How Hilton Is Attempting to Redefine the Airport Hotel

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Hilton Worldwide

The newly reflagged Hilton Munich Airport
held its official grand opening last week, where some of Hilton’s top
executives promoted the brand’s holistic views of airport hotels moving
into the future.

According to Rob Palleschi, global head full service brands of Hilton
Worldwide, he says Conrad Hilton pioneered the airport hotel concept
with the launch of the San Francisco airport property in 1959. It
basically served as a big billboard that directed a lot of eyeballs
toward Hilton’s new hotels worldwide and the reality of international
travel for more consumers.

“Conrad thought that if people had a good experience in San
Francisco, the next logical stop was Tokyo, and so on, so the airport
hotel platform has always been in our DNA,” says Palleschi. “We’ve seen
the transformation going from what were once low-rise properties
predominantly focused on convenient one-night stays, to now what is
really becoming a destination with a large number of guest rooms and
facilities for meetings, special events and product launches.”

Previously a Kempinski property until this year, Hilton Munich
Airport consists of two banks of guest rooms connected with a 70-foot
high glass atrium covering a large lobby lounge and restaurant. The
lobby is as social of a public space as any trendy lifestyle hotel, with
enough open area to bring in full size farm equipment and military
vehicles for product launches, as the hotel has in the past.

A 160-room expansion begins this spring, while the Wi-Fi
infrastructure will be replaced beginning next month. The Charles
Lindbergh restaurant is consistent with 4-diamond hotel
restaurants. There’s a full size pool next to some of the 30 meeting
rooms—all with natural light. And dozens of artworks from the local MUCA
urban art gallery are showcased in the lobby, including rare prints of
Andy Warhol without makeup.

Meaning, the hotel design, quality of amenities, natural daylight and
overall guest experience is not unlike a full-service property such as
Hilton Vienna Hotel, located in a prime spot in the heart of the
Austrian capital. The same can be said for Hilton airport properties in
Frankfurt, Copenhagen and the new Amsterdam hotel, which are comparable
to branded properties in their respective urban cores.

Walking next to Palleschi on our way to a meeting room, he stopped at
the Warhol prints and acknowledged that some old school executives feel
this is too avant garde for a Hilton airport hotel. He flatly denied
that, saying, “We need more of this. This is the future and it’s what
our guests are demanding.”

During our interview with Palleschi, we asked him if there’s a lot of
internal conversation at Hilton about airport hotel architecture and
interior design.

“We are consciously moving toward more innovative and creative hotel
design at the airport locations,” he answered. “I would say we’re
over-indexing on the side of creative design from the standpoint that we
need to get away from the impression that it’s an airport hotel. Or
it’s just like a bus terminal, a transit point…. So we work with every
owner on an individual basis, and we’re influencing the design to have
things like more natural light, more art, and a guest experience that
better integrates the local vibe.”

Regionalizing the Hilton Brand

Integrating Hilton product better with the local vibe has been a
priority at Hilton HQ over the last two years. There is no longer a
systemic drive to create one global standard for amenities,
international cuisine, room furnishings, and everything else.

“We’re making efforts to somewhat regionalize the Hilton brand, which
is a little bit different than what we’ve done in the past,” explains
Palleschi. “In the past, we’ve tried to come up with a single platform
of consistent standards across the globe. Now what we’ve been reviewing
over the last 18 to 24 months, based on a lot of guest surveys and
feedback is: Do we have to have a single amenity package across the
globe? Wouldn’t it be better if we delivered on guest expectations
specific to Europe or Asia or North America?”

Presently under construction, the new Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
opens this fall, and it’s being designed as one of Hilton Europe’s
flagship hotels to test out European-centric design, amenities, and food
and beverage. Likewise, Hilton Rome Airport Hotel is presently
undergoing renovation, which will be another live test property, along
with others in Beijing and Tokyo.

“To go to a GM in the middle of China and tell them their muffins are
the wrong size according to brand standards is just wrong,” says
Palleschi. “That’s the folly of us trying to globalize things, because
today it’s about how do you deliver regional guest experiences that have
a high level of quality touch points that guests demand. People want
different. They’re saying they just want something different.”

In addition to delineating hotel product by geographic region, Hilton
Worldwide is redefining the guest experience for its four product
segment categories: airport, urban, suburban and resort. For airport
hotels, the emphasis is on urgency, seamless user experience, and super
fast communications. That places a priority on keyless entry and
modern Wi-Fi, more so than the other three product segments, according
to Palleschi.

