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'India set to become a key player in the global travel industry': Hilton's Ben George

The senior vice president and commercial director—APAC on how the global hotel chain is doubling its portfolio in India by 2027, and why the country is an important market

Anubhuti Matta
Published: Jul 14, 2023 04:22:18 PM IST
Updated: Jul 17, 2023 04:32:29 PM IST

'India set to become a key player in the global travel industry': Hilton's Ben GeorgeBen George, senior vice president and commercial director-APAC, Hilton. Image: Madhu Kapparath

Global hotel chain, Hilton, is betting big on the Indian market. By 2027, it aims to add 75 properties to its portfolio and strengthen its position in the country’s hospitality market.

In a conversation with Forbes India, Ben George, Hilton’s senior vice president and commercial director for the Asia Pacific region, talks about the industry’s recovery climate, the company’s plans ahead, and whether artificial intelligence (AI) will cut jobs in the hospitality sector.

Edited excerpts:

Q. Can you provide an overview of Hilton's current property count in India and its growth plans for the future?

Currently, Hilton operates 24 hotels in India, and we have 15 properties in the pipeline. Our goal is to double the number of hotels we have in the coming years, with the potential for even further growth. However, we prioritise finding the right partners who share our vision and are willing to invest in building the right product in the right location.

Q. Considering the rapid growth of competitors and Hilton's global expansion, why has there been a lag in Hilton's reach in the Indian market?

It’s true that in India, we don’t have as many hotels as we would like and the pace has been comparatively slower. This can be attributed to several factors. Hilton has been operating in India since the mid-90s, and we made strategic decisions in the past that were impacted by the 2008 financial crisis. The crisis affected our plans for expansion and put us on a different trajectory. We had exclusive agreements with certain partners, which created some constraints. As a result, we had to focus on catching up and making the right decisions to ensure sustainable growth. India is going to be the third-biggest lodging market in the world in the future, so it’s a long game and there's no point rushing. We must make the right decisions with the right partners.

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Q. Hilton has set a goal to expand its portfolio by 2027. Could you shed light on the key marketing and strategic initiatives Hilton plans to implement to achieve this goal?

At the moment, we’re focused on investing more in marketing to increase brand awareness and visibility in India. We have partnered with the advertising agency, TBWA, to identify how we can accelerate what we stand for. People are always talking about the destination or the journey, and we fell into the trap too. When we took a step back, we thought that that was not our business. We’re about people serving people. We can’t control the journey, but we can control the stay and ensure that guests have a memorable one. So one of our first campaigns is called It Matters Where You Stay. We have already launched campaigns in the US and China, and we plan to roll out an Indian narrative later this year. Through these marketing efforts, we intend to drive brand awareness and showcase why choosing Hilton is the preferred option.

Q. Compared to the broader Asia Pacific region, how do you see the Indian market progressing? Are we catching up, and will we eventually match pace with the rest of the world?

The travel patterns observed post-pandemic have shown similarities across various markets, including India. Initially, people opted for local staycations and gradually gained the confidence to travel further.

India, with its large population and growing middle class, holds immense potential as a travel market. As more people in Asia become affluent and travel becomes more accessible, the desire to explore increases.

If we go back 10 to 15 years, hotels in Asia were dependent on business from the West. Nowadays, business within Asia is from Asia. We estimate that around 200 million new Asian travelers are joining the consumer pool each year.

India is experiencing a shift in travel dynamics, with domestic and regional travel playing a more significant role. While the pace of development might vary, I believe India will eventually catch up and become a key player in the global travel industry.

Q. Despite the current economic challenges, how is Hilton's recovery progressing in the Indian market?

Compared to the pre-pandemic period, our revenue per available room (RevPAR) is 20 percent to 25 percent higher than in 2019, a robust year for us. The booking pace is also 50 percent higher than in 2019.

We also saw a strong increase in demand in India driven mainly by weddings and domestic corporate sectors such as retail and banking. Asia Pacific occupancy levels continue to rise, driven by the strength in leisure demand and stronger-than-expected recovery in business and group travel.

While macroeconomics and challenges like inflation exist, we are closely monitoring the situation. We observe that the desire to travel remains strong, with leisure travel rebounding initially, followed by a rise in business meetings and conventions.

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Q. With the rise of AI in the hospitality sector, do you foresee job cuts, and how does Hilton view the role of AI?

Artificial intelligence is an evolving technology that brings efficiency and personalisation to the industry. While AI may lead to changes in certain roles, we do not anticipate significant job cuts. Instead, AI enables us to better understand and meet customer needs. It streamlines processes, allowing us to focus on enhancing guest experiences. For example, AI can assist in recommending tailored travel options based on a guest's preferences and schedule. We view AI as a tool that enhances our capabilities, making our services more efficient and guest-centric.

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