: do love a spreadsheet. It's often just the easiest way

to, one, get things organized, but also there's a lot

around prioritization because I think in, in getting feedback and insights, and this applies to guests and external audience as well as internal,

it's often the reality that we can't address every single thing.

And so the way that we maneuver through that is like, is there a piece of feedback that we've heard across multiple parties and multiple forums? If so, that probably puts it towards the top of the list. Or are there things that wholesale the feedback is this would make me stay with you or not stay with you or switch brands or, you know, things like that, that carry a lot of weight.

We need to prioritize those other feedback that is not necessarily invalid, but it's just not possible to be addressed because we can't address everything. We kind of need a way to sort that. So the things that come in, in terms of like surveys and analytics, there's usually a very sort of elaborate PowerPoint and readout that includes not only a way of organizing and categorizing, but there's also then verbatims because while we may not be able to address everything.

It's important that we do understand and hear what everyone has said, um, because you, you'd be amazed. Sometimes we make certain decisions, which are strategic, and you know, that they might address 80 percent of the feedback, not the 20 percent that we had to deem, you know, necessary. But it's important as a brand and a brand house to always be aware of what, what those notes were, what that feedback was.

Sometimes there are things that we can action on in the future, you know, depending again, because everything's always evolving. Um, it's just important for us to always have that 360 awareness. And I think, you know, hearing from our consumers and hearing from our internal stakeholders, you know, even brand to brand, there's always a learning that can be uncovered and it's important for us to do that work constantly.

Dan: do

you have an example of, let's just say you've created a brand or you're, you're reinvigorating or creating a new brand, you you're going down, you do a focus group around it, you get the data on a

spreadsheet, do you have an example of like one of those

line items? That were, that was an important line item that you kind of changed the direction of your story or the narrative that you were doing.

And then it was a win. Like you, you could actually measure that it was a win.

Kristen: That's a

very specific ask. Um, I can't think of one

that delivers

exactly what you're describing, but I can share. So even hotels, we reimagined

that brand over the past few years. That is our

wellness focused brand. It had a very sort of. specific offering that

was delivered in a specific way.

And we did.

Dan: so ever, just so everyone knows, even I've stayed, I stayed at one. I couldn't, we, we got kicked out of our house for one minute because we were doing like installation and we couldn't stay in it. It was like toxic for a little while. It was dry, dry. So I went to Norwalk. And I say it even, it was really cool.

There were like bands and TRXs. I think it was a TRX or there was exercise. So it was like super

fitness and, and balance like brought to you in your

room. I was like, Whoa, I didn't know that I've heard of this happening.

Like you could request a room that has that stuff

already in it, but I didn't know it was every single room.

And I think this was before

you guys. Evolved that


Kristen: Correct. Correct. We did evolve, but you hit a great point there because one of the huge learnings that we had to embark on is we had this particular model that delivered wellness and fitness in a

particular way. And it was very movement centric. And we learned that that

spoke to a lot of people, but it didn't speak to everyone.

Every, every one in the audience we were trying to reach, you know, wellness looks like many different things for many different people. So there was a ton of research and really a lot of reinvigoration for that brand, the brand house. The tone of voice, what it shows up like graphically, the logo. Then you get to the physical sort of experience and expression, but there were so much insight and, and true sort of guests verbatims around, Hey, wellness to me might mean that I just have better lighting control and I can get a good night's sleep.

I don't want the pressure of the fitness equipment staring at me. Is there a way that you can speak to me too? And so, uh, we have, Now introduce the new prototype and the new design, um, and the first sort of full expression of it will be in Charlotte. Um, but you'll see that with the guest room, you can still, I mean, you can have a room with a full fitness expression in it, ready to go, like what your experience was in, uh, Connecticut, but you can also have a room That's far more subtle.

And maybe there's a yoga mat in the corner and you can just adjust your light and, you know, dim before you go to bed and dim the lights up when you wake up. And those are other ways that we're delivering on wellness. So there was just a ton of insight. Um, and I think it's really important as a brand.

And even it's a great example of that, of really listening to the people, you know, we, we sit in our office and we come up with great ideas and we think that they're landing, but when you're. Target guests and target audience are telling you, Hey, there's other ways that you could appeal to me. It's important that we listen to that and that we evolve with them.

