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Friday, 31 August, 2018, 12 : 13 PM [IST]

‘Hilton has more skin in the game in India than anyone else’

Hilton had effected major revamp of Indian leadership early this year bringing in two experienced hands Navjit Ahluwalia and Jatin Khanna as Country Head and Vice President – Operations respectively. In an interaction P Krishna Kumar finds out from Khanna the significance of the new ‘course correction’ in the company’s India journey….
Q How do you look at the leadership rejig that has been affected by Hilton in India recently?
Rejig is not the right word, I would put it as a course correction. Over the last one year, Hilton’s India strategy has changed dramatically. India is identified as an important market with lot more potential. But at the same time, Hilton has probably the smallest footprint among the international companies in this market. In view of that, the company has decided to put lot more resources closer to the market. As part of that strategy, the company felt the need for leadership with local market knowledge. So it was more of a course correction in that sense rather than a rejig.

Q What are the immediate goals of the new India team of Hilton?
Growing the footprint is one of the priorities for us. However, having worked and seen most of the international brands in India today, I can vouch that Hilton has more skin in the game than any other company. India is identified as one of the key markets and we are putting a lot more resources. We are looking at completely redoing our commercial engines here. The commercial sales force of Hilton in India is as good as any other big international chain here. This shows how deep we want to penetrate into the market.

The focus is to deliver the return to our owners. I can say for sure today that the market will see Hilton growing, going forward, the owner community will have more confidence in us, and we will be able to provide a lot more career opportunities for our team members. To summarise, the objective is to develop Hilton as a force to reckon within India.

With the intention to bring our resources close to the market, we have recently opened a new reservation centre in Jaipur which can take care of four languages, English, Hindi, and Punjabi.

Q What is the current portfolio that Hilton has in India?
We have five brands present in India today with 17 operational hotels. Except for two hotels which are a franchisee of Hilton, the rest are managed by Hilton. We control almost 3,000 rooms in India. We will be opening three more hotels in the next six months – two in Goa (one Double Tree and one Hilton) and one in Gujarat at Ahmedabad (Double Tree by Hilton). We have a couple of more openings in the pipeline next year as well.

By and large, this year has been quite good, we have opened two new hotels in the first quarter of the year. We opened Hilton Garden Inn in Lucknow in January followed up with Conrad in Bengaluru. With three more openings later this year, things are looking up for us.

As far as business partnerships are concerned, we are open to both management and franchise models depending on the opportunity and partners. We have two franchise partners in India – one in Vadodara (Hampton), and another one in Pune (Double Tree). We are pretty much open to the idea of franchising in the mid-market space. We haven’t explored the franchise partnership in the luxury space yet.

Q Considering India has already become a playground of international chains, what challenges you are expecting for expansion?
I don’t want to talk much on the challenges. For us, the biggest game-changer is going to be how do we create differentiators for every stakeholder. Every hotel can be same in terms of room size, crockery, cutlery, etc. However, in terms of technology, Hilton has always been the front-runner.

Whether we talk about digital key check-in, connected rooms, etc. Hilton has invested a lot on guest experience-based technology.

Another area where Hilton is making a difference is how we are providing better career growth for our team members. Hilton, as you are aware, has been voted as Best Places to Work in the Asia Pacific. That is a big certificate for us as far as what our associates and the world around think about us. Our goal for the next 2-3 years is to groom and put internal talent as General Managers at new properties that are coming up. That would necessitate right investment in talent, training and mentoring to make them ready to take up such challenges. For that, we run a number of in-house management programmes in Hilton which brings them to the level we want to. A lot of time, there is a huge gap between the entrylevel Management programme and the GM Elevate programme. At Hilton, we have identified this gap and have structured management programme which makes people grow to next level at all times.

So, what I mean to say is that at Hilton, we are trying to create these differentiators and deliver on them to our owners, team, and to our guests.

Q How is the market scenario shaping up in India after the hiccups of demonetisation, GST, Liquor ban on highways, etc.?
The first quarter has been absolutely great for us. We have grown in double digits. In the Asia Pacific, Hilton had fastest growing RevPAR over everybody. And within India, we are either number one or number two in the market we are operating.

The hotel industry has come out of the short-term blips like demonetisation, GST, etc. Even during the Liquor ban on highways, the good thing was that courts in this country had decided on the issue quickly and the industry got out and moved forward. Overall, today India as a country and economy is better off. And, Indian as a nationality mix is driving the business in most of our hotels, although inbound numbers are also growing steadily. That domestic customer base insulates India from any global financial shocks. This is the golden period of travel in the Asia Pacific and in India too.

Room rates have seen upward movement in key markets like Mumbai, Goa, bangaluru, etc. In some other markets like Lucknow where three new hotels have opened in the last one year, some knee-jerk reactions have happened in rates due to supply imbalance. But overall, brands and operators want to take the rates up and are moving in the right direction.

Q What is your analysis of Hilton’s current footprint in India?
Our India presence is far from satisfaction level. That’s where the whole growth strategy comes in place. We want to see our luxury Conrad brand in key gateway cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad. Similarly, we want to grow our Hilton and Double Tree brand in Tier-II cities. Obviously, depending on a right partner, we would also like to grow Hampton and Hilton Garden Inn in Tier- II and III cities as well. In short, while we want to grow our big brands in key gateway cities, we would explore opportunities for our mid-market brands in Tier-II and III cities. We have 14 brands available in our global portfolio. It is a matter of how we are diversifying our portfolio to have right brands in the right cities.

Q International hotel companies are now mulling introduction of new brands from their global portfolio in India as they are almost saturated with existing brands. What is Hilton’s thinking on the same?
We have not reached that saturation level as far as cities and brands are concerned as of now. However, we won’t shy away from introducing a new brand into the market if the right opportunity comes. We have brands like Curio or a Waldorf Astoria which could be brought to India. Even in the lifestyle space, we have ‘tru’. We have the broad spectrum of brands starting from luxury brands to millennial brands. It’s a matter of finding the right opportunity and right partner

As far as new hotels are concerned, our strategy is twopronged. One is to establish big hotels in gateway cities and two to look for mid-market brands in the smaller cities of India.

Q As an operations head, how grave do you feel is the talent crunch in the industry?
Yes, there is a huge talent gap in the market, especially in the mid-management and above. Developing economies do face such problems at some point of time. The good thing is that people have started looking at hotel as career options than just job option. So what hotels and hotel companies need to do is mapping the career aspirations of these people and design training, promotions, etc., accordingly. Companies like Hilton with more than 5,300 hotels globally can facilitate that kind of career movement for candidates who are talented and aspirational.
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