Inside Hilton’s accelerating mission to become the destination of choice in Asia
The hospitality giant ubiquitous in the US has been expanding rapidly across Asia. On a recent trip to India, the man spearheading its commercial operation across APAC, Ben George, told The Drum why there’s still room for growth in the hotel business.
Hilton is launching its global brand platform in Asian markets
With 520 hotels, China is now Hilton’s second-largest market outside the Americas, and overall, Hilton has 647 properties across the Asia Pacific region today. Despite opening in Japan almost 60 years ago, the supercharging of the brand’s Asia Pacific growth is a more recent story. Ben George, its senior vice-president in APAC, boasts of being the region’s fastest-growing hospitality company.
“With 60% of the world’s population based in [Asia], the future is ahead of us when you look at countries like India and China,” George says.
It hasn’t all been plain sailing, however. In India, where local brands like Taj Hotels, Oberoi Hotels, ITC Hotels and The Leela are thriving in the luxury market, Hilton has experienced mixed fortunes.
“We have looked at India for 20 years, and for some reason, things have got in the way,” shares George.
Hilton has been in India since the mid-90s when its first hotel opened in Delhi. Then, in a bid to expand, it entered a joint venture with the leading Indian chain Oberoi Group in 2003. Under the Trident Hilton brand, the collaboration appeared to work well until Hilton decided to partner with the leading Indian real estate player DLF.
Says George: “It seemed the right business decision, but eventually it did not work out, for various reasons.” In a frank admission, he adds: “The DLF deal falling through put us behind the curve, and we had to make individual decisions on properties which in hindsight may not have been the best decisions.” Since then, the brand has been steadily rebuilding its India portfolio.
Of the 22 brands in its stable, Hilton currently operates only five brands in India. “The plan is to double the number of hotels in India,” says George, who adds that this is a conservative estimate. He is confident that Hilton, even with few hotels in the market, is still well-known, thanks to Indian travelers who have regularly been exposed to the brand overseas.
“Now is the time to double down the investment in marketing and partnerships and raise the visibility of the brand,” says George.
As part of this drive, India is getting its first Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the top-line brand in the portfolio, in the Pink City, Jaipur.
An excited George feels “this year there seems to be a pace around the travel and hospitality industry like never before, especially on the back of the pandemic.”
Even though the Hilton mother brand is well-known across the globe, many of its constituent brands are not equally famous – a classic challenge for a portfolio business.
The answer is complicated, admits George, who can’t market all 22 brands equally. Thus, in many scenarios, “we do lean on the mother brand and a lot of our brands carry the name Hilton,” he adds. Globally, Hampton is the bread-and-butter brand in the Hilton portfolio primarily because of the volume of Hampton hotels in the US. Hampton is also its largest brand in China.
Hilton’s loyalty program Honors is renowned as the fastest-growing loyalty program in the hospitality industry. Honors has 170 million members worldwide and 27 million in the Asia Pacific market, per Hilton. “There is a well-planned focus on building the loyalty program with the brand offering some of the ‘money can’t buy programs’ around music, sports, entertainment etc,” George explains.
Hilton is making major investments in innovation, although George uses the word “with a degree of caution.” He says: “We spent a lot of time understanding the potential pain points and how to remove the stress from the travel experience.”
For example, the Honors app lets customers choose rooms based on their 4D maps and layout. Customers can check in 24 hours before their arrival, and in several countries, they can also receive the room key in their app. It reduces the wastage of time and resources, not to mention plastic keys queuing. The ubiquitous smartphone instead becomes the digital key to access the room.
Working with its agency of six years, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, Hilton has been navigating its way out of the pandemic and launched ‘Hilton. For the Stay’ in July 2022, to put hotels back into travel marketing. In George’s opinion, the campaign has a light touch of deprecatory humor and fun – something the category had almost forgotten.
Upon the launch of the brand platform in the US, Mark Weinstein, chief marketing officer, Hilton said: “Today, as we make company history with Hilton’s first brand platform, we’re reminding guests that at the heart of a great trip is a great stay and that it’s just different when that stay is with Hilton. As we enter this next era of travel, it has never been more important to consider where you stay.”
The thought behind the push is a simple realization, says George: "We are a hotel company and our core business is about the stay”. It is a reaction to the hotel itself being relegated in favor of generic virtues about destinations in much of modern travel marketing.
“The hospitality industry has come to a situation where we are marketing the destination or the journey more than our core business - the hotel itself,” he says. The key challenge for the hotel industry is how to differentiate in a sea of sameness.
Hilton launched its first brand campaign to support the platform, ‘It matters where you stay,’ in the Americas. According to George: “It is the biggest investment in marketing the brand has ever made since it was launched more than 100 years back.”
The creative pokes fun at everyday travel travails like asking for connecting rooms and getting one with an alleyway between them. “It is a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the importance of where you stay when you travel and not taking it for granted,” says George.
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After the US, a localized version of ‘It Matters Where You Stay’ rolled out in China in September 2022.
In bringing the company’s first marketing platform to Asia Pacific, Hilton employed a 360-marketing strategy that included out-of-home advertising across Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and other key cities and broad-reaching consumer engagement in television, radio, print and social media.
Next up is the campaign’s Japan launch, scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2023. Like the global rendition, it will also use humor to present authentic localized narratives about the most common yet unspoken travel pain points for Japanese travelers.
Next on the cards would be the India launch of the brand campaign.
“Different markets are often at varying stages of maturity, and the key task and challenge is to catch the right element of tension relevant to the market,” says George.