Paul Brown, the president of brands and commercial services at Hilton Worldwide, talks about the hotel chain's ambitious expansion plans and the challenges the industry is facing in the Middle East.
What is Hilton doing to keep up with, and get ahead, of competitors?
International growth is a key element of our overall strategy and it's more important for Hilton than it is for several of our competitors because until five years ago we were prohibited from growing a lot of brands outside of the United States.
Why was that?
Because Hilton International and Hilton US were two separate companies. Some of the brands [such as] Hilton Garden Inn, DoubleTree, Hampton Inn, Waldorf Astoria were brands that we could only do in the United States. When the companies merged … it opened up a huge opportunity for us to take these brands outside the United States. Four years ago, 15 per cent of our rooms under construction were outside the United States; today 80 per cent of our rooms under construction are outside the United States.
What are the biggest challenges you face in the hotel industry?
Guest expectations are changing constantly. Just staying up with and hopefully one step ahead of what customers are expecting across 3,800 hotels in 88 countries is a challenge. In fact, that challenge becomes a greater and the larger and larger we get. Then, there are always events happening in certain markets that we have to make sure we overcome. There are always things happening in the macroeconomic environment that we have to make sure we [cope with]. That's just part of being a very big, very distributed, very complex company.
In the Middle East many people still seem reluctant to make hotel bookings online. Have you noticed growth in that area in the region?
There's certainly a lower percentage of total bookings that we see coming through online channels in this region of the world than you would see in the United States, or Europe and even, in some cases, parts of Asia. That is changing rapidly. If we look at the growth rates, the percentages are at the same rate, if not higher in the Middle East, so it shows signs of catching up.
What are you doing to encourage more online bookings in the region?
Part of it is making sure that the websites are also in the local language and support local currency, which is one of the reasons we're making the investments in our infrastructure. For instance, we will have our websites available in Arabic within the next 12 to 14 months. When we launch it, it won't be just the hotels in this region that will be translated into Arabic, but every single hotel in the world that we offer will also be in Arabic. It's a huge investment.