Hilton, now 16 brands strong, is adding one more -- Signia Hilton -- with a promise to set a new and higher standard for hotels serving the meetings and events industry. Plans call for advanced technology, innovative design, inviting communal spaces and highly customizable guest experiences.
Already in the works are the Signia Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek (a conversion of the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek) and new-build convention headquarters hotels in Atlanta and Indianapolis. All Signia Hiltons will be set in major urban and resort markets, and will offer at least 500 guest rooms and a minimum of 75 square feet of meeting space per room key.
"In 97 days, Hilton will celebrate it's 100th birthday," Christopher J. Nassetta, Hilton's president and CEO, told the media this morning in announcing the new brand, "and we are more focused than ever on providing exceptional experiences to all of our guests -- and that includes evolving those experiences to meet their changing needs."
For at least five years, customers have been asking for a more modern, premium meetings and events product, said Nassetta. "We've just been trying to find the right time and the right opportunities." Signia Hilton will fill a demonstrated need in the market for an innovative and impressive brand at the "upper end of upper upscale," he added.
Based on extensive market research and input from owners, developers, meeting planners and guests, Hilton has carefully developed the Signia Hilton concept over the past two years, noted David Marr, senior vice president and global head of Hilton's full-service brands. He shared additional details in an exclusive interview with Northstar Meetings Group.
Why does Hilton, or even the broader hospitality industry, need another brand?
The idea started two years ago in dialogues with a lot of our big developers who focus in on what we call P3 deals -- public-private partnerships. They said Hilton would be well served if we had a brand that fell just above our flagship Hilton Hotels brand, but not quite into the luxury space, because obviously the cost of an 800- to 1,000-room hotel with luxury fixtures is quite expensive for an owner/developer.
So that led us to quickly say, OK, well, if that's something we should consider, let's talk to our best customers. Of course, we talked to meeting professionals, and they really went into great detail about what they wanted. Ultimately, the feedback fell into three different categories. First was modern design, second was enhanced technology and third was improving the culinary experience -- because everybody knows a good meeting or event is judged by how good the food is!
How did you gather planners' input? Did you hold focus groups?
We did focus groups, and we did individual one-on-ones. We did group lunches. We also did surveys. I got the most benefit from the one-on-ones and the group lunches. We invited four planners at a time, and did that in all the major U.S. cities. Those were invaluable, because we really had great conversations. My experience was that when one person had a good idea, someone else would piggyback on that and offer another great idea.
We had a mixture of corporate meeting planners with association meeting planners -- a really good and diverse group of clients -- and they have been incredibly valuable to me as we figure out what exactly Signia Hilton is all about.
What do planners want in terms of design?
They referred to a lot of today's convention center hotels that are 20-plus years old, maybe even 30 years old, as "big box" facilities -- I'm sure you've heard the term -- and that's what they don't want. They want a modern design aesthetic so that when you get out of the car, you know you've arrived somewhere special. They want flexible spaces. How they use the space in the morning may be different than in the afternoon, and then completely different again in the evening. So, flexibility is important.
They crave natural daylight, whether it be in the lobby spaces, in the meeting spaces, in the ballrooms, in the prefunction areas. They really want to have that indoor/outdoor feel. But, most importantly, they want it to be impressive. The bar has been raised with today's meeting attendees, and they want to make sure that the convention hotel is really something special and someplace memorable.
What did you learn about their technology needs?
On the tech side, the meeting planners were very realistic -- no surprise there. They understand how costly technology can be and how it changes every couple of years. So they aren't interested in flashy tech products that you need a doctorate to understand. They focused in on stuff that makes a meeting much more efficient. Things like digital whiteboards came up, and wireless charging stations throughout. They even mentioned Hilton's "Connected Room" concept, which lets you control your guest room from the Hilton Honors app, and they said it would be cool to have a connected meeting room, meaning they could control things like the lighting and the air conditioning from the app. Candidly, that's what meeting planners got really excited about. They said, "Oh my God, I can control the temperature of this room with my app? Sign me up!"
Will the connected meeting room be a reality when the brand launches?
We're actually in the midst of developing that. The good news is these are new-build hotels, so we have 24 to 30 months of construction time. We have time to make sure that the connected meeting room can actually be part of this brand.
What did planners suggest in terms of food and beverage?
On the culinary side, no surprise, healthy foods are important. What really is interesting is the desire for customization. Planners want to personalize food as much as possible to meet different needs. They want to make sure we have a sustainable plan, especially on the banquet and catering side, because that's really important to their clients.
They told us the three-meal restaurant needs to be inspiring and innovative, but so does the grab-and-go, and so does the signature restaurant. If you're there for a three-day meeting, on at least one of the nights you should be able to have a special client dinner, and they want to make sure that could happen in one of the hotel restaurants.
They really want energy in the public spaces, and food and beverage is a big part of generating the energy that they're looking for. So, that's exactly what we're doing with Signia Hilton.
How will the meeting spaces be innovative?
If you look at the trends in meeting space, a lot of planners love those third-party spaces like WeWork. So it's been an interesting conversation with the developers of these big hotels. They're used to just creating what one planner called the "beige box" -- you know, four walls, beige wallpaper, brown carpet and maybe a flip chart in the corner. And that's supposed to be inspiring to a meeting planner?