And, you know, we talk brand evolution, but the second something actually premieres to the world at large, we worked on that two years ago. You know, I mean, we try to get, speed to market is huge and the window gets tighter and tighter with every day it seems, but our job, my job is to constantly be ahead of that.

So I should be working on something now that you'll see 18 months from now. I think that's part of the excitement, part of the pressure. Um, but it, it's again on the brand and really our, our responsibility in maintaining that relationship with the guest.

Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Mm hmm.

Dan: Yeah. I, it just seems like such an, uh, I just wanted to get down to that granular level of detail because I'm just, I'm always just so awestruck by how, you know, you guys can take this white piece of paper and we're saying you guys, I mean, just super creative designers, um, take a clean piece of paper with all of these external inputs and create it into a three dimensional experience.

And so I'm always just fascinated, like how, How can you drill down and like, in like a specific instance of where that happened. So thank you for sharing. Um, a word I heard you say throughout. All of that was just kind of taking the step, taking the step, taking the step. And as I said in the kind of like the intro of our conversation, I was just, um, you've had a really interesting career journey as far as like going to college, then you go to work at Hilton, right?

So you're working at a brand, then you went, you kind of drilled down and focused into going into a product.

Kristen: Mm

Dan: And then you were there and then you went back to the brand. And I think that that's just really inspiring to just everyone out there. Just because, just because you're in one lane doesn't mean you need to stay in that lane forever.

Right. And you can try other things and all of these things. That you try can be very accretive to your overall experience and, and, and how you add value at where you're at the next step. So

I'm sure you have a lot of

stories that you could pull on, but like,

how did you make, those are some really big changes.

How, how did you get up the courage to take those steps?

And have those radically different experiences.

Kristen: That's a great

question. Um, I think I have to always give a shout out to my mother for courage and confidence because, frankly, going into design required that. I had a lot of

nerves when I would say high school age. Um, I, I've always loved design. I was always the kid that would rather paint or be in ceramics versus on some sports team.

So it was quite evident where my interests lied, but I had a lot of nerves around, would I be successful? Is it too risky? Should I do something that's safer? Um, and my mom from then until now has always encouraged me to take the leap. Because one, you just never know where it will take you. But also even if, you know, you're headed down a path and you make a left and then a right, sometimes the left helps with wherever your destination was intended to be all along.

So I have to give a lot of credit to her for that. I think the other thing, you know, I, I had tremendous, um, opportunity in working at Hilton fresh out of college, which I, I know to this day is not typical. Um, and I would say I spent those. roughly six years soaking up everything that I could. And that gave me a lot of confidence to then try something different because I felt like I had such a better grasp of what it meant to be in hospitality.

I knew that I didn't want to leave it, but I thought, oh, there's many facets to this business. And if I can learn another one, Even if I come back to a brand house later, it will only make me stronger. And, you know, I, I got to West Elm, I interviewed for a particular role, which was heavily focused on product.

At that time, they were standing up their hospitality, now B2B portion of the business. And on my first day, uh, there were, there were three of us on the team. The first day my boss said, so I know that we interviewed for a specific job and it was product focused, but. The truth is we're actually creating our own hotel brand and you're also going to be working on that.

We couldn't tell you because it's not public. It won't be public for a while, but in addition to the product side, you're going to help us basically create a brand from scratch. And I, to this day, don't know where I would be if I hadn't taken that leap because it was Such an amazing experience. I mean, I'd had the brand house experience, but not doing one from scratch in this way.

You know, I used to describe that experience as a startup within an established house, uh, because in some ways that there weren't rules because we didn't have a precedent, you know, um, and so we were able to just freely explore and, and go for it. Um, and then when I look at transitioning from there to IHG, I kind of looked at, well, I have all this experience now, and I also have the, the courage and confidence to disrupt things.

You know, I can go into a brand house, but also take on the weird, you know, gnarly project, um, or say, Hey, I'm open to trying that in a way we've never done it before. And that has served me well, quite frankly. So I, I credit every, every step in the journey to, to where I am today.

