Trends change, expectations are raised and hotels need to meet these expectations and adapt to the changes. talked to Ben George, the Senior Vice President & Commercial Director, Asia Pacific for Hilton International. He is a member of the Asia Pacific Executive Committee, who leads a team of more than 190 people, overseeing the commercial performance for over 200 hotels across the Asia Pacific region. Ben manages seven brands in the Hilton portfolio that are presently operating in Asia Pacific – Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Curio – a Collection By Hilton, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, DoubleTree by Hilton, Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton by Hilton, as well as Hilton’s award-winning loyalty program, Hilton Honors.

If you could identify problems of travelers today, what would they be and how do you solve those problems?

In today’s digital age, travelers are increasingly becoming mobile-first, expecting integrated and personalized digital interactions across channels for a seamless travel experience. Priding ourselves as a company of people serving people, we leverage technology to enhance, not replace, the guest experience. Through extensive research and feedback from our guests, we identify the problems travelers face today, and through that, address their constantly changing and evolving needs. This is done by innovating to alleviate pain points, pre-empt and cater to the needs of our guests, in order to make the travel experience simplified and seamless.

For example, through our research, we have found that today’s travelers are concerned with check-in procedures upon arrival at hotels. Some of these relate to waiting times before being checked in, especially after a long journey. To minimize waiting, Hilton’s Digital Key, accessible via our Hilton Honors mobile app, enables guests to conveniently and directly access their rooms using their mobile phones. Next, to offer guests ease and choice when selecting their room, we also offer Digital Check-In, the industry’s first-and-only opportunity for guests to pinpoint the exact room they want – even before their stay. Digital Check-In is offered in conjunction with Digital Key. To date, we’re proud to say that Digital Key has reached a milestone of availability in 4,000 properties around the world.

Our research has also shown that today’s travelers also increasingly expect higher levels of customization in hotels. This is due to the adoption of streaming apps and automation solutions like smart thermostats and lightbulbs in homes – a clear sign that residential trends have now become hospitality expectations. To cater to this, Hilton has launched Connected Room, which delivers a mobile-first room experience empowering guests to tailor elements of their stay from the palm of their hands. Through the Hilton Honors app, guests can access Connected Room and enjoy the same level of control, connectivity and personalization on the road as they do at home. This redesigned television remote or physical device control allows guests to remotely manage things they would traditionally have to do manually. This includes controlling temperature and lighting, as well as screening a preferred television show, even before entering the room, right on their own devices.

In terms of destinations, what would guests expect from a destination?

Travel has become more accessible, and with this increased frequency, traveler expectations of a destination have also changed.

Based on research, people now want to experience destinations as locals. Travelers are spending less on shopping, and constantly seeking authentic experiences in order to live as locals when on holiday. With this in mind, we’ve recently launched the Hilton Explore function on our award-winning Hilton Honors mobile app. Guests can now tap into personalized suggestions from locals who know the area best – Hilton Team Members – and choose from recommendations for food, entertainment, shopping and more around nearly 1,000 global Hilton properties, with plans for expansion. Each recommendation on the app includes photos and tips, offering a variety of authentic, Team Member-verified experiences for guests to experience destinations as locals would.

We have also found that travelers increasingly look to hotels as destinations in and of themselves. More than just places to rest and store their belongings, guests look to hotels to offer a variety of on-premise experiences, ranging from food to recreational activities – especially with corporate travelers, who may lack time to venture out of the hotel. To cater to this, selected Hilton properties have eforea Spa facilities that offer a spiritual respite from the hectic lives of modern, global travelers. Also, award-winning dining offerings on-property, such as China Blue at Conrad Manila helmed by celebrity chef Jereme Leung, present guests with gastronomic excellence.

For guests in the luxury space, expectations have also shifted – they now begin to demand the ultimate in exclusivity and uniqueness. Understanding this desire for new, personalized experiences, we launched THE MURAKA, the world’s first undersea residence, at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island – a one of a kind destination in itself. The entire experience of THE MURAKA has been designed with hyper-personalization in mind, with every need carefully planned and catered to even before guests reach the property, in close consultation with the dedicated THE MURAKA team.

What would be some 2019 travel trends and guest expectations for hotels? What didn't work out so well in 2018 for Hilton?

According to travel industry trend forecasts, travelers will increasingly seek unique experiences centered on personal fulfillment. This follows 2018, where travelers gravitated toward experiences over things – including living like a local and engaging in immersive moments. This demand for experiential travel shows no signs of slowing down in 2019. While travelers will continue to plan for and seek out the most authentic, local experiences, they will also use these experiences as a form of self-actualization, personal transformation and growth.

