Font Size

- Aa +

Sun 15 Apr 2007 12:00 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Room for more

We meet the men in charge of Hilton Hotels' biggest change in over 40 years.

The seat belt signs flash. The captain announces the imminent landing. The bright lights of Abu Dhabi come into full view. Moments later the private jet's wheels touchdown and the two VIP passengers are limousined as fast as legally possible to sign a ground-breaking deal - the first luxury Conrad hotel to be built in the UAE's capital.

Hilton's top brass are exhausted but it's been "so worth it", they say in unison with only 20 minutes to spare in between jetting off to another meeting. "This is our last stop but we have a table booked at Gordon Ramsey's signature Verre restaurant at the Hilton Dubai Creek Hotel with a potential investor... and I'm dying to try the food," say Ian Carter and Matthew Hart, the respective English and American CEO and COOs of Hilton Hotels. "Actually I'm going this Thursday," I add. "Then you'll be able to tell us what you thought then?" says Carter constantly looking for feedback on Hilton's staggering 2900 global properties.

I'm not quite sure how the pair manage to visit all the chain's hotels but they and their senior team do just that, and in the past year have helped Hilton Hotels to top spot on the hospitality ladder.

Until recently Hilton hotels outside the US was styled as Hilton International, while for many years hotels run by the Hilton Group in the US were called Vista International Hotels, while hotels operated by the American arm of Hilton outside the US were named Conrad Hotels. Confused? You should be. The Vista chain has since been phased out, while Conrad has now been restyled as one of the company's luxury brands - with several planned for the GCC market - alongside The Waldorf Astoria Collection, and operates hotels within the US, as well as abroad. To minimise consumer confusion, or so the company claims, the US and British Hilton companies have, for the last few years, had a joint marketing agreement under which they share the same logos, promote each other's brands and maintain joint reservation systems.

This all changed, however, when three days before the strike of midnight rung in 2006, Hilton Hotels Corporation agreed to re-acquire Hilton International along with its Conrad and Scandic Hotels and LivingWell Health Clubs affiliates from British-based Hilton Group for US$5.71bn - the first time the two groups had been brought together since its international operations were separated in 1964.

Hilton Group then re-assumed the name Ladbroke Group and Hilton Hotels became the world's largest hotelier surpassing Intercontinental Hotels.

"At last things could get moving", says Carter who joined 10 months prior to the 43-year reunion on February 1, 2005. Carter, however, joined under the international brand.

"That's all behind me, things are really starting to get going now," he adds excitedly.

"There is a big, big opportunity for us here. One year ago Hilton US bought Hilton International, we had been separated for over 40 years. We have a whole stable of new brands that haven't been in the marketplace here that we are hoping to bring over to the Middle East. These brands will include Hilton Garden Inn (there are 300 in the US already), Hampton Inn and Doubletree by Hilton. We're going to roll these out in great size."

Formerly president of Black and Decker Corporation, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia, Carter has extensive international management and marketing experience including a solid 11 years with General Electric. This, however, is his and Hart's biggest challenge - to expand the 88 year-old empire and its world famous brand name to unprecedented growth levels.

Barely has the ink dried on the Conrad Abu Dhabi contract than they both tell me that the group aims to double its 34-hotel presence in the region in the next five years with its mid-range three-star properties also set to make their debut in the near future. "I'll be sorely disappointed if we don't reach that target," says Carter. That's a lot of hotels for an area where tourism levels have been disputed, I think to myself, but after hearing the figures Carter tells me over the next five minutes, my doubts soon evaporate.

Hotels in Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, Qatar, two properties in Jumeirah in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi are already taking shape, but it is the global picture that takes your breath away.

Hart and Carter are fresh from having signed some major deals in India (75 hotels) and China (50) but across the world the group has a gigantic 775 hotels in the pipeline, all signed, with projected figures of 1000 hotels being signed internationally by 2017. So much for tourism figures dropping off, I admit to the pair. The hotel business has never been rosier.

Interestingly, in Dubai, the chain has a special hotel project up its well-pressed sleeve and it may, or may not, feature a Ramsey-style signature restaurant within its luxurious four walls, says Carter.

"We've got a site allocated on the Palm Jumeirah, it's on the trunk, and it's going to look fantastic," he says picturing a tall, elegant structure on the unique palm-shaped piece of reclaimed land that is fast taking shape on the Dubai waterfront.

Nevertheless, growth doesn't come without challenges, an aspect of the job Hart says goes with the territory in the frenetically paced world of hotels. The principal test is staff turnover, says Hart, something Hilton broached by setting up its own corporate university in 2002, reducing the number of leavers and encouraging staff to grow and be promoted. "We are dedicated to rewarding ambition and developing our staff's career opportunities. This is a great chance for any team member to self-improve and to accelerate their careers, we have hundreds of courses to choose from."

Judging by the comments by the three regional senior staff sitting around me, however, when staff reach a certain level of seniority, they stay there for the rest of their careers. "I've been here for 25 years", says one. "27 years," says another, "Me? I've been with Hilton 30 years."