Dan: Well, thank you for sharing that part. Now you said something that I'm actually, I want to pull back on. You said, um, from college, you went to work directly at a brand being Hilton. And you said that was really unusual. College straight to brand. So for those

listeners who are out there, like,

why is that unusual?

And how did that

all happen? If it's that,

Kristen: Sure. Um, so I'll tell you first how it all happened. Um, I was, I graduated in 2009, which was not the best time to be looking for a new job. I applied to, you know, first my top 10, then my top 20. And then at some point I was just applying to places that had openings. Um, and probably at some point got a little discouraged.

Uh, just, you know, you're graduating, you want to have an exciting job to tell everyone about. Um, but

Dan: but your mom was, there to help encourage

Kristen: she said, hold out for the right one, which I did. Um, and so the summer that I graduated, coincidentally, Hilton relocated their headquarters from Beverly Hills to McLean, Virginia, where they still are today.

And I read about it, and I said, that's, this is it. Like, this is the one. I think we've all had that experience. You're, this is the place where I need to be. There is no other option, but naturally they didn't have any design openings. And so I just, I talked about it with my mom and I decided I was going to apply to every open role that I could qualify for in the hope that I could, yes. So I could just get in the building. My thought being, I can learn about the company. I can meet the people and somehow convince them that they, you know, should make a role on the design team. And so I was able to land an interview to be an executive assistant for one of their brand heads at the time.

And so I, you know, put on my suit, go do the interview and we were probably no more than 10 minutes in and he says, okay. I like you. You have a great resume, but this is not the job for you. So why don't you tell me why you're here and what you really want? And I can see if I can help you. And I gave him my elevator pitch on why I love design, why I wanted to be a part of the hospitality world and why Hilton was

Dan: Did, did you have

your elevator pitch?

Kristen: absolutely

Dan: out of you at that moment? Okay, it was ready. Oh, you were fully ready


Kristen: Whipped out my portfolio. I mean, I was, I was ready to go in case the opportunity presented itself. And so I just, I told him, frankly, it's like, I want to be in the building. I think. Any role here would help me learn about hospitality. And my hopes is that eventually that would get me into the design team.

And so he said, okay, thank you for your honesty. He was like, I can tell you, I'm not going to hire you to be my assistant, but I'm happy to share your resume with the person that runs the design team. I don't know if they have any needs, but you know, you can see what happens with it. And I'm happy to do that for you.

Uh, and so as. Luck or coincidence or whatever would have it, um, Larry Traxler, who as we both know, still leads up that team. Um, he had decided along with the other directors that they needed someone, they needed a support role just to help. Um, because at that point, many were new to the company. They just relocated.

There was a ton going on. Um, they had not posted the role yet, but they had been thinking about it. And so, um, Very quickly, I ended up having an introduction call with Larry, and then I went in maybe a week later to meet with Larry and all the directors in person. And then I joined the team as their design coordinator.

And the role, I mean, it, it had a description of course, but it was very much support the team doing all the things that they were doing. And it was across every brand because it was literally Larry, the directors, and me. And so,

Dan: Oh my god, I can't imagine the fire hose that was spraying.

Kristen: It was, every day was different. Um, but I think what, you

know, for whatever the volume was, there was so much exposure. And that's the piece that I, I know, frankly, I didn't even understand at that time what that would give me. I knew I'd work for a really big name with really cool projects, but to be working hand in hand with, um, Leaders like that, you know, to sit in on meetings that Larry had with principals of design firms to just be a sponge and, and be in the room and see how they navigated the business.

You know, how do you present design to a CEO? Those are things you can never learn in college. And I learned that two years out of college. And so that's where I, when I talked about sort of having so much courage and confidence in leaving Hilton, it was because I was given so much through that experience.

And I, I just. I know it was invaluable.

Dan: so that's amazing. And I'm so glad we share Larry at early stages of our careers. That's awesome. Larry, I hope you're listening because you will be on this at one point. You will. Um, from that, going back to the fire hose metaphor, um, you're in there, you're absorbing everything and not knowing what to expect.

