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Zubin Saxena: 2024 will be Hilton’s strongest year in India yet as we open and sign more new hotels

In an exclusive interview with Kamal Gill, Exec Editor, Today’s Traveller, Zubin Saxena, Senior Vice President and Country Head, India, Hilton, speaks of his objective to sustain and bolster the brand’s upward trajectory amid a booming domestic travel demand in India

Zubin Saxena, Senior Vice President and Country Head, India, Hilton
Zubin Saxena, Senior Vice President and Country Head, India, Hilton

TT Bureau: As the incoming Managing Director of Hilton India, how do you plan to continue the brand’s growth trajectory in the Indian market, and are there particular strategies or innovations you’re looking to implement to foster this growth?

Zubin Saxena: My first four months of 2024 being the Country Head for Hilton have been incredibly eventful with an action-packed roster.

Hilton has built a strong momentum in India, and we truly believe our best days are still ahead. I am thrilled to see significant developments unfolding for the market.

My foremost objective is to sustain and bolster the brand’s upward trajectory. India is the world’s fifth-largest economy. Its growth trajectory offers Hilton an immense opportunity to expand its presence in newer cities and markets and grow its brand offerings.

We started the year strong with the opening of our 11th DoubleTree by Hilton brand in India in Whitefield, the signing of our 3rd Conrad in India and the very first Conrad in Jaipur and Hilton in Lucknow.

This signals a multi-brand expansion for us in the market and repeat-signing with existing owners amidst a booming domestic travel demand.

We are entering new markets this year with the opening of Hilton Kathmandu and Hilton Hyderabad Resort & Spa. 

There are multiple opportunities at all levels of our brand tree, and the brand’s expansion across the luxury, full and focused service segments points to confidence in our ability to deliver best-in-class owner returns. We intend to penetrate various market segments by leveraging our diverse brand portfolio.

This includes seeking quality partnerships for our Waldorf Astoria and Conrad brands, doubling down on the growth of our flagship Hilton and DoubleTree brands, and expanding our fast-growing focused service brands led by Hilton Garden Inn. Moreover, we are actively expanding into Tier II and III cities, recognising the burgeoning demand for mid-scale and focused-service hospitality options in these emerging markets.

To fuel this growth, we continue to prioritize our award-winning workplace culture for our 3,600 Team Members in India and solidify our position as the #1 company to work for in the country, to attract and retain the best talent in the business.

We are also investing more than ever in branding and customer engagement and that is paying off. Earlier this year, we announced a Global Brand Ambassador partnership with Deepika Padukone for the ‘Hilton. For The Stay’ Campaign in India.

We have since activated the ‘It Matters Where You Stay’ advertising campaign across key markets in India through Out-of-Home billboards and media partnerships in highly populated business and retail areas to deepen brand recognition and customer engagement. The campaign has garnered over 1.3 million organic social engagements and generated more than 30 million impressions, winning us new fans, and drawing our brands ever closer to Indian customers.  

2024, therefore, will be Hilton’s strongest year in India yet as we open and sign more hotels than ever before, deploy our award-winning brands, and step up our marketing investments in key gateway cities across the country. By harnessing the power of partnerships, regionalisation, and celebrity associations, we are confident in our ability to drive sustained growth and deliver unparalleled hospitality experiences across the diverse landscape of India.

TT Bureau: Hilton has been known for its commitment to sustainability and community engagement globally. Could you highlight some of the key initiatives being undertaken to promote sustainability and social responsibility within the local context?

