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With Hilton Worldwide’s focus on the young and the super-affluent, and its asset-light strategy (it manages, and not owns, many of its properties), the hospitality major is stepping on the accelerator in India. The debut of its ‘smart luxury’ brand, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, in Pune is a step in that direction.
Hilton has 4,600 hotels in 102 countries. They fall under 13 brands—from high-end luxury ones like Waldorf Astoria and Conrad to the more affordable Tru and DoubleTree. John Vanderslice, Hilton’s global head of luxury and lifestyle, discusses his company’s India roadmap with Forbes India:
Q. What is the vision and growth strategy at Hilton?
Seven years ago, we had a vision to be the fastest growing luxury hotel chain in the world. That was necessary because Hilton’s luxury portfolio came a bit later than some of our competitors. So our first business metric is to be the fastest growing, in terms of new hotels. We have 27 Waldorf Astorias and 10 more under construction, and 25 Conrads with 22 more being built (one will be launched in Bengaluru by 2017). The second goal is to be innovative. I always tell my team that if we manage to do that, the first part will take care of itself.
Q. Is managing properties, instead of owning them, a better business model?
Yes. We do own some hotels, but our business model is to find terrific owners and manage for them. India is a great example of how our model works.
Q. What makes India a lucrative market?
India is a strategic growth market for us. We have 15 hotels at present and 20 more in the pipeline. We are going to more than double our presence here in the next 3-5 years. We have witnessed a lot of growth in major gateway cities and are trying to open hotels there. Moreover, for India, the potential of outbound travel is enormous. Many Indians select our hotels in international destinations, like Taiwan, Dubai, Phuket and so on, for weddings and other occasions.
Q. What prompted you to bring the Conrad brand to India and what differentiates it from Waldorf Astoria?
In Pune, growth has been in double digits. The growth and a large number of high net worth individuals (HNIs) made it a perfect place to launch a cool brand like Conrad. Further, Conrad is in an area we have labelled ‘smart luxury’. For instance, if Waldorf Astoria is a Rolex watch, Conrad will be a Tag [Heuer].
Q. Who is Conrad’s target customer?
Conrad is for the new HNIs. Five to six years ago, during the downturn, everybody knew luxury would come back, but nobody predicted how the customer would change. They are younger, super affluent, more casual and more demanding in service. We positioned Conrad in a way that business and luxury seamlessly intersect.
Q. What are the challenges of operating in India?
Attracting quality talent and then developing and holding onto them is challenging in India because the country is so dynamic.
Q. How do you view the imminent Starwood–Marriott merger?
Luxury is always about the unique experiences of each hotel. While Starwood and Marriott have more brands in that space, we are going to continue creating Conrad Pune experiences around the globe. Luxury is not about mass, it is about specials.