And I think you said it's like, you didn't even understand what you were absorbing. You were just there, right? In many, in many cases, not in all cases. Um, what do you think from that first experience of just being kind of like a huge sponge Absorbing all this stuff. If you were to like distill that, imagine all the things, all, all the things you learned on a, on like a

spreadsheet, what do you think distilled up to the top three lines of that spreadsheet that you learned from that first

Kristen: That's an excellent question. Um, I think one of them would certainly

be how to communicate and sell because there was, you know, you're in school, your focus is on design. Yes, we presented ideas and we understood that we'd have clients, but being in that environment where, you know, your audience might be a C suite.

Panel that are going to have lots of questions, different motivations, different challenges that they all come to the table, really being able to observe how you speak to an audience that may understand design, may not, that may not even be why they're in the room, right? Your, your piece to the puzzle is just that, a piece to the puzzle.

So really understanding how to, again, tell the story to appeal to your audience, how to do it succinctly and confidently, uh, and find a way to really speak their language. So that you can get your point across, which often meant getting approval to keep on doing whatever you were doing. That was something that, I mean, to this day, it carries me, um, and it, it was invaluable.

I think the other thing that was, um, really important for me to learn was the power of relationships. Um, and the, I mean, we all know, know being in this business that it's a relationship based business and you know, the whole, it's a small world and we see everyone everywhere in the same way that I see you out and about, um, but really understanding that you have to nurture those relationships and, and make time, um, because we all do lean on each other.

Right. Um, and that, that was really important. That was something I absolutely learned by observation. Um, Because this was a team that was never not busy, right? They were always traveling here and there and had a million meetings, but they always made time and not only made time, they made it a priority to stay connected with the people they knew, but also meet new people, learn about new things, new products, all of that.

So just that the importance of that and how powerful that is and how we practice design.

Dan: Uh, there's this professor, I think his name is Jeff Galloway, something Galloway, Prof G. He's got like a podcast out there. Recently he was talking about, um, he was at, I think he was at Princeton and he was meeting with like all the, or doing a class or a presentation for all these MBA students at Princeton.

And he, he asked them all like, how many of y'all want to get involved, get into sales? None of them raised their hand. They were, they almost like scoffed at it. And he's like, okay, that's really interesting. But you realize whether you're going to work at a hedge fund or at operations in some big company or a consultant or whatever, you're all going to have to learn sales in some way.

And it's not like, do you want to buy a watch? It's how do you hear? How do you understand who you're presenting to or, or the stakeholders? Cause it's more, it's more often, not just one, it's many. And how do you present your ideas to understand what their needs are and present to all of them? And it was pretty, it was pretty cool to hear because, you know, sales is often, you know, Oh, I don't want to get in sales or, or whatever, but it's like, it's really important to everything in communication and just creating alignment between people.

Um, that's really. And I, I don't know. I, I also think like just relationships to me, that's just everything. And I think that's why I love the industry that we're in so much, because it is a niche, like, yeah, there are hotels everywhere, everyone travels, but like, as far as hospitality design, it's like a niche within a niche within a niche and what makes that all go. Our relationships, like, yes, we're designing things, we're providing furniture, but really at the end of the day, these are financial assets that like something late or a problem, it affects revenue and financial performance. And I think that being able to navigate the challenges of our business. The fuel to be able to overcome those challenges are the relationships that we've developed and have.

And, and I don't know, that's why I love it. I, ultimately, whatever hotel that is that we were going to build, I want

to go have a drink with you at the bar, right? It's, it's, it is about that relationships. Relationships for me drive everything.

Kristen: And we spend a lot of time together. So it's important, you

know, that

that we like each other and that we're, we're genuine people that sort of come together with a shared mission. So I, I wholeheartedly agree.

Dan: then, so you went to go do product at West Elm and then it turned into a surprise. We're, we're building a brand. Um, how did you take that step to go from New York down to Brooklyn or from New York down to Atlanta and then get back onto the The larger hotel brand side of things. Like, again, that sounds like a really cool job.

Like, and I saw you light up as you were talking about it.

So what was, what were the challenges that you had to kind of overcome? Making that decision for you.

