Hilton to double down on India investments

Mumbai: Seven years after its failed joint venture with real estate firm DLF Ltd, the world’s second largest hotel chain, Hilton Inc., is doubling down on India.

Hilton, which has 17 hotels in India now, plans to increase it to 34 in the next three years and introduce new brands, its Asia-Pacific head Alan Watts said.

Earlier this year, Hilton hired former Marriott Inc. executives Navjit Ahluwalia and Jatin Khanna to lead its India business, the first time it has named local talent to top management since its India entry in 2000.

Ahluwalia is senior vice-president and country head while Khanna is vice-president and head of operations (India).

“We have always had a presence in India, but we are now over-investing in India to be ahead of what we think is the start of the strong cycle…We want to swing the spotlight back to India,” Watts said.

In the past, especially since the global financial crisis in 2008, Hilton did not make “active decisions to win and expand in India”, Watts said.

In 2005, Hilton and DLF formed a joint venture to build around 60 hotels, but it failed to take off and they parted ways in 2011.

In 2003, the hotel chain had entered into a 15-year marketing and co-branding partnership with EIH Ltd, the owner of Oberoi hotels.

However, this, too, failed to take off, and was called off in 2008.

With both partnerships falling through, Hilton’s Indian expansion plans suffered a setback.

“Post 2008, it took us some time to unwind that (DLF) deal and be able to build hotels again. In the end, both parties said the cycle is not right for us and we disconnected the partnership. From a timing perspective, we missed the last cycle,” he said.

Watts said building a strong local leadership and strengthening the sales team were key.

“We just expanded our office in Delhi. We are instituting a new larger national sales team. Another key point is, management team in India has to have local experts to be well respected in the market. In the past, we have put expatriates,” Watts said, adding this would help form long-term relationships with Indian hotel owners.

Hilton will also look for opportunities to bring its other global brands, including uber-luxury brand Waldorf Astoria, and its new service brand Tru by Hilton.

Out of its 14 international brands, Hilton has five in India.

“Our immediate focus is on Hilton, Conrad and Double Tree but we are looking for opportunities to deploy our uber-luxury brand and also at some point, bring our focused service brands,” Watts said.

Hilton has not had a smooth journey in India, said Mandeep Lamba, managing director (hotels and hospitality group) at JLL India, a property consultant firm. He said the failure of two deals slowed its India business.

“Globally, Hilton is a formidable hotel operator with very strong iconic brands such as the Hilton and Conrad. With a new leader in India who has a deep understanding of the Indian market and with a track record of growing international brands in this marketplace, I am sure Hilton will soon find its rightful position in the Indian market,” Lamba added.livemint


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