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Tue 17 Feb 2009 04:00 AM

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Hilton high

Hilton Hotels vice president of global fitness and spa Keith Burnet explains why the company's spa development strategy must be answerable to owners as well as aligned to each hotel's geography and brand.

Hilton Hotels vice president of global fitness and spa Keith Burnet explains why the company's spa development strategy must be answerable to owners as well as aligned to each hotel's geography and brand.

The next few years are set to be a period of major development for Hilton Hotels' spa operations, with the company's spa supremo Keith Burnet preparing to lead the launch of 120 spas worldwide.

Since joining the company in September 2006 as vice president of fitness and spa, following five years at Hilton-owned LivingWell Health Clubs and eight years at David Lloyd Leisure, Burnet has been promoted to look after the spa business globally.

Our key focus as we go forward will be driving consistency through the operating standards.

"In addition to the 80 spas that are operating, we have 120 that are in the pipeline or under development round the world. Therefore, what's key is creating the appropriate standards and concepts for each one of our hotel brands," says Burnet.

"Whether that means each brand's spas will be called the same thing is up for debate; what we are really focused on is developing the concepts and building them in such a way that they're flexible to location but have really inflexible standards - the sort of concepts that you can take and add modules to and plug them into each brand in different parts of the world."

Following the acquisition by Hilton Hotels Corporation (HHC) of hotel business Hilton International from the UK-based Hilton Group in 2006 and the subsequent all cash buyout of HHC by The Blackstone Group in July 07, Burnet explains that Hilton has been undergoing a process of "transformation" or internal integration.

While this is a lengthy process, it will open up many opportunities and synergies for the ongoing development of the company's spas, says Burnet, who last September was appointed vice president of global fitness and spa; previously his remit didn't include the US. Reporting directly to Hilton Hotels president of global operations Ian Carter, Burnet says this promotion "gives me much more control over our strategic direction related to spas and all our leisure business".

Going it alone

Firstly, the brand partnership announced last May with spa supplier L'Occitane has already been quashed and it seems working with third parties will not be part of the strategy going forward.

Burnet explains: "L'Occitane didn't work out and I think when your strategy involves working with third parties, obviously you're introducing another person to the process. You have to be really aligned and it has to be a true partnership where both parties benefit, but I think ultimately with L'Occitane their vision was different from ours".

Currently, the 80 "pure full service spas in the business", two thirds of which are in Hiltons, have different names, different philosophies and different operations - some are run in-house and some are external.

"By the very nature of spas, wherever they are in the world and whichever property they are in, the reality is that they are all going to be different, so our key focus as we go forward will be about driving consistency through the operating standards and the service standards. There will be less focus certainly on branding.

The objective isn't necessarily to create one brand for the Hilton hotels or one brand for Conrad, so that's probably been the change since I got more control over the direction," says Burnet.He admits that there's a lot of work still to be done, however, particularly where meeting the needs of owners is concerned.

"A really key part of our motivation is giving our owners a solution in the spa space. At the moment, if one of our developers is selling the Hilton brand to an owner and the owner asks for the key selling points to the spa, there is a blank space. The key for me is to fill that blank space and to give our owners confidence that we have the expertise to be able to deliver a concept into his hotel and, if required, actually operate it," says Burnet.

He adds that while the company has some great spas, they haven't necessarily been designed with the hotel in mind.

The slowdown will give time for companies to focus on solving issues associated with a lack of quality resources.

"They've just been kind of ‘plonked' there and they aren't necessarily aligned with the hotel brand or the customers that will attend that hotel, so with any sort of concept that we might create for any of the hotel brands trying to align the two is really key, especially in the different geographical regions."

One brand that is already defined is at the Waldorf=Astoria Collection, Waldorf=Astoria Hotels and the original Waldorf=Astoria, which have a relationship with Guerlain and are operated by Spa Chakra.

"We've just opened a Guerlain Spa in the Waldorf in New York operated by Spa Chakra; it's an amazing spa and certainly for the Waldorf=Astoria Collection that would be an inspiration for future hotels."

Fit philosophy

While no universal spa brand has been defined for Hilton, the approach to its hotels' health and fitness facilities is quite different following a partnership with equipment supplier Precor back in 2007. Burnet is overseeing the rollout of the Fitness by Precor concept in Hilton, Double Tree and Garden Inn brands, with the aim being to offer a turnkey solution for the hotels and a really nice environment for guests to work out in.

"We're still in the middle of rolling out that in all the hotels. We've done more than 500 properties in the US, international rollout is a bit slower, obviously its going into all the new hotels, while the existing hotels are in a kind of timetable which is due for completion by 2012," says Burnet.

Burnet’s business boosting tips for 2009Really focus on the customer - by giving them great service and providing value for money

Invest in service initiatives including more/better training for team members

Re-evaluate your marketing spend with a view to maintaining or increasing the spend and to ensure the best ROI

Get and keep customers though value-add initiatives rather than discounting.

Focus on providing great experiences that are results-orientated

In addition, he says that providing full service health clubs is also an option.

"Where we have opportunities, which do come up quite regularly, where the owner wants more space or there's a market and we're looking to put in a full service health club or gym with membership, then we are still using the LivingWell brand and that primarily is in Hilton hotels," says Burnet.

He says that the UK fitness business performed strongly in 2008, but that 2009 will bring a different challenge due to the credit crunch and effect on consumer spending.

There has been a noticeably higher level of attrition in the last few months as people reduce their disposable income, although generally I expect the hotel health club market to be less affected than other segments of the health and fitness sector," says Burnet.

As well as not foreseeing a loss of custom, despite the fact that Hilton has been advertising room rates at up to a 50% discount in the Middle East this year, Burnet also doesn't envisage a debilitating impact on the extensive spa development plans, which will be the focus going forward.

"Obviously the reduction in available credit has had an effect on the ability of some owners to proceed as planned with hotel/spa development projects.

"However, many owners remain unaffected. Projects due to start in the next year will benefit from lower construction costs. Naturally, there is also sharper focus on the overall ROI and return per square metre, leading to some projects being value engineered accordingly," asserts Burnet.

"The spa development linked to hotel development is slowing down and there is a lower number of standalone spa businesses opening. My view is that generally this is not a bad thing; with the large number of spas opened in certain locations in the last few years there has been a lack of quality resource to operate them. The slowdown will give time for companies to develop strategies to solve this and other key issues.

"Obviously trading is tougher in certain markets - the better operators in the best locations will survive," he concludes.

Newsflash: New boutique hotel brand set to be launched by Hilton HotelsHilton currently operates more than 3000 properties under nine brands, but Burnet revealed exclusively to Leisure Manager that there is a 10th brand in the production line, for which spa will be "quite an integral" component.

"We're working on a boutique lifestyle brand so that would be the 10th brand. It's one of these projects that is under lock and key; I think that they're trying to secure - unlike a lot of hotel chains which launch one hotel - up to 15 locations around the world and once they're secured I guess the hope is the brand and the development of the brand will be complete.

"I assume the thinking is that they'll be able to announce the brand and the locations of the brand at the same time. That means it takes a bit longer but you create more of a splash," says Burnet.

He anticipates that details of the new brand will be announced this year.

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