Kristen: There were a lot, um, and a lot of them were personal. Honestly, um, I, you know, I moved to New York because I had a dream to be in New York and the role was exciting. And it fueled me for a while. And then probably at the two and a half year mark, um, you know, my now husband and I, we were long distance. We wanted to be in the same place.

We wanted to move into a new chapter. And so I kind of had that piece on the personal side. And then when I took that and looked at, okay, what do I do next? Professionally, like of all the things. And I truly feel like I touched a thousand things at West Elm. I was like, what, what did I like the most? What spoke to me?

What do I want to pursue? And it really was the brand strategy side of it. It, you know, we did many things, but that was the piece that resonated with me. So then I started to look into, well, where, where could I do that? What's a, what's an opportunity? What's a place, what's a city that makes sense that my husband and I could both agree on.

Um, and so I, in that sort of time period of searching and trying to figure that out, I've got a call from IHG and they were looking for someone to come support. They had a major initiative around Crowne Plaza at the time, and they wanted to bring in a sort of design strategy manager that could help support that effort.

And. Again, if it's the universe coincidence or who knows what force brought all that together at the right time, but it was the right time and the right opportunity. Uh, and I, I took that leap knowing that I'd had these other two great experiences. I hope that IHG would be the same, if not better. Um, but if it didn't work, I'd, I'd pivot and try something else.

Um, cause I've always sort of been open minded and a little adventurous in that way, but I, I came almost six years ago, it'll be six years this fall, and I went from Crown Plaza to now I think I'm in my fourth role, um, and have just bounced all throughout our strategy organization. And as I told someone on my team earlier this week, I said, this is my sweet spot.

Like, this is my, this is my passion place. This taps into not only the design piece that I love, but really that storyteller, that, almost that little kid that loved to write. Um, I get that fulfillment alongside all of the design work and now doing it on, you know, Such an amazing team with so many creatives that bring so many things to the table.

It's really just a fulfilling and exciting place to be.

Dan: And as you have been there for how many

Kristen: It'll be six this fall.

Dan: six. Oh my gosh. Six years. And you're in your sweet spot, this passion place, like really purpose driven. So from when, where you're sitting right now. With all those great feelings where you, you know, you got really excited talking about them. What's exciting

you as you look out to the future from where you are now in this passion and purpose place, purpose

Kristen: Yes. Part of what I love in being in a strategy

world is that we constantly have to innovate. So we don't even have time for something to, you know, feel. Old, stale, monotonous. Like you're constantly innovating. And with that, everything's possible. I view it as like, nothing's off the table because. The second we figure something else out, we have an entirely new challenge to chase.

So that just sort of foundationally keeps me excited. The other piece is that, you know, we've had a strategy team for some time, but the way that we're set up now and the way that we can support business, the business, I would say we've, Only tapped into the beginnings of our potential. Um, you know, last year we did a really cool thing.

We did our first sort of multi brand premium owners investment conference. Um, and there's a lot to do with that and the programming and everything, but. Our sort of design piece to it was building out this activation that was very centralized and represented multiple brands. And we partnered with different vendors to bring it to life.

And it was, uh, it touched on a piece around just experiential activation that I used to do a little bit in my West Elm days. I loved it. I thought I'd honestly lost it, um, coming into my new role. But I was excited to see like that's something that we can tap into too. So when we look ahead, not only how do we bring our brands to life through, you know, amazing guidance as well as physical properties, but also what are other ways that we show up maybe temporarily to activate with new audience guests.

Again, how do we tell our story? using different mediums. So things like that, that I would say are untapped business for us today. Um, but I, I believe they're on the horizon. That's all very, very exciting to me.

Dan: And then over the past six years, and you could even go back to when you first started, but it doesn't have to be just to when you started. What's been the most surprising thing that you've seen or that you, that, that has evolved within you since being at IHG? Or that maybe it was lit

up since you

were at IHG, since you've been at IHG.

Kristen: I would say I talked to, I described myself as storyteller. It's something I would say has been a part of me. For a long time, but the way that I've been able to really step into it and, and almost celebrate it and claim that as like, that's my superpower. It's something that I will always work on. I want it to be even better and stronger than it is today, but being able to really harness the power of that and recognize that. Everyone is not strong in every single thing. And even in the world of design and creativity, you know, there's so many ways that we can express ourselves and being able to just tell the story. Get someone to believe your story. And in my world today, I have so many forms of which I can flex that muscle.

