Global Head of Luxury and Lifestyle BrandsHilton Hotels Worldwide
Following the infamous AIG brouhaha, the luxury hotel business has regained its upward trajectory. Hilton Hotels Worldwide has been among the leaders in that growth, and with 11 openings for its Waldorf Astoria and Conrad brands in 2012, the future is busy and bright. On the eve of the much-awaited Conrad New York opening, Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan caught up with Hilton’s Luxury Head John Vanderslice for a preview of the busy road ahead and some new twists on customer service.
ET: Are you making the progress you had anticipated?
John Vanderslice: The update is we are ahead of where we thought we were going to be. Our vision is to be the fastest growing, most innovative luxury brand, and we are achieving that. When Blackstone bought Hilton there were five Waldorf Astoria hotels and today there are 23 with 13 more under construction. Conrad just opened its 19th with the Conrad New York and there are 17 more on the way. We have 11 openings in one year, and that is a lot at the luxury level.
ET: Can you give us some highlights?
John Vanderslice: The Elysian became the Waldorf Astoria Chicago. We worked with Sam Zell’s team. It’s a terrific product with 188 keys, terrific food and beverage, and a city like Chicago should have a Waldorf Astoria. In September, we open The Caledonian Waldorf Astoria in Edinburgh. It is a total revamp. The Waldorf Astoria Berlin is a new build with a Pierre Gagnaire restaurant. In Panama, to use a hockey expression, we’re skating where the puck is going, and opening a phenomenal 248-room Waldorf Astoria Panama this summer.
ET: How about on the Conrad side?
John Vanderslice: The Conrad Macao opens April 17. It is our largest Conrad yet, and is in partnership with the Las Vegas Sands. August brings Conrad Algarve, and if you talk to golfers who know, they will tell you the area has the best golf in the world and is the coolest area of Portugal. In September we have Conrad Dubai at 559 rooms with a prime business district location. The same month Conrad Beijing opens. We think the Chinese restaurant will be the top venue in the city. There is a feature of three wine walls surrounding you while you dine. Conrad Seoul will have 446 keys, and is in a new business district. In Korea, you find that the top hotels have private membership health clubs, so the health club is truly amazing. If you lived in Seoul and wanted to join, the cost would be about $50,000, and of course it’s for hotel guests to use. There is also a restaurant at the top floor. We also recently opened the Conrad Koh Samui featuring one-and two-bedroom villas, each with its own private terraces and pools.
ET: Are there any significant openings in 2013?
John Vanderslice: They are all important, but as a highlight, the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem is notable. Also significant is the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, opening in 2014, which comprises a series of historic houses that are being combined.
ET: How big are the growth opportunities for Waldorf Astoria and Conrad?
John Vanderslice: There’s no reason why both of these brands can’t be the same size as Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, which are in the 80s (number of open hotels) heading to 100.
ET: Are you still planning to move ahead with a new luxury brand as has been rumored?
John Vanderslice: In 2013 we are introducing new urban lifestyle brand, but that’s all we’re saying now.
ET: Is the trend still to have residential real estate as part of luxury hotel development?
John Vanderslice: At one point there wasn’t a luxury hotel built without residences, now it’s much more tactical. It depends on the market and the economics. We are building a lot of hotels in China without residences. If you look at the Algarve, there are residences.
ET: How about the trend to partner with celebrity chefs?
John Vanderslice: Michelin-starred restaurants work in the right places.
ET: Do you see any new trends in luxury hotel services?
John Vanderslice: It’s an asset-heavy category, so you’re going to see technology being used to enhance service. For example, as part of our upcoming service initiative True Waldorf Service, we will offer a personal concierge to each transient guest, who will remain the guest’s main contact before, during and at the end of the stay to guarantee all needs and requests are met. Guests will even be contacted via email by the personal concierge prior to arrival. If we know from their HHonors (our frequent stay program) profile that they are a golfer, we will ask them about arranging tee times and of course transportation from the airport, if they want an upgrade and so on. If they respond to the email, they are met when they arrive and taken to their room, bypassing check in. Departure services, including packing, boxed to-go lunches and home luggage delivery, take the hassle out of returning home or traveling on to the next destination.
ET: Are you doing anything similar on the Conrad side?
John Vanderslice: Conrad is smart luxury. Soon we will be introducing Conrad Concierge, an app guests can download where they can do anything from scheduling restaurant reservations to wake-up calls before they get to the hotel. It is available now at Conrad New York and later this year it will be available at all Conrad hotels.
ET: Are there any other big ideas in the luxury hotel market?
John Vanderslice: If you look to the future of luxury, the trend is towards experiences, so you will see us more and more trying to design the type of experience you talk about when you get home. We’re trying to write that story you will tell everybody when you get back.
ET: What about Conrad New York?
John Vanderslice: Conrad is a sponsor of the Tribeca Film Festival April 18 to 29 in New York—it goes with our positioning as smart luxury and is a perfect way to promote our new hotel. The hotel is all suites and located in Battery Park City adjacent to Hudson River Park. It is convenient to the New York Stock Exchange, Wall Street, City Hall and is minutes from Tribeca, Soho, Greenwich Village and the Meatpacking District, so it’s great for business or leisure. There are great views and there will be a rooftop bar. There is a full traditional barber shop. There’s over 30,000 square feet of event space, and we can accommodate meetings from 10 to 560 and already have groups booked right from the start. When you enter, there is a striking atrium with hanging art that changes color during the day. It’s something you have to see first hand.