Convening Leaders Preview: Christopher Nassetta

Author: Michelle Russell       

Christopher Nassetta

In 2007, when Christopher Nassetta was tapped as president and CEO of Hilton, the hospitality giant was clearly ripe for a makeover. It was considered an “also-ran in the hotel industry” — profitable, but its brand reputation had slipped, according to an article in The Washington Post. Steering the company forward — during and after the Great Recession — Nassetta focused on global growth, with the goal that any potential customer in the world at any price point could find and afford to stay at a Hilton. But more than anything else, he focused on Hilton’s core strength: the company’s team members — a 350,000-plus global workforce.

When he takes the stage as a featured speaker during a Networking Lunch at Convening Leaders, Nassetta — who previously served as chairman and chief executive of Host Hotels & Resorts — will share what he sees for both Hilton and the hospitality sector in the short and long term.

What is your sense of how the global economy will fare over the next 18 months as it relates to business travel?

There are several macroeconomic challenges that our industry is facing, but overall I’m optimistic about where we’re headed and I truly believe we’re living in a golden age of travel. Chinese outbound travel is exploding, our development pipeline has never been stronger, and technology and other innovations are making it easier for travelers to stay connected from anywhere in the world. From a business and group standpoint, we know there’s no replacement for face-to-face interactions, and our customers are proving this time and again by leaning into this golden age of travel.

What initiatives has Hilton been making to attract today’s business travelers and group business?

As a nearly 100-year-old company with a startup mentality, we’re constantly innovating to ensure we’re delivering the best possible experiences for our guests. One of my favorite examples is our award-winning Hilton Honors mobile app, which gives guests the ability to check in and choose their room at our more than 5,000 hotels worldwide. We also offer Digital Key through our Hilton Honors app, which enables guests to use their smartphone as their room key at more than half of our hotels across the globe — and that number is only continuing to increase. When you think about a day in the life of a business traveler, being able to check in online and go straight to your room can make a big difference, especially at our busier hotels.

Looking ahead, we’re taking this mobile-centric hotel-room approach to a new level with our soon-to-launch Connected Room — a first-of-its-kind, high-tech guest-room concept. Connected Room will be a true game changer, empowering guests to personalize and control every aspect of their stay from the palm of their hand — from streaming their favorite media, to con- trolling temperature and energy usage, and so much more.

On the group side, we’re focused on helping meeting planners create special experiences with the “wow” factor their attendees want, all while ensuring their stays are friction-free. With this in mind, we recently enhanced our “Meet With Purpose” program to inspire meeting professionals to think outside the box when it comes to incorporating health, wellness, and sustainability into meetings. Not only does this offer easy opportunities for Mindful Meeting, Mindful Eating, and Mindful Being throughout a busy day, our research shows it makes meetings more productive and improves attendees’ satisfaction.

What are you most concerned about in terms of the business-events and hospitality industries?

Overall I think the meetings and events industry is as strong as it’s ever been, and the value of face-to-face meetings has never been more apparent. In fact, recent research by the U.S. Travel Association and the Meetings Mean Business Coalition finds that every $1 spent on business travel converts into $10 in new revenue, and that business travelers are twice as likely to convert prospects into customers with an in-person meeting.

We also know that meetings and events have a tremendous positive impact on local businesses and economies, so it’s a win-win-win for everyone involved. That said, it’s vital that as an industry, we continue to work with our hoteliers, business leaders, and meeting planners to create events that are deeply enriching and valuable experiences for attendees.

Where are there opportunities for growth?

We’re seeing a huge opportunity for global growth across all business segments, including meetings and events, and our incredible development story reflects this. In the first three quarters of 2017, we’ve opened nearly 300 hotels, bringing our total to 5,168 hotels open around the world. And many of these openings have been in major growth markets, including Asia-Pacific — and China specifically — as well as Latin America and Africa, where we’ve recently committed to spend $50 million over the next five years through our Hilton Africa Growth Initiative.

Catering to business and group travelers’ customs and preferences is top of mind as we develop new products and services, particularly in high-growth, high-opportunity markets. One great example is our Hilton Huanying program, which helps hotels serve the needs of Chinese travelers with offerings that are designed to help these guests feel at home even when they’re traveling abroad, such as expanded traditional breakfast options, or a dedicated Mandarin-speaking television channel.

Additionally, we’ve recently launched an integrated global Event Planner Bonus Program that leverages our Hilton Honors platform to better support our meeting planners, no matter where they are in the world. From simple point incentives to more flexible redemption opportunities, this new program is designed to add even greater value to the event-planning experience with Hilton.

You are credited with turning Hilton around during very challenging times. What are some lessons you learned during those difficult years?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of having steady hands on the wheel and staying intensely focused on what you want to achieve. During Hilton’s transformation, we did a lot of things to put our company — and our team members around the world — on a clear path forward. That meant aligning our teams around our shared purpose, establishing key strategic priorities that guide everything we do as a company, and embracing our culture of innovation at every level of the organization. All of this has led us to great success over the last decade, even during challenging times, and has helped us in our journey to achieve our ultimate goal: to be the world’s most hospitable company.

You have been recognized as one of the highest-rated CEOs by Glassdoor — the result of anonymous team-member feedback. Much has been said about the dearth of genuine leadership in business as well as government today. What are some non-negotiable approaches you take to leading people that have led to such a high level of employee satisfaction?

At Hilton, we know that our team members are at the heart of all of our success. From our hotels to our corporate offices, they work unbelievably hard every day to spread the light and warmth of hospitality. We believe it’s important to show our team members the same hospitality they send out into the world, by connecting with them in a meaningful way. This is why recognition is such a big part of our culture, and why we take time to celebrate our team’s successes — both big and small — on a daily basis. Our leaders also make a point to travel and meet with our team members face-to-face across the globe, so we can understand what they need to truly thrive in their careers with us. At the end of the day, we’re in a business of people serving people, and that all starts and ends with our team members.