That's something that I've, I've really stepped into confidently and you may or may not believe it, but when I was a child, I was incredibly shy. I did not like presenting anything to anyone. I was the kid that fakes the stomach aches. So I didn't have to present my book report. And, you know, it goes back to my mom who was actually, she's a journalist and was a talk show host and news reporter her entire career.

Also did radio. She pushed me and pushed me and pushed me. And now I love to talk. I love to talk to anyone about everything, especially what I do. I love to do it on a stage. These are places where I come alive. Um, and so really to look at that evolution and myself, if I go back to truly a child, um, to now I step into those moments with pure excitement and joy, and they, they give me life, frankly.

Dan: It is amazing. I had a early, early guest on the podcast named Dr. Chloe Carmichael, and she wrote a book called Nervous Energy. And just what I was thinking about it, just as you said, like you didn't, like you didn't want to put, you didn't want to present on your book report that you did, you'd get, or you didn't want to get up on stage in front of others.

And as terrifying as that fear is, like it's, In your body, it's, it can be crippling or debilitating at some points. Um, it's interesting to me how you and I, I used to be the same way, but how. That nervous energy is actually a great tool to just kind of be aware. Like, where is that coming from? What is that?

I'm curious about that. How did you, how did you take that kind of debilitating nervousness? and tame it or refocus it into where now you

thrive when you're, when you're confronted with it or does it, is it still there whispering or you're

just like, or is it like a different voice you're hearing?

Kristen: It's a different voice. And I even, um, I did a speaking engagement at BDNY this

past November, and I was talking to someone, um, who was sharing the stage with me. And I said, those are the good nerves. Those are the like, I'm excited. And the second you say your first three words, it dissipates and you're just, you're in the moment.

So that's, that's the voice. That's how I look at it now. I think the, the thing that got me there was practice and having the benefit of a lot of forums with which to practice and also observe others. Like if I go back to those, You know, I, I got to see a lot of people present a lot of stuff, and sometimes it was an amazing, beautiful design.

Sometimes it was a hard conversation, but there was always a way to to navigate. And I think the consistent thread there was always there was confidence. It doesn't mean that everyone's going to love everything. It doesn't mean that's going to be perfect. It means that I am capable. And if I can come to the table that way, it's okay if I, you know, fumble a line, um, or, you know, if we have an actual live conversation, like, I think also learning that it's really it.

feels best when it's a conversation and a dialogue, not something that's over rehearsed, because people want to hear from other real people. And that's, you know, whether you're doing a panel or an intimate presentation, I think that human quality kind of allowed me to release some of that perfectionism and, and that anxiety and tension.

It's like, just go into yourself. You know what you're talking about. And if you get a weird question, you can acknowledge that, Hey, that's a weird question. I don't have an answer for you. I'll tell you what I do know. Um, but that kind of took that pressure away from me and made it enjoyable. And now I really encourage my team to do, to do the same.

Dan: Um, you've had some pretty incredible mentors along your journey. And I recorded not too long ago with Karen Gilbride from IHG as well. And she was talking about this mentor program at, in IHG, which sounds like. Pretty freaking amazing and relatively low cost, high impact, right? Because it's really connecting and building relationships with others, um, that I think other companies, no matter how big or small

can learn a lot from that conversation.

Um, what are your thoughts on mentors and, and mentor programs?

Kristen: I love that you brought this up. I am an avid

supporter. I have participated in that very program

multiple times, both as a mentor and a mentee, um, and I've loved it. Both ways, both directions. I think that it's so important to have people that you can just talk to and feel comfortable with, um, you know, navigating any job, any industry is not without challenge and particularly in one where you're being so creative all the time, you know, takes a lot of headspace and confidence.

Um, but with that, it. also requires support. And so, you know, I participated as a mentor because I felt like there was something that I could give back. But I also participate as a mentee because there's plenty that I don't know. Um, you know, I had a mentee two years ago, um, when I was actually pregnant with our daughter.