2019 will also continue to see an emphasis on technology, specifically mobile. Today, nearly 3 in 4 travelers use their phones to access social media, book activities and navigate. As a result, guests increasingly expect hotels to provide them with ways to customize their stay through mobile devices. Guided by extensive consumer feedback, our award-winning Hilton Honors mobile app offers a host of features, some of which enable guests to personalize different aspects of their stay to their exact preferences. For example, guests can already use the Order Ahead feature for personal requests ahead of their stay, such as an extra pillow or snack in the room, and they are also able to use Connected Room to select the exact temperature or lighting levels desired within their rooms.

What do guests expect from loyalty programs today? What do they want today from the program that they didn't want before?

As a leading hospitality brand, it is important that our guests enjoy exceptional experiences, and see the value in staying with Hilton each time they travel, be it for business or leisure. Guests increasingly demand personalized, seamless experiences through loyalty programs, from the point of booking to check-out – and this becomes more pronounced with repeat guests, who expect hospitality brands to thoroughly understand their needs and preferences.

Hilton Honors allows us to identify our most frequent and loyal travelers, and beyond just rewarding them for choosing Hilton, offering them a more customized experience. Our loyalty program also helps us develop holistic relationships with our members, so that we can deliver precisely the type of flexibility, value and personalization they want most. For example, through the Hilton Honors app, guests can truly customize their stay by inputting personal preferences like extra pillows or their favorite snack upon arrival.

Further, guided by feedback on what guests want most out of loyalty programs, we find that they seek greater flexibility and more ways to utilize their points. Taking this into account, Hilton recently refreshed its benefits system, focusing on rewarding our most loyal guests, to include more generous earning bonuses, unlimited milestone bonuses, rollover nights and the ability for Diamond members (the highest tier of members) to gift elite status to their favorite travel partner. Hilton Honors also offers a flexible point slider, giving members to option to use any combination of points and cash to pay for a night’s stay at our properties. Additionally, points can be used on the Hilton Honors Access auction platform, to gain access to unique, money-can’t-buy experiences to guests, including sold-out concerts and sporting events.

I have stayed in many Hilton hotels in Asia and the Middle East (including Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Hilton, and DoubleTree), some of them provide great experiences and meet my expectations, but some fail to do so. How do you keep consistency? How do you manage this kind of expectation (from travelers who travel from country to country)?

At Hilton, our core customer promise lies in the hospitality experience we deliver. We have countless properties around the world, across our 15 brands, but we need to ensure that we feature the right brands at the right locations, in collaboration with the right partners. Each brand in our portfolio has been specifically conceptualized and executed to have clear identities. Additionally, each property operates with the considerations of local markets, with variances from region to region to allow for local tastes and influences.

For example, with our luxury brand Waldorf Astoria, we look to offer guests unforgettable experiences at iconic destinations around the world. Our newly launched Waldorf Astoria Bangkok offers true Waldorf Service, and also features local Thai charm. For example, the Front Room restaurant helmed by chef Rungthiwa ‘Fae’ Chummongkhon, features a unique fusion of local Thai flavors and Nordic cuisine. Also, the property is in the heart of Ratchaprasong district, and has been inspired by the richness of Thai culture in its design by renowned architect André Fu – incorporating some of these elements, such as the purity of the Magnolia flower through the white façade of the building.

Another example is Canopy by Hilton, our lifestyle range of boutique hotels. Canopy by Hilton taps into local know-how and connections to local culture, such as locally inspired hotel designs, and arts and culture programs with a city’s up-and-coming artists and musicians. Thoughtful extras sourced from the local neighborhood are also available to guests, such as a welcome gift and complimentary evening tastings at the hotel bar every night – where guests can sample local wines, beers or spirits. Our first property in Asia-Pacific opens in Chengdu in Q1 2019.

To ensure the delivery of excellent and consistent service for guests, we invest in comprehensive training for our Team Members to become the best professionals in their area of specialty. For example, this year we launched the Food and & Beverage Operations Academy across South East Asia, to equip Team Members in Hilton’s F&B and culinary departments with knowledge and techniques to maximize the efficiency of their F&B outlets. Also, we have Management Trainee programs and the Elevate leadership training program, scaled for different levels of management. These initiatives create space for what matters most: innovation, creativity and building connections. Because when our Team Members thrive, so do we.