Hotelier of the week: Rob Palleschi

ABTN speaks to Rob Palleschi, global head of DoubleTree by Hilton Hotels, about worldwide expansion and those chocolate cookies…

DoubleTree by Hilton Hotels this year opened its 250th property and is now in 18 countries across five continents with 65,000 rooms worldwide.

You seem to be expanding the Doubletree brand very quickly at the moment…

Yes. We opened over 50 hotels in 2009 and 2010 and this year we have 44 hotels scheduled to open and that does not work any opportunities we are currently working on that we believe that we could open this year [but have not been confirmed].

To developers, what’s the attraction of a Doubletree by Hilton as opposed to a Hilton or another brand?

Developers like the flexibility we have from a property perspective. We are celebrating the diversity of product that we offer for our consumers. We are accepting of conversion hotels as well as new build, and for a brand like Hilton that’s more difficult because there room product is more consistent and they have meeting requirements that they expect and their group customers expect. Our hotels are more flexible in what we can accept. [It means] developers can go to someone who has an existing property and talk about getting the benefits of the Hilton Worldwide infrastructure yet even for a unique property. They may have a hotel product that hasn’t performed as they think that it could, either as an independent or as a competing hotel brand, and Doubletree works for them.

What proportion are expansions or conversions?

Globally we’re looking at 65% conversions versus new builds. New builds are China, India, to a lesser degree in the US and Europe. We are confident that throughout Europe there is tremendous potential, whether conversion from a competing brand, an independent or from an office to hotel use. Hilton Worldwide also has relationships with the global development community. We’ve just opened two newly built hotels in New York City, one in the financial district and one in Chelsea. And in New York there are conversion opportunities that exist with the high number of independents, so it really gives us that flexibility to do both.

What are the physical requirements for a Doubletree, then?

Our target for a Doubletree guest room in Europe would be 26m2, in central London or Paris we’ll move that a little bit. Our sister brand Hilton strives to be in the 30-32m2 from a guest room standpoint. We find most of the opportunities the minimum number is in the high 80s to low 90s, our sweet spot is in the 130 range.

Are these managed or franchise?

At the moment we manage a large percentage of the properties. We are over 250 properties, and 56 are managed assets, and some of those we have a measure of equity in those assets. We’re seeing our management organisation recognised for delivering superior performance, so a lot of the larger owners and developers are gravitating towards Hilton to manage their assets, part in China, India and Eastern Europe.

For the hotel guest, what makes the hotel a Doubletree by Hilton?

There are certain things that are requirements to the brand. The most important is what we refer to as the Care Culture. Every hotelier will say that service is a key priority, but we believe we do it better than others. It involves care for the guests, but also the hotel team caring for one another, and we have awards celebrating this every quarter, and also care for the community and being a good citizen in those communities. And every hotel has a care committee which is respossible for focussing on each of those three key areas.

The fitness centre we have upgraded in all of our hotels, the Sweet Dreams Sleep Experience [bed], food and beverage in our hotels, striving for local flavours and superior dining experience, we say “The little things mean everything”, and we believe if you look at those three key elements of the care culture it is what we focus on the hotel.

And you also have Doubletree Resorts

The attributes are a bit different there. The square footage of the guest rooms is larger, and the number of dining options and recreational facilities. In order to be a resort it has to be on a beach, or in a ski resort or have a golf course, so we have minimum physical attributes, but it’s the same service attributes. We still require meeting facilities and events, and we have a large and growing base of group travellers, whether for the MICE market or smaller corporations.

What proportion of your guests are Hilton Honors guest?

Some 36 per cent of our guests worldwide. That’s fairly consistent with the other Hilton brands. As we are on this growth spurt and adding hotels rapidly the number fluctuates a little, but it’s fairly consistent

It must be difficult offering certain privileges to the top tier members when the properties are so diverse.

I think it varies. It could be a challenge with the smaller properties because you are limited on suites or having an executive levels or upgrades. But we focus on the guest experience, and this care committee continues to strive to improve the guest experience. And we’ve found that guests that other brands are recognised by being given a suite, but they’re not even told about it. Our guests have come to appreciate that. We may not have as many suites they are at least told what we are doing for them, or offering a complimentary breakfast. We believe the percentage of our guests who are HHonors guest will increase.

We allow owners and operaters to have control of the experience whatever they need to remain competitive, so if a hotel needs an executive floor then that’s fine for that hotel but it doesn’t become a requirement for every other Doubletree by Hilton.

Why do travellers have to pay for internet access with the full service Doubletree when the focussed brands – Hampton and Hilton Garden Inn offer it for free?

It goes back to the owners having flexibility. We don’t legislate pricing of guest rooms, services or amenities. We do not have s standard which says you must charge and a number of them do offer complimentary wifi and that is market driven. If they are competing against focussed service brands and independents and they believe it’s necessary then they will do so. We continue to discuss it and we are watching our competitors. It is also offered to gold and diamond members of the Honors programme.

And finally, it’s the 25th anniversary of the Doubletree cookie. How is the cookie something that’s local?

It originated in the US, and when we were preparing the brand for international roll out there was a debate because it is somewhat counter-intuitive telling our developers that we want to celebrate the local sensibility but then delivering this American cookie. But there was a debate about everything, even the care culture. To say in China that every hotel would be required to have a line level sitting next to the general manager of the hotel in the care committee raised more eyebrows than the cookie. For us, fortunately, Hilton International, based in Watford, had strength not only in the UK but internationally, and we were able to leverage their knowledge and experience and talk to them how do we launch this cookie.

Why bother?

The intention is to give our guests a warm welcome, that says, “You’ve made it, you’ve arrived, your journey may have been a difficult one but you’re here now” and it represents not only the doubletree experience but also a sense of what is to come – an element of suprise and delight. We worked with our teams and discussed it , how do we execute it and communicate it and they provided a lot of valuable insight from getting out into the public arena. The American cookie was a bit too sweet for the UK and European market, so we modified the receipt.

How many calories does it have?

Around 310 calories. It’s warm and gooey chocolate cookie which isn’t going do any harm now and then. Everyone takes the cookie and they come back for more.

Is there any limit to how many a guest can have?

No. This year we will deliver over 20 million cookies, and soon we will have delivered our 250 millioneth cookie. But we are starting focus groups in India as to should we do an eggless cookie for the vegan audience in India, and how would that work, and do you provide both, or just one. When you get to the hotel we want you to view the hotel experience not as another hurdle but a reward after the difficult day you’ve had. The cookie is the first indication that your service experience and your hotel experience will be a very different one from what you have encountered before that moment. It’s the first human touch.

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