And a lot of what we talked about wasn't even work, like the actual work. It was more so like, how are you a mom? How are you doing this? And, and being who you are at work, but still being who you want to be at home because that was something I, I was having a hard time with and just being able to have a safe space with someone who to this day checks on me, you know, and I'll say, Hey, this was a great week.

Here's what I did really well with. Here's what I could work on. Um, that, that type of space for someone to hold for you, I think is again, invaluable. So, you know, I think whether it's something that's formal or a long term engagement, our program runs for a year at a time. So you can kind of really get a new mentor or mentee every year if you'd like.

Um, but also even just going to get coffee with someone who has questions. I talked to a woman earlier this week who just graduated. And she likes hospitality. And like me, when I graduated, she's like, I, here's what I think I want to do. And I told her about my job and she was like, I didn't even know that was a job.

So, you know, there's so much that you can offer just by sharing your story or listening to someone else's and kind of to your point, it costs nothing, just a little bit of time.

Dan: Yeah, it's total, it's time. Um, And probably a spreadsheet to organize who's involved in everything else. Um, and I know we all learn so much as. mentees, um, but in the times that you've been a mentor, we also learn a lot too. We might not realize it. What's an example of something that

you learned so much, like just kind of altered your path or way of thinking in being a


to someone?

Kristen: That's a great question. I think one of the biggest things that I've learned in sort of growing into different roles and moving into leadership capacity is that you see yourself one way, but the team and sort of everyone around you, everyone that you interact with, they have a different view. And some of that comes from the things that you say.

A lot of it is from the things that you don't say, how you, how you operate, how you maneuver the decisions that you make. And so, and having one of my mentees. Was going through something not with me personally, um, but we were just sort of talking about how they were navigating the business. And how their impression of like how leadership was operating with the, the, the working team, if you will.

Um, and it really shed light for me on some of the ways I'd been making decisions. They were with the best intention, but sometimes just in, in the delivery or the messaging or making someone feel like they were a part of versus, you know, You know, inheriting something or being assigned to something. Um, I think I, I really learned from that to take the extra five minutes to say, Hey, do you want to talk about it versus doing an email or, Hey, like, that didn't seem like that was clear to you.

Can we just like spend a few extra minutes? You know, that we're good because taking that extra few minutes, five minutes, whatever it is, um, can be really meaningful to someone else. And that overall interaction relationship as we, as we talked about. So that mentee helped me a lot, um, in just seeing how I could be coming across and ways where, you know, I might want to improve that.

Dan: You're just so mean. Um, okay. So actually this actually got me thinking. So There's this amazing program at IHG, but anyone can kind of implement these. And I know it's also as a, as a mentor to people, it's nothing as easy, but it's easy to find people to mentee or coach or give your time to, do you have any strategies for, for people who are listening that there might not be that program, but you would like to have a mentor. Do you have any. Any kind of experience or something you could share of how that person in absence of a program could

reach out to someone and say, Hey, I'd love for you to be in my mentor, or I'd love to

check in with you. what are your

thoughts on that?

Kristen: I think first being clear on what you're looking for, what you're looking for out of a mentor relationship, because there can be, you know, sort of at a baseline level, hey, this person has a cool something, a cool job, or they work at a company I'm interested in, or, I like something about them, but what is it specifically that you're looking for support with?

Um, because I think to be a mentor, it's most helpful to understand. And I'll always say, what do you want to get out of this? Like, how can I support you? It's not everything, right? It's like, maybe there's a specific area you're trying to grow in. Maybe it's growth in general. Maybe. You've seen how I've maneuvered through the business.

Um, so really trying to be intentional and specific around what you're looking for out of that person. Cause I think that always makes it easier to understand. Commit to something. Um, but also I recommend putting yourself out there. I have not had an instance where someone reached out and I didn't make it work.

I think, um, one, we've all been there where we needed guidance in some capacity. So I think it's generally our nature to give back. Um, but also it doesn't take much, you know, you can start with a cup of coffee or can we just have a call for 15 minutes? You know, something that is, is. easy to accommodate and see where it can go from there.

