By James Bennett
The driving forces behind the world-famous Hilton brand reveal the company's vision for the hotel and property sector in the Middle East.
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 in Gordon Ramsey's signature Verre restaurant in 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 say. "Then you'll be able to tell 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 their time and visit all the chain's hotels but they and their senior team do just that, and in the past year have led Hilton Hotels into 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 signalled 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 infamous brand name to unprecedented levels.
Barely had the ink dried on the Conrad Abu Dhabi contract than they both told me that the group aimed 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 was to tell me over the next five minutes, my doubts soon evaporated.
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 comes 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 will the UAE government's decision to introduce a minimum wage 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. I 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 their last remaining destination on an exhausting regional tour, but surely Verre is cheating? Let's face it though, ironically for the two gentlemen surrounded by 500,000 hotel rooms in which to rest, they both need a break.
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 site, with each room providing 45 sq m space. Another 70 apartments are also included in the property.
Hilton Aqaba, Jordan
Hilton will add a second property to its portfolio in Jordan after signing an agreement with Aqaba Gate for Hotels and Tourism Projects LLC 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 2009.
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.
Hilton Luxor Resort and Spa, Egypt
Scheduled to open by the fourth quarter this year, the Hilton Luxor will include Luxor's first spa. The spa will be accessible via a separate entrance, and will include a dedicated lounge, sun deck, comprehensive recreation facilities and a pool.
Once open in mid-2008, the five-star Hilton Doha will be Hilton International's first entry into the Qatar market. With many of the 324 rooms offering a sea view from the 20-storey guestroom tower, the property also includes a dedicated conference wing with meeting rooms and a ballroom, a gym and health club and swimming pool.
Set to open in August 2008 the 40 cabanas of the Hilton Jumeirah Beach Club were developed after an agreement was signed between Hilton and Dubai Properties. 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.