Josh Jacobs Design

Holiday Inn Express Smart Guide

A detailed account of the development of the Holiday Inn Express Smart Guide, a vessel for the new brand VisID to reach the hotel and email channels.


Holiday Inn Express® Smart Guide

Problem: A new VisID for Holiday Inn Express was coming in hot, accompanied by a new set of core programs being re-tooled at the hotel level

Solution: Develop a marketing campaign consisting of pre-stay emails containing a heavily branded "Smart Guide" featuring hotel essentials and other relevant information



The Maiden Voyage

In April of 2016, had you landed on, you probably would've been greeted by the idiotic face of Rob Riggle. Riggle is an American comedian slash actor slash "creative director" for Holiday Inn Express. See screenshot for examples of Rob Riggle being a goon.

Needless to say, this high-profile brand of 200,000+ rooms (easily the largest in IHG's Portfolio) was due for a maturity boost. May 2016 served as the launch-point for this rebrand, a considerable effort whose roadmap spanned from 2016 to the tail end of 2018. The wheels were in motion, and the brand (the vehicle, in this metaphor) was rolling forward quickly. 

In order to bring the new identity into the light, the brand team brought me on to help develop a multi-level campaign. The pilot program was devised to launch in September 2016 in two hotels in Greater China. Consisting of targeted pre-stay emails, informational PDFs & in-hotel digital signage, the goal was primarily to introduce members to a slew of new programs, called "Experiential Moments", being rolled out alongside with the new brand. But, with the brand being as shiny and new as it was, it would take a considerable amount of platform knowledge and some damn good problem-solving to get this ship off the ground. Take a look at some of the steps it took to get this ball rolling:


Tiptoeing, hard

The brand guidelines PDF was a 157 page document of pure hell. Everything was thought out, mulled over, and carefully considered for every situation, and that's the way brand guidelines should be. Still, treading lightly became a huge part of this creative process, with ever pixel meticulously combed over for detail.

The first set of comps I made (below) were based heavily on our current pre-stay HTML emails. Because 100% of the text was live, I decided to use Tahoma instead of brand font Amsi Pro for accessibility. This was the first big point of contention; as a brand platform, this email had to feature brand colors, fonts, lineart, and imagery. As such, I formed a compromise: headers would be sliced out, colorful and in Amsi Pro, while the body copy that had to be customizable would stay Tahoma.

version city

Another big point of friction was in the content of the email. Originally, I included all the content of a traditional pre-stay email; reservation details, hotel information, trip extra, et cetera. These sections would come and go throughout the versioning, as higher-ups debated their value. Ultimately all these slots would be stripped, save for reservation details, easily the most critical of pre-stay information. All other space was to be dedicated as a visual brand manifesto.

In this mindset, another thing that became a discussion was the use of imagery and lineart. Lifestyle photography dictated a large part of the brand's tone, however in the later versions we endeavored to be rid of it altogether, partly to be more on brand, but also mainly because imagery just takes up so much space, and no matter where we stuck it, it ultimately ended up pushing critical pieces further down the page, something that the stakeholders just weren't having. Ultimately, I switched over to a lineart for a more branded, visually sparing experience. 


Then there was the smart guide. This information-laden chronicle featured maps, iconography, and stay related information designed primarily to help guests have a more rounded hotel experience. But during production of these assets, they way we envisioned users interacting with these guides shifted. Originally pitched as a microsite experience with clickable links, the project transformed halfway through to be more print and display forward. While still clickable, the CTAs for action for addresses and phone numbers in the guide were removed. Instead of being coded, a PDF format was established for easier deliverability. I developed additional supplementary icons for hotel features such as in-room refrigerators and fresh towels. It was a wonderful transition from full digital to a sort of hybrid.


Delivered in English and Chinese, in PDF format for web viewing and 4:3/16:9 aspect ratios for in-hotel display, the final smart guides and email together were a bit informationally heavy. The saving grace, surprisingly enough, was the plasticity that the new identity afforded me, separating the information overload into highly digestible segments. Providing an actual experience, instead of just beating users over the head with content.

Pre-Stay Email Versions, English

Smart Guide, Gongkang, English

Smart Guide, Gongkang, Chinese


When the folks at Holiday Inn Express handed me a pancake with my very own face on it, I knew I had finally made it. Then, I grabbed a knife and fork, and tucked into my face. And I’m happy to report: I’m delicious.
— Rob Riggle, Creative Director, Holiday Inn Express