The Hilton Garden Inn brand continues to grow outside of the U.S., and brand chief John Greenleaf discusses the challenges and opportunities of refreshing the brand for the next stage of its life cycle.
ATLANTA—As Hilton looks to increase the global presence of its Hilton Garden Inn brand, SVP and global head John Greenleaf said the timing was right for a refresh.
The nature of Hilton Garden Inn’s global refresh is four-fold: the prototype, food and beverage, the brand’s personality and hospitality, and new marketing. Greenleaf said a bit of healthy competition from other hotel brands has sharpened the focus of the Hilton Garden Inn’s brand-refresh team.
“There’s always a challenge when you look at a market-leading brand in any category and you decide you’re going to make some changes,” Greenleaf said during a break at the recent Hunter Hotel Conference. “There needs to be some justification for it, and if you look at all of the changes, the new brands, there’s creative turmoil within the category right now as far as what’s happening to different brands.
“The timing is good, because when you’re the market leader, you’re being chased after. People observe what you do and try to replicate it or do it better. So we thought the time was really good to leverage the leadership position that we have, and look to make changes that will take what we do well and do it better.”
As of the fourth quarter of 2018, Hilton Garden Inn has 815 open hotels with a total room count exceeding 118,000 in more than 40 countries, while its pipeline comprises 307 hotels and 52,828 rooms.
“From our first hotel opening (outside the U.S.) basically 10 years ago to now having half of our development pipeline outside the U.S. is a pretty big shift,” Greenleaf said.
Hilton Garden Inn’s newly designed prototype is what Greenleaf calls “structured flexibility,” meaning it has a few core elements with flexibility for designers and owners to tailor the brand to fit their market. That model has already been launched in the renovation and new-build process in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa and now is being introduced in China, the Caribbean, Latin America and Australasia. Greenleaf added the brand has approximately 100 hotels per year undergoing renovations and is on a development pace of opening about 50 hotels per year.
Longtime owners of Hilton Garden Inn properties are already seeing the impact of the changes, which Greenleaf emphasized as a “refresh” and not a “relaunch.”
“Relaunch implies that something is broken,” he said. “Refresh to our meaning is that we’re doing very well, but how do we make it do better?”
But growing the brand in some new markets around the world hasn’t come without challenges.
“I think in some of the newer markets, we don’t get it right the first time always; I’m the first to raise my hand and admit to that,” Greenleaf said. “Especially outside the U.S. as we open some of these new hotels, we’re learning, because it’s new to us and we’re putting that learning into place as we continue to expand and open more.”
In some markets, Hilton Garden Inn might even be the pioneer for the Hilton brand family.
“The way I like to look at it is Hilton is our first name, and so when we open a hotel in different parts of the world, it’s clear immediately that we’re part of the Hilton family, and the experience people see when they walk in, the core attributes of the brand are immediately visible when you walk into the hotel,” he said. “People understand immediately what it is, how it’s different from a Hilton hotel and what it offers.
“We’ve been very fortunate in the markets where we’ve opened hotels in countries we’re the first and only Hilton brand of any kind in the country. … Given the importance of the Hilton name as part of our identity, given the fact that we can go into cities potentially as the lead brand and offer a full-service restaurant and a bar and a full cooked-to-order breakfast and meeting space, and go into markets where Hilton or DoubleTree as a full-service representation may not work, it gives us an opportunity to really target markets and countries for growth that other brands may not be able to.”
The growth of the Hilton Garden Inn brand outside of the U.S. helps the properties back home, too, Greenleaf added.
“In the past, if a brand was introduced in the U.S., you had U.S. travelers who became familiar with it, which was terrific for intra-country travel, but somebody coming into the U.S. wouldn’t have any idea what the brand is,” he said. “But now that we’re very active in China, Brazil, Mexico and Canada—much more so than we have been in the past—those are all huge feeder markets for the U.S. And for outbound travel from the U.S., our presence in markets like Turkey and the U.K. and Central America is really increasing some international outbound as well.”
The role of food and beverage, employee investment
Early on in the brand-refresh process, the Hilton Garden Inn team realized raising awareness of the brand’s quality F&B was a must.
“What we’ve done with Hilton Garden Inn over the years is execute food and beverage beautifully, but we’ve just not told anyone,” Greenleaf said. “So what we’ve done is create a much higher-profile approach for food and beverage, and it’s now one of the two core attributes that we have based the positioning of the brand on, the other being the hospitality or the personality of the brand. With food and beverage, our new prototype shifts the focus of the lobby space to the bar to food and beverage into very brightly designed open space. It’s multiple-use for social or work or dining. It’s a very different approach than we’ve taken in the past.”
Hilton Garden Inn menus now cycle every six months, and while there are core menu offerings that are available at every property around the world, there’s flexibility to add local cuisine or flavors. Greenleaf said that’s overflowed into the bar menu, too.
“We’ve given each hotel the ability to create their own cocktail, so they have a signature cocktail for fun in each of the hotels, which they’ve enjoyed doing,” he said.
The brand refresh also has expanded the Hilton Garden Inn retail space—dubbed “The Shop”—with grab-and-go food, gourmet coffee and more merchandise options.
“We have over 200 hotels now that either have it in place or have it in the design process, and we have seen very, very positive results,” Greenleaf said. “We’ve seen that around the world. That’s been a big boost for us. The combined effort of the retail space and the food and beverage changes has really had an impact on the guest experience, as well.”
Greenleaf said improving the hospitality or personality of the brand has led to some improvements in employee training, which have yielded higher guest satisfaction scores.
“We’ve completely redone our approach to learning and our areas of focus for the team members of the hotels,” he said. “That’s had a pretty dramatic effect already on the guest experience in the hotels and the ratings and rankings we’re getting from guests based on the experience they’re having in our hotels around the world.”