You know, it doesn't have to start off with a really formal or long term commitment. Um, I, I think some of, some of those things work best when they're almost organic in nature. So get your foot in the door, tell them why you, you think they'd be a great mentor and see what, what flows from there. Mm hmm. Mm

Dan: Yeah. And I, I, I haven't really thought about this, but I just feel that especially now with a lot of the hybrid work, you know, if you're, if you're in the off, if you're missing each day out of five that you're not in the office, you're missing 20%. Of that in person time. So it becomes really hard to have those organic kind of moments for that to happen.

So what I would just say is to anyone who's thinking about it, and you're in the office three days a week, four days a week, where you're missing that 20 to 40 percent of the time for that.

It's okay to reach out and be like, and like you said, just be specific. Hey, I was wondering if I could pick your brain on XYZ.

And are you okay with that? And then, and don't be ashamed if they are embarrassed, if they say, Oh, you know what, I'm really busy right now. It's not going to work because also everyone is busy, but, but I would also just take that as a, okay, well, don't just stop there, ask someone else, come back. And, and again, if you're putting, I think people's tendency to help is true and pure, and I totally agree with you.

So it's really, but if you, you know, you're going to miss a hundred percent of the shots you don't take, they say.

So, and again, that comes back to that idea of sales and just getting no is okay. It's just information. It is hard getting up on stage is nerve wracking and difficult and putting yourself out there is, but over time

you get used to it.

I just say have no, like. Get no said as many times as possible. It means you're, you're iterating and falling

Kristen: Yep. Yep. Absolutely.

Dan: Um, Kristen, if you were to magically appear in front of that younger version of yourself who didn't want to give the book report presentation, and you could be a

mentor to yourself, what advice would you have for yourself?

Kristen: Um, I would definitely push my younger self up in front of

that room and say, You can do this. I mean, you know, it wasn't for lack of what I knew, what I didn't know. It was just purely fear, almost irrational fear. Um, so I would encourage myself to try and that it didn't have to be perfect. I think a lot of us, I'm going to group us all together, but certainly myself, um, felt like for a long time, well, it has to be perfect.

I have to nail every point. And I was really missing the beauty of. Speaking and connecting is that there, for me, is almost a vulnerability to it that comes with not being overly scripted or perfected. So I would have encouraged myself to just say, Just give it a go. And this is a muscle that you have to use to flex, to strengthen, and you'll get there.

But most importantly, you need to find a way to do it in your own voice, not how someone else would do it. You know, I talk with our team all the time about presenting, and it's like, I might do it one way, but your way should be very different from mine. And even if I'm giving you notes or thoughts, it should be carried out in your voice, in your way, because you have to own that voice and develop it.

The goal is not to sound like anyone else, but yourself.

Dan: Hmm. Thank you. Um, well, this conversation did not disappoint at all. And I know I've been wanting to do this for a long time with you. Um, but this

has been So wonderful. And if people wanted to learn more

about you, Kristen or IHE, what's a good way for them to. Navigate that.

Kristen: Sure. So I love LinkedIn. Um, and happy to connect and talk with anyone via LinkedIn. You can find me easily by name there. And then IHG, obviously our website has a ton of information about our brands, what we do and how we do it. But even if you look at that first and then want to connect personally to talk more about it, I'm happy to do so.

Dan: Wonderful. Um, well, a heartfelt thank you to you for your time and just putting yourself out there and sharing, um, your experience with everyone. I really appreciate it. So thank you,

Kristen: thank you,

Dan: And I'd love to thank all of our listeners because without all of you, we wouldn't be here talking to awesome people like Kristen.

Um, And we've grown totally organically. I don't know if you know, but about in the past two months, I started a newsletter. So please, um, I'll put it in the notes, but just please log on and subscribe. I promote the current episode. I drill back into older ones and put the other inspiration and good books and learnings that I've had, much like what, um, Kristen has shared with us, just things that have helped shorten my own journey that I want to share with everyone.

So. Please subscribe and check it out and become a part of the community, become a hospitality hero. So thank you everyone. Thank you, Kristen. And we'll catch you next time.

Kristen: Thank you.

Creators and Guests

Dan Ryan
Dan Ryan
Host of Defining Hospitality
Telling A Brand’s Story - Kristen Freeland - Defining Hospitality - Episode # 158
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