Unusual spaces -- not typical hotel meeting rooms -- are our competition. The planners said, "You've got to create small to midsize rooms, spaces that are innovative and inspire innovative thinking." So we're designing spaces for Signia Hilton that are unique and differentiated. You don't see that in a lot of hotels today.
Are Hilton's plans for the brand set at this point, or is it still a work in progress?
What's exciting about this being a new-build brand is things are going to change. We are not done talking to meeting planners. We are continuing this dialog, and we will continue to learn from them. What's interesting about working on the new-builds -- now in Atlanta and in Indianapolis -- is we can be sitting down with the architects and the designers and saying, "Hey, we need to address this as well," and we can create something new together.
One of the designers came up with the idea of having digital art instead of traditional art. So, we're having that in the meeting rooms and public spaces, and that could allow you to change the personality of the space as you use it differently during different parts of the day. Those are the kinds of things we can do when we're starting from scratch.
Will the meeting spaces be similar across the brand?
The last thing I want to do is make it sound like this hotel brand will be prototypical, because the specialness is creating something unique and personal to the destination. We will have innovative spaces that you can have fun with, and the personality that comes into those unique spaces in each of those cities will be very different and will bring out the local flavor. That said, there will be some common elements -- you'll have a wall that has shelving and technology built into it, for example, and the digital-art component that I talked about.
In the prefunction space, you'll see flexible setups so that when people come out of a ballroom they can actually sit down and do some quick email, charge their phones, carry on a conversation or whatever they need. You'll see different elements like that come to life in each of these Signia Hiltons.
Where will the first Signia Hilton open?
We are working on a project in Atlanta, but we aren't sure if it will open first because it's a construction site at this point. I think the first one will be in Orlando; that's a conversion. The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek will become the Signia Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. That property has 1,009 guest rooms and 132,000 square feet of meeting space, and we might add another ballroom. The exact time of changing the flag is probably in the vicinity of 18 months from now.
And for the new-builds in Atlanta and Indianapolis, it's a probably a 26-month project from the time the shovels go into the ground later this year. So we're looking at two-plus years for when those two hotels will open up.
Will Signia Hilton be an international brand?
When we start a brand, we always start in the United States and then take it outside the U.S. from there. I can't talk about specifics on deals outside of the U.S. because there they're still early stages, but we're having detailed conversations in several different international destinations, as well as some additional locations here in the States. So, yes, this will be a global brand.
With more people working from home, they likely crave social interaction in hotels, and they appreciate well-designed, communal workspaces. How will Signia Hilton meet that need?
I think this touches on a lot of the different points that we are trying to create at Signia Hilton, particularly on the design perspective. You want spaces where you can work, but you can also be social. A hotel could have quiet zones, interactive zones and social zones. Our focus is on the lobby areas being good co-working spaces but also really well designed for interactions. We all know, especially in meetings and events, that the magic happens outside the ballroom.
How will the public spaces encourage people to come out of their rooms to do some work or just hang out?
Having the grab-and-go situated very close to those spaces is important. So at any time of the day I can get my coffee, I can get my drink or a cocktail, and it allows me to continue this socialization in those spaces. And we will be carrying that concept into the prefunction space. One of the points the meeting planners were emphatic about is that we don't forget the prefunction space. Just like in the lobby, when attendees come out of a ballroom, they're in a space where they can sit and talk about what they've just learned.
How do you see the meeting experience itself changing in the years ahead?
I think technology will play a role in helping change the experience so that it's much more personalized. What you may need and what I may need from a meeting might be two entirely different things. How do we make the meeting experience much more customizable and efficient so that people spend the right time in the right places? Then, most importantly, we need to create a space where people can network, because they also want to be educated by one another.
Do you agree that technology will continue to enhance the value of meetings, rather than replacing them as some feared years ago?
Absolutely. The reason why meetings have not died -- and everybody was afraid they were going to die with technology -- is because people love the face-to-face interactions. What meeting planners have asked us to do with Signia Hilton is make sure we facilitate those interactions in the public spaces and in the restaurants. Make it easy for them upstairs by outfitting the guest rooms with smart technology so that they can be as efficient as possible, and then they can go back downstairs and socialize with everybody. That's what we're trying to do.
How will advances in technology support that effort?
We're going from a 4G world to a 5G world, so 5G will just speed the data to us so much quicker. There will be things that we can do that will only start to take shape this year and into next year that we can have in Atlanta and Indianapolis. Right now, we can't talk specifics because we don't know exactly what it will mean to us. But when we went from a 3G world to a 4G world, the interactions with our guests became so much more efficient. I imagine when it goes to 5G, there will be things we can accomplish 10 times faster.
With a new-build brand, there's so much we will be able to do, and we're not done figuring it all out yet. We're talking to meeting planners, we're making sure to keep an eye on the future so that we continue to make Signia Hilton relevant in the eyes of today's meeting attendees, to give them what they want and what they need. It's very different than what you needed 10 years ago. As I tell my team all the time, we always have to be out in front of the wave.