‘Our priority is to rejuvenate Hilton’

Jacobus Klein, president of Hilton International Middle East and Asia Pacific, spells out the luxury brand’s plans

In recognition of this region’s untapped potential, Hilton International’s strategy is to have a presence in every major city in the Middle East.

To that end, the company has opened five new hotels opened on the Arabian Peninsula alone over the past five years and will now utilise the strong hotel brands in its portfolio to further broaden its offering to the region and expand its market share,  says Jacobus Klein, president of Hilton International Middle East and Asia Pacific (MEAP), in an interview with TTN. Excerpts:

The industry’s post 9-11 rebound has been attributed to the growth of budget tourism. How far is this true and how would it affect luxury brands like yours?
There will always be a market for people who want luxury, recognition, and first-class service and who will pay a premium to take the hassle out of a journey or a business trip. Our core Hilton hotels, and our luxury level, Conrad, are appropriately targeted to this type of traveller. With a changing world economy, the expansion of travellers in the upper middle class demographic group in China, UAE and India will continue, driving a need for those who want to experience top-level service.
What factors determine the guest’s experience of a hotel? Hotel architecture, food, service, beds – what are Hilton’s watchwords?
A great location, comfort, cleanliness, price competitiveness, loyalty incentives and consistency are the basics every hotel must offer. Hilton’s brand promise, Equilibrium, is “to put back a little of what life takes out.” Consistency, Hassle-Free, Personal Recognition and Inspirational Hilton Moments are the four building blocks that we believe will set us apart from the competition and appeal to the emerging generation of hotel guests.
Are Middle East guests particularly demanding? Do you offer any facilities especially for guests in this region?
According to the 2004 BDRC (Business Development Research Consultants) Middle East Business Guest Survey,  guests in this part of the world place great emphasis on sizeable and comfortable rooms, good value for money, safe, luxurious and relaxing settings, excellent and friendly staff service, consistent quality and standards as well as a wide range of excellent F&B outlets. The Middle East business traveller demands good lounge facilities, business centres, high-speed internet access in-room, as well as efficient and friendly customer service.

Hilton is pretty much on an expansion drive, with 25 new hotels being planned over the next three years? What’s driving this growth?
The MEAP is home to more than two-third of the world’s population and is the world’s fastest-growing region demographically and economically. Businesswise, cities like Dubai, Bangkok, Shanghai and Mumbai are fast becoming hubs for finance, IT and manufacturing. Regardless of the economy, long and short-haul business people will make their way to these cities to be in front of the client. And they need somewhere to stay.
Leisurewise, the movement of holidaymakers to specific markets within MEAP is underwritten by governments who have realised the net benefits of tourism and who are now investing vast sums to support international marketing campaigns.
Much of the expansion will come in the form of the Hilton Worldwide Resort product. It makes good business sense to tap into our core group of loyal business travellers and offer them a different Hilton experience – still with the same Hilton service standards.  Secondly, major inbound markets of the UK and Europe are increasingly interested in the UAE, Egypt and Asia as a resort destination. Hilton already has the highest brand recall of any hotel group in these source markets, so why not use this to our advantage. In recognition of this region’s untapped potential, Hilton has forged ahead with an ongoing underlying strategy to have a presence in every major city in the Middle East. Hilton was the first international hotel brand to enter the UAE over 30 years ago with the Hilton Al Ain.

Part of this expansion has been the rebranding of eight Oberoi properties in India. Where else are you planning to acquire local chains?
The strategic alliance with Oberoi in April 2004 saw seven Trident hotels renamed Trident Hilton and the former Oberoi Towers in Mumbai change its name to the Hilton Towers. Franchise agreements with experienced partners who share our passion for our Hilton brand will initially be driven by our European team.

What are the group’s future plans for the Hilton brand in the region?
Our first priority is to continue to rejuvenate the Hilton portfolio. This includes retiring old properties that no longer meet brand standards, renovating hotels that are located in key destinations and still drawing strong business, and introducing a number of new-generation Hilton hotels including Hilton Worldwide Resorts. Expansion of the portfolio is moving forward with some 25 management agreements in the pipeline. Our second priority is to introduce the Conrad brand in key destinations throughout MEAP.

When can we expect the new Conrad Dubai to be ready?
Late 2007. We are currently commissioning market research in terms of the design and product specification, subsequent to which we will start construction. The Conrad Dubai will cater to both the corporate and leisure market.
How did you come to the hotel business?
My mother comes from a restaurant family and I used to work regularly in my uncle’s restaurant during vacations. I started with dishwashing.

Did you always want to be in hotels?
It was not my childhood dream but when I started familiarising myself with various study options after high school I was very impressed with the Hotel Management School in Maastricht for which I applied and was fortunately accepted. My second choice was law!

What innovations have you been responsible for at the Hilton group?
It’s not necessarily an innovation, but I pushed hard to rejuvenate the brand through retiring old properties (often painful because many were still very profitable) and stepping up development activities to create new and more exciting Hilton hotels.

What personal goals are ahead of you?
I would like to run a full marathon one of these days, and one day I want to ride the whole of Australia on my Harley with my wife.