As part of the Americas Lodging Investment Summit’s Patron sponsorship program, ALIS asked Hilton EVP and President-Americas Danny Hughes eight timely questions as we prepare for the 20th annual event July 26-28, 2021, at the JW Marriott/Ritz-Carlton Los Angeles L.A. LIVE. Following are his responses.
You have been with Hilton for about 30 years, and it has undergone a few changes during that time. What word best describes those changes, and how does it apply to the Hilton of today?
More than 100 years ago, Hilton was founded by a true visionary who purchased one hotel in Cisco, Texas, and laid the groundwork for a global hospitality company that now spans 6,400 properties in 119 countries and territories. I’ve had the honor of being part of this incredible company’s story for the past 30+ years, and above all else, I would describe us as entrepreneurial – just like our founder, Conrad Hilton.
Over the last year in particular, our adaptive, innovative, and entrepreneurial spirit has really shone through, as each person at Hilton has been challenged to think differently about our industry as a result of the pandemic. We have grown to become more focused and disciplined, more centered than ever on the needs of our guests and owners, and relentlessly committed to driving innovations that will be around for years to come.
The operations of hotels have been dramatically altered by the effects of COVID-19. Are there any silver linings operations wise that will emerge from what transpired during the pandemic?
While the pandemic has unquestionably challenged our industry, it has also offered us the rare opportunity to evaluate where we want to be and the best way to get there. The pandemic accelerated our innovation engine and sped up our work across seven critical areas – evolving hotel design, advancing contactless guest experiences and the merging of digital and physical, doubling down on cleanliness, creating trusted brands, reimaging the meeting and events experience with flexible offerings, and developing exclusive perks for our Hilton Honors members.
In addition to innovating for our guests, we’re also reimagining our operating model so we can ensure it’s working more efficiently and effectively for our owners in the near and long-term. Broadly speaking, our priority is not to return to where we were before the pandemic – rather, we want to build back better and define a new era for travel in the process.
What challenges and opportunities will emerge in the Americas during the next 12 months from a development standpoint?
While the environment remains challenging in the short-term and we are focused first and foremost on driving recovery for our owners, we also have many owners and developers who are ready to grow. In fact, thanks to better-than-expected growth last year, today we have a robust pipeline of nearly 1,550 hotels and 190,000 rooms in the Americas.
We see great opportunities for fast-track conversions, expanding in new or important markets, and strengthening our all-inclusive capabilities. For example, we are bringing Hilton back to Las Vegas in a big way with the openings of Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, Curio Collection by Hilton, and Resorts World Las Vegas, adding nearly 5,000 rooms to our footprint in the market. We are seeing extraordinary growth in the Caribbean and Latin America, where we are particularly excited to open Hilton Cancun, a beautiful new all-inclusive resort, later this year.
What do you see in terms of transactions and investments during the next 12 months?
The financial stresses of the pandemic may lead to different transactions across our industry, including for brands, ownership groups and management companies. At Hilton, we will remain focused on growing organically and creating world-class brands that our guests love.
What should hotel owners be doing now to prepare for the recovery, including the expected rush of U.S. leisure travelers hitting the road this summer.
Many of our guests haven’t been on the road for more than a year, but we know from our research, that 94% of Americans are planning to travel once restrictions lift. The best thing we can do now is spend time listening to what our guests want, anticipating what they will need at our hotels and leaning in on our signature hospitality.
While the new programs we put in place during the pandemic (like Hilton CleanStay and Hilton EventReady with CleanStay) will make guests feel more comfortable in our properties, we also have the awesome responsibility to re-introduce guests to the magic of travel. Travel has a unique way of creating extraordinary memories that last a lifetime, and it’s our job to lead with our hospitality and welcome guests back in a way that reminds them of why these experiences are so special.
What do you view as the most important indicator of when a recovery actually begins?
We have always believed the recovery would be led by leisure travelers – and we are starting to see that demand pick up. While are keeping a close watch on new cases, we believe that the vaccines are creating confidence in travel and generating potential momentum for recovery. We are beginning to see this in bookings and occupancy levels through the end of the year.
Thanks to Hilton EventReady, we have successfully hosted safe hybrid meetings and have seen bookings increase for in-person meetings and events into the latter half of this year and beyond. However, we know we will have turned a corner when we shift from rebooking activity and into arrivals. We are confident that our relationships with our meeting planners and group customers are stronger than ever, and our new safe, flexible, and socially responsible offerings will give customers what they need to meet with confidence.
Your background includes extensive experience in the revenue management side of the business. What’s your advice to hoteliers regarding revenue management as business begins to return?
The biggest piece of advice I would give to hoteliers is to manage to the existing demand strategically, so you can come back bigger and stronger than ever. As part of this, it’s important that hoteliers have confidence to test and learn with rate strategy, knowing it will take everyone some time to adjust to the new normal and any longer-term shifts in demand or booking behavior.
What’s the one takeaway people should know about Danny Hughes?
I am someone who was essentially born into hospitality, starting work at a young age in my parents’ pub and continuing on to many jobs across all aspects of a hotel. My passion for this industry runs deep, and I often say hoteliers have the best jobs in the world.
Over the last year, seeing the tremendous impact of the pandemic on the industry I love so much has been deeply challenging. However, I truly believe we have an opportunity now to return stronger than ever. At Hilton, we were founded with the vision to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality – and we’ve worked hard every day to make the world a better place, by fostering greater connections and understanding. Looking toward the future, our positive impact will only grow as we define a new era for travel for people all across the globe.