A more up-to-date question, however, is how the UAE government's decision to introduce a minimum wage will affect the business in the long-term? Many hospitality groups could see construction costs rise even further and overheads take a huge leap.

"The minimum wage will add costs onto the hotel industry but rightly so. It will affect everyone, not a great deal but it will be the same as in the UK," explains Hart.

"We already pay the right levels but, more importantly it will bring other people into line that aren't already complying. There is a migrant workforce here in the region. The challenges are different but the outcome is the same."

No sooner than Hart has finished his sentence than the duo bid their polite farewells and are whisked away to visit the last remaining destination on their exhausting regional tour.

But surely Verre is cheating? Let's face it though, ironically for two men surrounded by 500,000 hotel rooms in which to rest, they both need a break.

Room with a who? Clearing up the Hilton heritage

1919

Original company founded in by Conrad Hilton.

1954

The Hotels Statler Company acquired for US$111m in what was then the world’s largest real estate transaction.

1964 December 1

Separates its international operations into a separate traded company.

1967

Subsequently, Trans World Corp, the holding company for Trans World Airlines, acquires Hilton International Co.

1986

UAL Corp, the holding company for United Airlines, acquires Hilton International Co from Trans World and changes its name to Allegis Corp as it attempts to re-incarnate itself as a full service travel company encompassing Westin Hotels and Hertz rental cars in addition to Hilton International and United.

1987

The newly renamed UAL Corp sells Hilton International to Ladbroke Group, a British leisure and gambling company, which in May 1999 adopts the new monicker Hilton Group plc. As a result, there have been two separate, fully independent companies operating hotels under the Hilton name.

2005 December 29

Hilton Hotels Corporation agrees to re-acquire Hilton International along with its Conrad Hotels, Scandic Hotels and LivingWell Health Clubs affiliates from British-based Hilton Group US$5.71bn bringing the two groups back together. Hilton Group re-assumes the name Ladbroke Group plc and Hilton Hotels becomes the world’s largest hotelier surpassing Intercontinental Hotels.

2007 March 2

Sweden-based Scandic Hotels sold to leading Nordic private equity company EQT V.

Mapping Hilton’s growth plan

At last month’s ITB travel exhibition in Berlin, Hilton Hotels projected that 1000 hotels would be opened or signed internationally by 2017 — in addition to the 1000 hotels earmarked for the US in the next five years.

The UAE and Qatar were singled out for development because they “represent the fourth most visited region in the world and the second fastest growing GDP behind China”, according to the chain.

Among the announcements were plans for up to 75 Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites by Hilton properties in India in the next seven years and 25 Hilton Garden Inn Hotels in China.

Essam Abouda, Arabian Peninsula vice president for Hilton Hotels, said that brand expansion in the Middle East would occur through three brands new to the region: Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton Inn and Doubletree by Hilton.

With more signings and announcements expected before the Arabian Travel Market in May,
Arabian Business

takes a look at some of Hilton’s plans.

Hilton Aqaba, Jordan

Hilton will add a second property to its portfolio in the Kingdom of Jordan after signing an agreement with Aqaba Gate for Hotels and Tourism Projects to manage the Hilton Aqaba. The 346-room property, scheduled to open in the first half of 2010, will be complemented by the 590-room Hilton Amman — Jordan Gate, scheduled to open in two years in 2009.

Hilton Olympia, Kuwait

Due to open in the second half of 2008, the 200-room Hilton Olympia Kuwait is part of a landmark development housing the new Olympic Council of Asia’s headquarters. Hilton will occupy one of the two towers on the large site, with each room providing 45 square metres of space. Another 70 apartments are also included in the property.

Hilton Luxor Resort and Spa, Egypt

Scheduled to open by the fourth quarter this year, the Hilton Luxor will include Luxor’s first spa that will be accessible via a separate entrance, and will include a dedicated lounge, sun deck and a pool.

Hilton Doha

Once open in mid-2008, the five-star Hilton Doha will be Hilton’s first entry into the Qatar market. With many of the 324 rooms offering a sea view from the 20-storey guest room tower, the property also includes a dedicated conference wing, a ballroom, gym, health club and swimming pool.

Hilton Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dubai

Owned by AA Almoosa Enterprises and managed by Hilton Hotels’ International Operations, the Hilton Jumeirah Beach Residence is the company’s first residential offering in Dubai. Scheduled to open in January 2008, the 371-room residence will be linked with a bridge to the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort, and include restaurants and a health club.

Hilton Jumeirah Beach Club, Dubai

Set to open in August 2008 the 40 cabanas of the Hilton Jumeirah Beach Club are situated along the beach near the Hilton Dubai Jumeirah Resort, the property will include seven food and beverage outlets, a fully equipped gymnasium, three swimming pools, squash courts, beach volleyball court, a Turkish bath and a spa. The company’s other beach clubs are in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah.

Conrad Dubai

Adding to Sheikh Zayed Road’s multiple hotel offerings will be the Conrad Dubai, set to open late 2009. The five-star, 405-room property will include three restaurants, two ballrooms, 14 meeting rooms, an extensive spa, and a large swimming pool.

For all the latest banking and finance news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.