Inside Hilton’s Quest to Become the Most Valuable Brand in Lodging

This is particularly true with Curio, which in large part is about getting high-quality unique assets into the system that don’t fit in the traditional brand box but that our customers have told us they want. Owners want this because they can drive significant market share as part of our system.

Now, Canopy is really about doing something very different in lifestyle and making it more accessible. Canopy will be more organic and friendly and will relate to its local environment in a way that’s natural. It’ll be less dark and brooding and more high energy and approachable, in both the feel and the price. We believe that by being at the upper end of the upper-upscale price point we’ll be able to serve more customers and build a brand that’s much bigger than what we’ve seen others do.

Unlike Curio, which will be almost all conversions of existing products, Canopy will be a mix of conversions and new builds. At this point, we have 11 deals done, with another 15 to 20 in discussion. We’re going to get to scale quickly, and we’re going to do it with a product that really is a wonderful blend of local relevance and a global connection.

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CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THE MOBILE CHECK-IN AND STRAIGHT-TO-ROOM INITIATIVES HILTON IS ROLLING OUT? Right now, I can check in for tomorrow night. I just saw it pop up on my screen, and that’s just the start. What we’re doing isn’t just e-check-in. We’re allowing guests to pick their room before they arrive, and starting next year, we’ll be rolling out the straight-to-room functionality. When we were a private company, we made a massive investment in our systems. We invested over a half a billion dollars in rebuilding and connecting property management, reservation, and financial systems. We had different systems that weren’t interconnected, and investing to rebuild our base infrastructure has allowed us to roll out this major innovation.

If you think about it, the hotel business has not been the most innovative industry. This is real innovation. I want to give customers more choice and control.

PUSHING THIS KIND OF STUFF OUT TO OWNERS IS ALWAYS THE TRICKY PART, RIGHT? We had our global owners meeting recently, and our owners were very supportive. They love it because they know customers want it, and the rollout isn’t particularly expensive or time intensive to implement. They can also see that the technology is very secure.

SWITCHING GEARS, COULD YOU TALK TO ME ABOUT THE IMMERSION PROGRAM YOU PUT IN PLACE AT HILTON A WHILE BACK? When I created the immersion program and kicked it off by doing a week of service at the property level, it had a twofold purpose. First, I wanted our senior team to really understand what it takes to deliver for our customers on the front line. There are a lot of people who grew up in the hotel business like I did, but it might have been decades since they worked in a hotel, and we also had hired some executives who were new to the industry. Second, the immersion program helped us deal with the separation between corporate and the field. It helped break down barriers. The immersion was a simple mechanism to get everyone connected.

And while it worked amazingly well, it’s also been in concert with many other things we’ve done to reinforce this connection. One of the biggest ways was improving our communication throughout the company. I communicate nearly every day and lead global town hall meetings, and we have a host of other methods that we’ve established for our leadership to connect with team members. We want our people to feel like they’re part of something bigger. That said, no matter how hard you try and no matter what tools you use, it’s really hard to connect with everyone because the maximum impact comes from shaking a hand and looking somebody in the eye.

WAS YOUR FIRST HOTEL JOB IN THE D.C. AREA? It was at the Capital Holiday Inn on 4th and C Street.

DID YOU COME IN AT THE FRONT DESK? I was the most junior person in engineering, and a lot of what I did involved a plunger. I did it for a couple of summers. My dad told me that if I was interested in getting into the business, I had to start at the lowest levels. Just getting behind the walls and figuring out how things tick taught me a lot about the back-of-house ecosystem. I did it before I went to UVA and while I was there getting a finance degree.

When I graduated, my first job was the assistant project manager of the Willard Hotel Complex redevelopment project on Pennsylvania Avenue. I worked in the real estate development business, focusing on hotels, office buildings, and retail. When I left and opened my own private equity shop, I again did lots of different things: apartments, buying defaulted debt, office buildings, and hotels. From the time I was a kid, I kept coming back to hotels. Then I finally said, it’s not worth fighting it, hospitality is the place for me.

I really enjoy the hotel business because I like people and it’s a very hospitable place to be. It’s fun in that regard, but it’s also massively intellectually stimulating because, unlike a lot of other businesses, ours is a microcosm of every business. We’re a development business, we’re an operating business, we’re an online business, we’re a branding business, we’re an accounting business, we’re a legal business, and I can go on.

To make all this work and drive $30-plus billion in revenue a year from this system of ours is a complex equation. That’s not to say other things in my career didn’t stimulate me, just not like hotels. I think there’s no limit to the opportunity to do things differently and better in this business. As soon as you finish figuring out one thing, you move on to the next.