Hilton sees Dubai bookings surge after UK and UAE open travel corridor

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By Scott Armstrong

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By Scott Armstrong

Simon Vincent OBE, Hilton’s president of Europe, Middle East and Africa, looks to the year ahead after an unforgettable 2020

Simon Vincent OBE, executive vice president and president of Europe Middle East and Africa, Hilton

If you were to stake a claim over which industry had been hit hardest by the pandemic and its lockdowns, the hospitality sector would surely be a strong contender.

But like every other business, despite its closed restaurants and shuttered hotels, the industry has had to survive any way it can. As it says goodbye and good riddance to 2020, one global corporation, Hilton, says it has weathered the storm, closing out the year with growth by announcing it has passed the one million rooms milestone.

In an exclusive interview, Simon Vincent OBE, executive vice president and president of Europe Middle East and Africa, Hilton, took a moment with Arabian Business to reflect on an unprecedented 12 months and to look ahead to 2021.

AB: We’ve nearly got to the end of 2020 so can I get your kind of helicopter download of what this unforgettable 12 months has been like and where we’re at now?

SV: We started the year off when we’d just come off the 100th anniversary of Hilton, we had recorded record revenues and profits, and had the strongest pipeline in the hotel industry and were absolutely riding high. Consumers were loving our brands, the stock market was loving our asset light business model, our growth story. Things were great.

All that changed in March, and by the time we got to the end of the second quarter we probably had globally 60 percent to 65 percent of our hotels suspended temporarily. It hit the hospitality and travel sector hard. Business fell off a cliff, I’ve never experienced anything quite like that in my life before.

Hilton Dubai Palm Jumeirah

China has clearly led the recovery so most of our hotels there are now back up and running at 70 percent plus occupancy. I’m pleased to say that in the Americas, in other parts of Asia Pacific, and indeed in Europe, Middle East and Africa we’re getting the business back on its feet again.

The news around the vaccine was as extraordinary as the virus itself in many respects. That’s given a huge boost and a sense of optimism to travel. We shouldn’t ever forget that travel is one of the world’s largest industries, it’s 10 percent of global GDP, and it is a significant employer by any measure. People love to travel and love to experience things and we will come back. I think we’ve got huge cause to be optimistic.

AB: Where is demand coming from, where are the hotspots, and who are the people that are travelling?

SV: It’s leisure-orientated predominantly. Our resort hotels have been extremely busy over the summer period in particular. Going in to the Christmas period we are seeing very strong levels of demand and occupancy, particularly in the UAE. Travel corridors with the UK have now opened so we are seeing pent up demand from there to come into Dubai particularly, and the UAE in general.

There’s enough out there to suggest we’ve got cause for optimism, if you look at our Q3 results in relation to our pipeline we‘ve signed 17,000 rooms globally. One in four of the hotels signed in the Middle East and Africa in year to date bears a Hilton flag. I think we’re pretty good going into 2021. It’s not going to be easy, we’re far from through it, you will see a bit of a roller coaster. The encouraging thing is the authorities have got a better grip on it now, they know how to treat it better. And, ultimately, there is a vaccine.

Waldorf Astoria Kuwait

AB: 2021, what’s exciting you the most?

SV: I think just the prospect of normalisation and to get the business back to where it was. We’ve got an incredibly impressive pipeline of new hotels coming out, particularly in this region including the Waldorf Astoria in Kuwait and Hilton Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. I’m really pleased to say that all of the hotels that were under construction, pre pandemic are now back under construction again, which I think is another positive sign. I think we will see a slight slowdown in the cadence of the openings just because it’s going to take owners and businesses time to get back on their feet. Overall I’m optimistic.

AB: The relationship between hotelier and guest; has absence through lockdown made the heart grow fonder on both sides?

SV: I think the connection has always been there. Our founder Conrad Hilton he had a very clear vision of spreading the light and warmth of hospitality, a very altruistic vision of spreading world peace through travel. We recognised very early on that if we were going to get customers to come back and travel again we had to restore confidence. We took some decisive steps to restore consumer confidence, giving them much more flexible cancellation terms, if you know they had to change their travel arrangements. Whilst we’ve always had very high levels of hygiene and cleanliness in our hotels I think it was magnified 10 times by the pandemic.

AB: What’s the secret sauce of getting the guest experience right?

SV: It’s our team, ultimately. I talked about our founder I talked about his vision. You talk to any single member of staff in Hilton and I’d almost guarantee that every member of staff would know our vision because it’s so emotive and evocative. People who come into hospitality feel passionate about it, it’s a vocation, and it’s a career.

Mango House Seychelles LXR Hotels and Resorts

AB: In good times, leading 75,000 people would seem like a challenge. How do you lead that many people through a pandemic?

SV: First and foremost of the ABCs of leadership is you’ve got to surround yourself with good people. I’ve spent 13 years building an incredible team. I’ve got people around me that I can fundamentally trust that share the same values that are aligned to the Hilton corporate vision, mission values – including here in Dubai where Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, Hilton’s president for Middle East, Africa and Turkey leads a superb team of operators and specialists. Set clear strategy, give people hope, start managing the crisis, then plan for recovery. Surround yourself with good people and lead from the front.

AB: In your view, what is the benefit to the business by doing the right thing in terms of diversity?

SV: To me it’s about connecting and understanding your customers. If your employee base is rich and diverse and reflects the customers that are staying in the hotel. That i simplest form is the real reason that we are so strong on the whole diversity piece. We have to enhance the communities we operate in by supporting personal development and creating employment, and giving people career opportunities. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to have to walk into hotels in the UAE or Saudi or in Africa and to see a diverse workforce supporting a diverse customer base. It’s a very powerful thing.

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