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Around the Water Cooler With a Holiday Inn Executive

Stephanie Steinberg

Kirk Kinsell could request the finest champagne, or demand chocolates on his pillow every night, but the president of the largest hotel company in the world likes to keep his room service orders simple. All he asks for is a bowl of granola and blueberries in the morning, and some water on the side.

The 58-year-old is a fourth-generation hotelier. His great-grandfather built what is now known as the Clift San Francisco, a Morgans Hotel, which his grandfather ran as the general manager. Kinsell's father deviated from the hospitality business by becoming a pediatrician, and Kinsell admits he once entertained going into medicine. "Then I found out I liked surfing more than organic chemistry," he jokes.

Today, Kinsell is responsible for 3,600 hotels that are part of the InterContinental Hotels Group in the Americas. While travelers may not recognize the IHG corporate name, they've likely stayed in one of its brands - Holiday Inn Express, Candlewood Suites, Staybridge Suites, Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts, to name a few. Kinsell joined IHG in 2002 as chief development officer for the Americas region and later on spent four years as IHG president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

U.S. News spoke with Kinsell from Atlanta on a recent Friday, expecting him to be looking forward to the weekend. It turned out, he felt quite opposite. "Monday is actually my favorite day of the week," he says. "It's my chance to come back and be with my team." We asked him more about his team of 190,000 employees in 23 countries, and how he makes everyone, from maids to concierges, feel their job is essential. His responses have been edited.

You received a master's degree in hotel administration from Cornell. How important is it for people entering the hotel industry to get an education in hospitality?

Getting a degree and going off to college is important. There's never any kind of jeopardy or disadvantage to getting more education. Getting education in the hospitality space can improve and hone your skills for our industry and getting an advanced degree can be beneficial, but one of the things about the hotel business we like to say is, "We don't create jobs, we create careers." We have lots of evidence across our company and our industry of people who came in at low-level jobs and didn't have the benefit of education. They didn't have access to it perhaps or it just wasn't within their mindset, and they took a job and today they are leading many important parts of IHG's business or the industry.

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For a business with employees all over the world, what's the best way to communicate a message to ensure it's followed through?

Understand your own purpose and how you communicate that to people about aligning it with a company. Then you can work on others and help them understand what their purpose is. I've traveled and worked across a great deal of the world. The one common thing I find about everybody, and I mean from cultural, age, gender to geographic differences, is everybody wants their work to have meaning. So you have to take the context of your message and what you want people to do and translate how that work is going to contribute to a greater good. Therefore, that energy and that fuel that makes Mondays the favorite day of the week stems from their enthusiasm to come to work and to do good work for that reason.

For people whose jobs involve cleaning up after others - like maids, for example - how can managers keep them motivated to do their daily tasks when maybe their daily tasks are not so fun?

First, it's understanding who those people are. Get to know them personally. Know their names. Know their families. Know their backgrounds. Know what's of interest to them. Make them feel valued, No. 1. Whether they're with you for a day or with you for 30 years, it's important to know your employee base.

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No. 2 is what they do matters. Help them make that connection. The one thing people want when they travel is to know they are going to have a safe and clean room. For someone who is a room attendant to understand that is really the core of table stakes. In the absence of that, the rest of someone's trip is ruined. But if you can deliver that, then you can deliver a great guest experience.

Some hotel managers might put everyone on high alert when you or the CEO is expected for a visit. If executives want to see how their businesses are really running, is it a good idea for them to drop in unannounced?

It's a great idea to do that. We sometimes refer to it as mystery shop, which is not necessarily incognito, because you don't want to be unauthentic. I use the combination of announced and unannounced visits across my stays. If I'm going to be in a market, and I'm going to be there for a day, it's really hard to be unannounced because sometimes you have to have things lined up. But when you have the opportunity to do so, it's great to go in as you say. Plus, the carpet isn't wet under your feet. And the paint doesn't smell like it was just put on.

Having said that, I'm a guy who when I travel, I'm a creature of habit like we all are. I love to start my morning with granola and blueberries. I do that every day - it doesn't matter where I am. So when the hotel often knows when I'm coming, they say, "What does Mr. Kinsell want in his room?" We give them the old granola and blueberries, put water in his room, put whole fresh fruit, because anything else you put in my room, I'll eat it because it's just there. I mean, I have no discipline.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Whole Foods' CEO.]

IHG launched EVEN Hotels last year, which include state-of-the-art gyms, yoga rooms and organic dining options. Is it worth the investment for a business owner to offer healthy options for consumers, especially when the business - like hotels - isn't directly related to health?

The answer is yes. Everybody from every walk of life has some interest in some level of their well-being. For many people, it is about healthy options in terms of what they eat. For others, it could just be a good night's rest. With EVEN Hotels, we've brought together holistic solutions for a mainstream traveler. So it's not an expensive spa destination five-star hotel, which not a lot of people can afford, but you can get healthy options. If you have some hypoallergenic needs, they're there for you. You can get great advice in terms of your fitness regime. And you can get a great night's rest.

What is the best career advice you've ever received?

Don't take yourself seriously because no one else will. That points back to my leadership style. I oftentimes tell people my favorite subject is me, and their first reaction is, "That's very egotistic," and "Of course, you're a male, so you must be." And then I explain it to them and say, "No, the reason why it's my favorite subject is because I invest in myself and understand who I am because I strongly believe I can't lead. I can't work on others unless I know myself." And I show to others that I'm vulnerable, and I take feedback and I do something with it. I'm constantly on a journey to be good, but I can always get better. And that's what I ask others to do.

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