Hilton’s HHonors app presently allows guests to check-in/out and
choose their specific room. Beginning this year, the app will also
facilitate keyless entry once guest room door locks are changed,
starting with all Hilton-operated properties in North America. The
international portfolio will follow suit by the end of 2016.

“We have to have tools to bypass the front desk so we can enable
people to check into guest rooms quickly, and it’s the same for
departure so they can blow through the lobby,” he says. “We also need to
have extraordinary bandwidth and the biggest pipes we can get at
airport hotels.”

The Rise of the Airport Hotel

Patrick Fitzgibbon, SVP of Development in Europe/Africa for Hilton
Worldwide, sat down with us to discuss Hilton’s aggressive focus on
airport hotel expansion. He explained how the segment is generally
recession proof, with significant potential for growth due to the
overall rise in air travel.

“My kids get on and off a plane like we used to get on and off a bus,
so it’s become very natural for them, and they’re not in the minority,”
he says. “So I think that travel, both business and leisure, will
continue to grow. One only has to look at what’s happening in Dubai and
Istanbul’s airports, and the constant debate around the world about
adding a second or third or fourth runway. It’s a sector that we’ve
identified as a hotel company that has enormous growth opportunity.”

Fitzgibbon adds that airports today, such as Munich’s gateway with
over 30,000 employees, are evolving into small cities as they expand
their roles beyond itinerant travel experiences into retail, leisure and
culinary experiences.

Airport hotels are evolving in parallel with that, driving more small
meetings business and more room nights. At Munich Airport, the
headquarters for Audi is based nearby in Ingolstadt, so the car
manufacturer uses the airport hotel to house thousands of employees
annually during sales training sessions and product demos.

“The airport hotel market has changed immeasurably in recent years,”
says Fitzgibbon. “I remember when we opened the Hilton at Melbourne
airport: great gym, great public areas, phenomenal restaurants, great
bars. These are spaces that you walk into and go, it’s not just a bed
experience, it’s a hospitality experience. And for meetings, airport
hotels have become an incredibly important market in their own right.”

Christian Stoschek, SVP of corporate division quality/project
management at Munich Airport, elaborated further on the evolution of
airport and airport hotel quality. He told us that the SKYTRAX airport
benchmarking system presently ranks only four hotels in its 5-star
category, and they’re all in Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul and
Tokyo.

“We want to be the first airport to bring the SKYTRAX 5-star ranking
outside of Asia,” says Stoschek. “The way to do that is by engaging all
stakeholders in the passenger journey, and that includes the airlines,
companies like Audi, and Hilton Munich Airport. The focus used to be on
infrastructure but that has now changed completely. It’s about creating
an excellent guest service experience, and obviously the Asian mentality
is very strong in this area.”

The process at Munich Airport to achieve the SKYTRAX 5-star ranking
began in earnest two years ago with the goal that, “The guest shouldn’t
move from one area of the airport campus to another and feel like
they’re not part of Munich Airport,” says Stoschek.

One of the main priorities to date has been motivating all of the
companies invested in the airport to adopt the same service mentality
and service standards as Asia’s leading gateways. That began with
getting everyone sitting at the same table, which was an impressive
accomplishment of its own.

“The challenge for us is changing German attitudes” says Stoschek.
“But once the stakeholders started to see the synergies, they have come
to understand the value.

We asked Fitzgibbon is he’s seeing a similar shift toward airport stakeholder alignment taking place worldwide.

“We’re seeing more and more of that, and one of the reasons we were
successful in securing this contract is that we really saw what they’re
trying to do here at Munich Airport,” he said. “For our business, we
work with airports and airlines globally hand in glove, it’s very very
important…. Especially if you want to bring in the Asian airlines as
they start to grow, you’ve got to think about what facilities they need,
what language do they need to see in the airport, etc. So there’s a
whole raft of complementary facilities and services that need to work
together.”

Fitzgibbon uses the analogy that airports are now emulating hotels,
where every guest experience touch point has to maintained at a
consistent level of quality. So just like a hotel brings together all of
its various staff departments everyday, airports are calling meetings
on a regular basis with everyone from custodial companies to the
airlines’ regional executives.

“If one part breaks down—whether it’s with taxis, bathrooms, retail,
restaurants, bar, baggage, security, check-in—that’s the one thing
people tend to remember and maybe tell their friends about,” explains
Fitzgibbon. “As our kids and their kids grow, travel is going to change
immeasurably and airports are going to be the hub for that. We don’t
know exactly what that’s going to look like, but at Hilton, we do know
we want representation at every major airport in the world. It’s a huge
opportunity and it’s where our customers are and where they want to be.”

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at go@skift.com.

 – Skift

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