World's First voco: How We Liked IHG's Newest Upscale Brand
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The InterContinental Hotels Group, better known as IHG, is still best known by travelers for its Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express hotels, but the hotel group has launched a number of new brands in the past few years and has even more on the way.
In 2012, IHG launched both the wellness-focused EVEN Hotels and China-centric Hualuxe brand. It expanded in the boutique-hotel market by acquiring Kimpton in late 2014. Then IHG went even more high-end by acquiring a majority stake in luxury hotel Regent Hotels & Resorts in March 2018 and opening the brand to points redemptions starting January 2019. On the budget side of things, IHG opened the first Avid hotel in Oklahoma City in August 2018.
All of these additions make for a much more crowded list of IHG hotel brands.
Amid all of these acquisitions and new brands, it may have been easy to miss the addition of a short and simple brand name: voco. The brand was announced by IHG in June 2018, along with the brand's first hotel signing. The former Watermark Hotel & Spa on the Gold Coast of Australia ended up opening as the first voco-branded property in November 2018.
A little over a year after the brand launch, there are now six open voco locations: two in Australia (Gold Coast, Hunter Valley), three in the United Kingdom (Solihull, Cardiff, Oxford Thames) and one in Dubai.
Despite the small footprint so far, the brand has big plans. Indeed, earlier this month, voco announced a 4,200-room location in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. When it opens in 2020, this hotel won't just be the largest voco location but one of the largest hotels in the world. And it'll likely more than double the total number of hotel rooms in the voco brand. For reference, the average number of rooms at the first four voco locations is just 300 rooms.
More-modest voco locations are planned for The Hague, Netherlands, and Central Sydney, Australia. In addition, voco materials tease coming locations in Thailand, Egypt and Cyprus, as well as additional locations in Australia.
Curious to check out the brand for ourselves, my wife, Katie, and I visited the world's first voco hotel during our recent visit to Australia. On a long block from the beach at Surfers Paradise -- yes, that's actually the city's name -- the former Watermark Hotel reopened as the voco Gold Coast at the end of 2018.
What can you expect from voco hotels? The brand's motto is "Reliably different." As hotel properties require a long development phase and the brand is just over a year old, all of the voco hotels so far are hotels that converted from another brand rather than being built from scratch as a voco hotel. So the "reliably different" is going to be a necessary truism from property to property.
And voco is leaning into that difference. Rather than having cookie-cutter hotels, voco is designed to be a "new family of hotels [that] are connected by their individual characters." At the voco Gold Coast, part of this individual character involves having beehives on the rooftop. The hotel uses the honey from these beehives in the honey-and-lavender shortbread cookies it gives guests at check-in as well as in its bar's cocktails.
One aspect that will be consistent between voco hotels? Three bird mascots. You'll see these all over the hotel. The voco room keys have a finch holding a key. The "Do Not Disturb" sign on the room door has a sleeping owl, also holding a key.
Inside the room, a bird holds a key on each voco-branded item featuring one of these mascots.
In the elevators, we found a variety of birdisms in written phrases:
Bold, interesting, and up for a party. Flamingos love spending time in pairs, families or larger groups -- making them the perfect mascot for our characterful bars and lounges, where guests can meet, eat, work and play throughout the day.
True to the theme, the Social House Cafe was a bright, cheery and open place to grab a coffee or tea during the day or a cocktail at night.
"Flamingos" could also gather in the large lobby -- which looked both true to its upscale brand and the yellow-and-dark-blue brand coloring.
These three mascots -- the finch, the owl and the flamingo -- demonstrated voco's three different focuses:
While we truly enjoyed the bird theme, it did feel a bit like "Portlandia"'s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein had come through the old Watermark Hotel to "put a bird on it" to turn it into a voco hotel.
Here's voco's "me time" branding promise:
A comfy room is an opportunity to unwind and relax. Our extra-cozy bedding, perfect for long lie ins, luxury Aveda bathroom amenities and rejuvenating aerated showers, fast WIFI and smart TVs create the perfect environment for some ‘me time’.
And voco Gold Coast nailed this description. We found the bed to be soft, yet it provided enough support. Our only complaints were about the thin feather pillows, which seemed commonplace in Australia.
There was a large chair in one corner of the room, a nice place to sit and read a book. Under the flat-screen TV, there was a table with two chairs. Thankfully, they were plenty comfortable to use, as we made this our temporary office for a week.
Coffee, tea, drinking chocolate, mugs, glasses, spoons and a kettle were provided. In a mostly empty minifridge underneath the dry bar, the hotel provided fresh milk -- as is common in Australia and New Zealand.
As part of voco's sustainability efforts, no plastic water bottles were provided. Instead, there were lots of glasses with a note that the tap water was drinkable.
The closet had plenty of storage space and contained a safe, an iron and ironing board, a heavy comforter, a luggage rack and -- strangely for being so far from the bathroom -- the room's hair dryer.
The bathroom was sleek and well-stocked with amenities. The tub was plenty large and proved to be an excellent way for us to relax at night. The plastic-reduction efforts were on display in the bathrooms, as well. Instead of small bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash, the hotel used large, refillable bottles of Aveda amenities.
Combined with ditching plastic water bottles, voco Gold Coast estimates it has reduced its plastic waste by 80% from before these initiatives were put in place as part of the transition to the voco brand.
The voco branding advertises "unstuffy hotels, where people feel comfortable to relax, and just get on with relaxing," and the staff at the voco Gold Coast embodied this mission. Each time we interacted with the front-desk staff, they were both professional and friendly. Perhaps due to my top-tier IHG elite status -- either that or my unforgettable charm -- the staff remembered me from one interaction to another.
They had no complaints or trouble dealing with a curveball I threw their way: extending for one more night by booking a separate reservation. They happily combined the reservations in their system and assigned our current room to the second reservation.
The price for this upscale brand: pretty cheap. For our six-night stay at the voco Gold Coast, we paid a total of AU$1,131, or just about $800 for the total stay or about $133 per night including taxes, fees and breakfast.
Alternatively, we could have redeemed for reward nights at 30,000 points per night, or 150,000 points for the six-night stay, thanks to the fourth-night-free benefit as a IHG Rewards Premier Credit Cardholder. Those 150k points are valued at $750, according to TPG's latest valuations, but we opted for the cash rate, as the rate included breakfast.
Reward nights at the other currently open voco properties are currently pricing at from 12,500 points per night at the St. John's, Solihull, location in the UK (a nonstandard price for the current IHG award chart) to 20,000 points per night for the Kirkton Park, Hunter Valley, in Australia, to 30,000 for the voco Gold Coast (Australia) and 40,000 for the voco Dubai; voco St. David's, Cardiff, in Wales and the voco Oxford Thames. Those are reasonable rates for reward nights, ranging from $63 to $200 per night, based on TPG valuations.
If you happen to need a stay on the Gold Coast of Australia, consider the voco Gold Coast. Hopefully, the same charm, thoughtful touches and practical unstuffiness holds true at all of the other voco locations open now and coming soon.
All photos by the author.