Hilton’s Kurt Smith Talks Innovation

Kurt Smith and his product quality and innovation team at Hilton Worldwide play with ideas on a daily basis. As the vice president of PQI for the company’s focused-service brands, Smith oversees a 10-person team that develops and implements new products, service standards, and practices that strengthen the long-term vitality and global growth of Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites, and Home2 Suites.

Thanks to the PQI team, coffee-loving Hilton Garden Inn guests can start the day off right now that the brand’s more than 73,000 guestrooms in the United States and Canada have Keurig single-cup brewing systems and a selection of K-Cups. The recent upgrade is just one facet of a larger brand-wide initiative called Flourish, which also includes a lobby renovation program that’s being deployed across all hotels. The team looks at everything from new products that will wow guests to ways they can help owners drive incremental revenue or save costs. Smith admits his job is pretty cool. Here’s why.

Lodging: Take us behind the scenes of your department. What’s a typical day like?

Kurt Smith: The good news about what we do, particularly on the innovation side, is there’s not a typical “day in the life.” Every day seems to be a little bit different. What we’re tasked with is making sure we keep all four of our focused-service brands fresh and relevant for travelers from a product standpoint. Knowing that the [employees] in our hotels are a huge part of our success, we just need to give them the tools, the resources, and a great stage to perform on and deliver our brand expectations and guest expectations. It’s a little tricky because it seems like guest demands, needs, and wants change daily. Keeping up with and ahead of folks is a little bit of a challenge.


Lodging: What types of creative minds do you have on your team?

Smith: From a background standpoint, we have folks with a broad range of experience that includes hotel operations, marketing, innovation, training, quality assurance, development, and design. We also have a broad range of personalities. We have some very linear thinking people that help us from a planning, project tracking, budgeting, and financing standpoint. And we have some people that are very creative that come up with some really out-of-the-box ideas and help us get those executed. We also have a few contractors that help out, and we work with about a dozen outside agencies that help us think through, develop, and design things.

Lodging: How does the innovation process start?

Smith: The cool thing about product innovation is we get to play in a lot of different areas, and we get to do a lot of cool stuff. Our inspiration and ideas can come from a lot of different places. Quite often they come from our brand managers, who have an idea they would like us to explore. Sometimes we do focus groups with guests and every once in a while there’s this golden nugget—something we hadn’t thought of that’s a really cool idea—and we’ll take that and run with it. Other times it might be something we see in a different industry, or it can come from themes or trends we see when reading and digesting our guest research.

Lodging: What happens after you come up with an idea?

Smith: We do have a process we go through that includes research and ideation and testing and all those key components. Sometimes it pans out and it’s a great new initiative that we launch out to the field, and sometimes we conduct our due diligence and realize it’s just not going to work.

Lodging: What trends drive the different initiatives for each brand?

Smith: Trendy doesn’t have a long lifespan, and trendy gets expensive for our franchisees. When we look at innovation, we try to focus on hard trends that we think are going to be around for quite a while, so when we ask our franchisees to invest they feel like they’re making a comfortable investment that will satisfy their guests. One of the things we jumped on with all of our brands a few years ago, starting with Hampton, was white bedding. I don’t think clean will ever go out of style in hotel rooms. Healthy eating is another trend, and we don’t think that’s going to change. There are always going to be people out there who want to eat healthier, so we’re moving in a direction to make sure we can accommodate various healthy eating needs.

Lodging: What other innovations can we expect to see come out of Hilton Garden Inn’s brand-wide initiative Flourish?

Smith: We’re working on things in the guestroom right now, and we’re continuing to work on different aspects of food and beverage, so there are more things that will be coming down the road that we feel will keep the brand fresh and relevant for the next 20 years or so. We leverage synergies and make sure if we have a team working on the guestroom that they’re not out of sync with the team that’s working on the lobby or the people who are working on food and beverage. We also try to leverage synergies across the brands where we can while still maintaining brand differentiation.

Lodging: It must be fun to build something from scratch and see it come to life.

Smith: I think we come up with some really cool stuff that makes a better experience for our guests and makes a better value for our owners as well. One of the most fulfilling things about our job is to take a blank piece of paper and then see our idea come to life and somebody using it the way it was designed to be used.

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