Zubin Saxena: We are committed to extending the warmth and light of hospitality to the communities in which Hilton has a presence and making the world a better place. Hilton continues to work towards advancing its Travel with Purpose 2030 Goals to redefine sustainable travel. Some key initiatives include:

  1. Hydroponic Setup at Hilton Goa Resort: We have implemented hydroponics at our all-day dining restaurant @Saipe not only showcases innovative agricultural practices but also emphasizes the brand’s commitment to sourcing ingredients sustainably. By growing produce without soil, and using nutrient-rich water, Hilton Goa Resort is reducing water consumption, minimizing the use of pesticides and herbicides, and promoting healthier and more sustainable food options.
  2. Repurposing: We are also transforming discarded linen into shoe bags for guests at Hilton Garden Inn, Saket which is yet another creative approach that helps us not only reduce waste but also add value by providing guests with a sustainable amenity.
  3. Replacing Plastic Water Bottles with Glass Bottles: Across various estates like Hilton Chennai, Hilton Garden Inn Lucknow, and Hilton Baani Square, Gurugram, Hilton India has made the switch from plastic water bottles to glass bottles. This initiative aims to significantly reduce plastic waste and contribute to the brand’s goal of cutting plastic waste by 50% by 2030.
  4. Installation of Sensor-Controlled Lights: By installing sensor-controlled lights in back areas, the brand enhances energy efficiency and reduces electricity consumption. 
  5. Organic Waste Conversion at Conrad Pune: Conrad Pune’s Organic Waste Converter exemplifies a circular economy approach by converting food waste into organic fertilizers. This initiative not only reduces waste sent to landfills but also promotes sustainable agriculture practices, fostering environmental stewardship within the local community.

These are small, yet concerted efforts as part of our Travel with Purpose, through which we seek to create positive environmental and social impact across our operations, supply chain, and communities. By integrating these practices into its operations, we strive to create positive environmental and social impacts while providing exceptional hospitality experiences.

TT Bureau: The hospitality industry is highly competitive, especially in a diverse market like India. What sets your brand apart in this crowded space, and how do you plan to leverage these differentiators to attract both domestic and international travellers?

Zubin Saxena: The hospitality landscape is dynamic and competitive, and companies must evolve to meet the demands of general consumers as well as their primary customers, the hotel buyer or management company. 

Our strength lies in delivering best-in-class experiences in the most sought-after destinations through our award-winning brand portfolio ensuring we have a hotel fit for every travel need. The power of the Hilton name continues to resonate around the world, as we continue to grow in the full-service segment, with our flagship Hilton brand making entries into new markets.

An expanding middle class in India, which is driving strong and sustained demand for intra-regional travel, will give rise to more growth opportunities for our focused service brands such as Hilton Garden Inn. The luxury segment is expected to burgeon and the race is on to capture the millennial consumer and their share of wallet.

We have always been hyper-focused on meeting the evolving needs and preferences of our guests and inspiring travellers.   

  • Our 2024 Trends Report spotlights how travellers value both technology and human-led solutions that can help reduce tension points while travelling.    
  • The digitization of travel, including AI-/chat-driven search, has the potential to be the next wave of technological innovation to enhance the inspiration and booking experience for travellers and further remove tension points of travel.   
  • We have partnered with Kipsu to expand our mobile messaging platform to more than 7,000 Hilton properties worldwide by the end of 2024, enabling two-way, immediate exchanges between guests and hotel teams. 

Innovation is in our DNA—we have pioneered a lot of what our industry considers standard today, and we’re continuing to lead the way. Our focus on innovation is deeply grounded in understanding our guest and team member needs, which will be even more important as travel continues to evolve seamless customer technology that solves common travel pain points and curates the best-in-class experience for our customers. 

  • Elevating our contactless options with the likes of Digital Key, Digital Key Share, Confirmed Connecting Rooms by Hilton, and early confirmation of Complimentary Room Upgrades. 
  • Locally relevant partnerships with digital platforms and channels that provide customers with more convenient, tailored service.

TT Bureau: Can you share insights into how the brand is integrating new technologies or digital solutions to personalise and enhance guest stays?

Zubin Saxena: We understand that modern travellers seek seamless and personalised experiences throughout their journey, valuing both connectivity and human connection. To meet these expectations, we are leading the charge in integrating innovative technologies and digital solutions to enhance guest stays.

