Alan Watts, Asia-Pacific president of Hilton, the iconic hotel brand which turns 100 this month, is bullish on India. New Zealand-born Watts joined Hilton in January 2018 after a 20-year stint with IHG, where he was chief operating officer for Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Singapore-based Watts is tasked with positioning Hilton’s portfolio of brands as best in class and improving its market share in the Asia-Pacific region. He tells Fortune India he cannot afford to miss the India growth story opportunity this time around. Edited excerpts from an interview:
When a batsman scores a century in cricket, it is time to celebrate. How is Hilton celebrating this historic landmark?
The fact that Hilton is doing today what we set out to do 100 years ago is just incredible. There are companies that have been around for 100 years but many of them have become conglomerates. Hilton started off as a pure hotel company. A hundred years later, 5,600 hotels, 400,000 employees, or the three billion guests served with the same intent that started with Conrad Hilton’s original plan. It’s our responsibility to share the light and warmth of hospitality with the planet till today. We still talk the same language as Conrad Hilton did. You’re not just a general manager, you are sharing hospitality with the planet and that’s such an important thing. Just think of a world where there will be no apprenticeships anymore. We’re an industry where you can start washing pots in the morning and then 20 years later you become the general manager of a $300-million asset in any part of the world. Most of our general managers came through the ranks.
Hilton is known for many firsts. Can you cite some examples?
Hilton was the first to put TVs in the guest rooms. We also introduced air-conditioning, mini bars, room service... In product innovation, the group invented piña colada [at the Caribe Hilton] and made the first red velvet cake [at the Waldorf Astoria].
Can you spell out some of the major milestones in this 100-year journey?
We opened hotels in new territories, and by taking care of the community we really make a difference. So, we built the Conrad in the Maldives using wood so that it [concrete] did not leech into the sea, which kills marine life. We wouldn’t dream of doing anything that would increase our carbon footprint. We’re the first company to combine our loyalty programme with a point slider, which means after one stay, you can go on to your Hilton and combine it with cash to redeem every night instead of having to stay 30 or 40 times. We’re doing innovations, something called casting. If you have a Netflix account and had been watching some programme on your phone, you can walk into a Hilton room and continue watching it on the TV there. We will continue to be an organic hospitality company. Our brands mean something. We haven’t acquired to get bigger. We’ve gone hotel by hotel, brand by brand, best in class on our returns, award-winning customer experience, and award-winning team environment. It’s that reputation that gets us another hotel and another hotel. And when we look back with the family on the last 100 years— that’s grown from a family-owned, operated hotel to 400,000 employees—it is a phenomenal story.
What is your India story?
In India at the moment we are smaller than the competition. In the scheme of things, Hilton has missed one cycle in India. The cycle is coming up again, so it gives us our opportunity to grow. And so, we’ll attack India with the same passion and intention that we have in every other market in the world. In the last cycle, we did an exclusive deal with real estate builder DLF for 100 hotels just as Lehman Brothers collapsed. So we made a strategic error. It’s only now that in the second upcycle that we have pressed the reset button under [new India country head] Navjit Ahluwalia’s leadership. We have 19 hotels and another 17 under construction and we’ve just invested in a new office, new leadership, and new national sales team. So we won’t miss the cycle this time.
What are your future plans?
I would like us to fill key city gaps... we’ve got unfulfilled demand in key cities of India. So, that’s what I would like to see: a signature Hilton, a second one in Mumbai, and a Hilton in Delhi. I think there is opportunity to deploy our most luxurious brand. There is an opportunity to deploy a Waldorf Astoria in the market. I would like to see the Conrad brand following on from Bengaluru and Pune in the major markets. We are also looking at existing sites that are stuck in arbitration, that are 80-90% done.
What will it take for the sector to grow?
This sector needs a reputation of stable returns. It needs a reputation about owners making money. So, when I look at a market, I look at what is the revenue potential for each of my brands and what is the build cost of the asset and the land cost, what is the date structure [schedule] and what’s going to create the base returns.
This interview was originally published in the June, 2019 edition of the magazine.