The hospitality landscape is dynamic, and this was never more evident than during the pandemic when many people not only changed how they travel but also why and with whom. During this time, the brand used data from its series of annual trend reports to lean into new trends and took over the innovator role.

Our 2024 Trends Report spotlights how travellers value both technology and human-led solutions that can help reduce tension points while travelling. 

  • The digitization of travel, including AI-/chat-driven search, has the potential to be the next wave of technological innovation to enhance inspiration and booking experiences, further removing tension points of travel.   
  • Use of AI/chat-driven search – we are staying ahead with innovations that are accelerating at a faster speed alongside customer demand. 

Hilton is expanding its mobile messaging platform from more than 3,600 properties to all of its more than 7,500 Hilton properties worldwide (including India) by the end of this year. The system, developed in partnership with Kipsu, enables texting via the Hilton Honors app and SMS. Guests experience a two-way, immediate exchange to answer questions, address concerns and arrange experiences.  We are also elevating our contactless options with the likes of Digital Key, Digital Key Share, and early confirmation of Complimentary Room Upgrades.

We also offer Confirmed Connecting Rooms by Hilton, facilitating seamless accommodation arrangements for families or groups requiring connecting rooms, and provide early notifications of complimentary room upgrades, enhancing the overall guest experience.

As we invest in future technologies, our focus remains on leveraging data to simplify the guest experience, from booking to billing. Moreover, we prioritise innovations that empower our on-property team members, allowing them more time to deliver personalised hospitality and meaningful human connections—an integral part of the exceptional hotel experience the brand strives to provide.

TT Bureau: What are your immediate priorities, and how do you envision the brand evolving in response to the changing landscape of travel and hospitality?

Zubin Saxena: The hospitality sector is currently booming, with markets being immensely receptive. In India, Hilton finds itself at a pivotal juncture, with its portfolio of market-leading brands and ambitious growth plans. The year 2023 was remarkable, marked by new signings, openings, and an overall recalibration of our strategy. As we look forward to 2024 and ahead, it appears to be a crowning moment for Hilton’s growth in India, with a renewed commitment and an ambitious long-term growth strategy. 

We are steadfastly focused on achieving double-digit signings and expanding our keys by over 1500. Our growth trajectory involves new signings and openings, including prestigious projects like Waldorf Astoria, Jaipur, and Conrad Jaipur scheduled to open in 2027. We are deploying our portfolio of brands, including focused service brands such as Hilton Garden Inn, to meet the demands of the burgeoning middle class. Our time-tested platform, anchored on our robust commercial engine and strong culture, drives best-in-class owner returns and our ambitious growth plans.

India has seen Hilton deploy 5 brands across 26 hotels in the estate and the intent is to triple the estate to include 75 trading and pipeline hotels in the coming years. We have major expansion plans for India from both a domestic and outbound perspective, and we eagerly anticipate introducing more of our brands in the country.

Our focus will be on enhancing Hilton’s reputation and enterprise awareness across all key markets in India. Progress is underway with openings in Bengaluru and signings in Lucknow and Jaipur, which will bolster our network effect. We are actively seeking quality partners for our Waldorf Astoria and Conrad brands, while also doubling down on the growth of our flagship Hilton and DoubleTree brands.

Besides this, we stay heavily focused on key tenets to increase the resilience of your hotels and better protect your margins. This includes a razor-sharp focus on operational excellence through deep and regular monitoring, reviews, and enhanced procurement processes. In elevating workplace excellence, we will work to reduce Team Member turnover, enhance gender diversity, and be more inclusive of individuals with disabilities. 

Our journey in India is not just about growth; it’s a commitment to positive transformation. Looking ahead, we are motivated by the prospect of opportunities these openings and initiatives will unlock for the brand in India. Our substantial investments demonstrate our unwavering commitment to support our partners and elevate our brand presence in India.

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