THE IPO AND WHY WE HATE HILTON NOW
By Joe Brancatelli
September 18, 2013 -- Leaf through the initial public offering for Hilton Worldwide filed last week and you'll read the story of a dedicated team of forward-thinking executives toiling six years to coax value, growth and profits out of an iconic lodging name.
Listen to Wall Street and you'll hear the tale of a legendary investment firm (The Blackstone Group) that bought too high ($26 billion to take Hilton private) at the wrong time (2007), but now can turn that investment lemon into lemonade that might be worth $30 billion in today's resurgent lodging market.
But what about us poor business travelers, the folks who fill the rooms at what are now more than 4,000 Hilton Family hotels? What's the IPO filing, a placeholder for a predicted 2014 float of an undetermined number of shares at an undetermined price, mean for us?
On some levels, nothing at all. More than anything else, and just like its major global lodging competitors, Hilton Worldwide is a franchising company now. All but about 150 of the properties bearing one of its 10 brand names are owned and managed by others. Besides, even after the IPO, Blackstone will remain the majority owner of Hilton Worldwide. In other words, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Down in the weeds, though, where business travelers are the boots on the ground and the heads on the beds, the Hilton IPO sheds light on why the company is hardly one of our favorites. Yes, Hilton Worldwide represents about 5 percent of the world's lodgings. Yes, 38 million of us are members of the Hilton HHonors program. But size is Hilton's only claim on us these days because Blackstone's six-year reign hasn't been kind to road warriors.
Deflowering Hilton HHonors
Yet Blackstone has spent six years deflowering HHonors, devaluing its payoff and making it the most confusing and convoluted program in the lodging arena. Worst of all, it eviscerated the highest elite level, called Diamond, and most experts say the program's sweet spot is the lower Gold tier. Why make the jump to Diamond, which requires 30 stays or 60 room nights a year, when the Gold level (20 stays or 40 nights) is the functional equivalent? And why even spend 40 nights in a Hilton property when you can acquire Gold level status for just $95 via Citibank's Hilton Reserve Card? Alone among frequent-guest programs, HHonors tells business travelers that it doesn't pay to be a frequent guest.
Muddle in the Middle
The Hilton brand is rudderless and uninspired. The properties run the gamut from tired and stale to new and sterile. Despite a 34 percent jump in total rooms across Hilton Worldwide during Blackstone's run, the Hilton brand itself grew by just 9 percent. Hilton is not the only full-service brand that suffers from identity problems, of course, but Blackstone's competitors have reacted more smartly.
Hilton's other full-service brand, DoubleTree, suffers the opposite fate. It has grown 96 percent under Blackstone's watch. But as what the industry calls a "conversion brand"ó76 percent of its growth has been achieved by slapping its name on buildings that were once part of other hotel chainsóDoubleTree is an appalling mash-up. Other than the signature chocolate-chip cookies they receive at check-in, business travelers have no idea what they'll get when they arrive at a DoubleTree. Some, like The Wit in Chicago, are quite stylish and some, like the DoubleTree at Seattle-Tacoma airport, are dreary.
The all-suite Embassy Suites chain has fared even more poorly. There are only 213 properties now, just 27 more than when Blackstone took over in 2007. Blackstone's plan to jump-start Embassy Suites' growth by introducing properties with "one-room suites" hasn't worked and muddied the brand's image. Embassy Suites even lost its flagship hotel in Manhattan's Battery Park City when the building was purchased by Goldman Sachs. After visiting partners complained that it wasn't swanky enough, Goldman last year repositioned it as a Conrad, one of Hilton's luxury brands.
Conrad was originally conceived when the Hilton name was controlled by two separate companies. The U.S.-based Hilton Hotels Corp. was prohibited from expanding overseas by Hilton International, the company that controlled the Hilton name globally, so U.S. Hilton began opening overses hotels called Conrad. (The name come from the chain's founder, Conrad Hilton.) When the two Hiltons reunited in 2006 for the first time in 42 years, the small Conrad chain was retained. There are now only 23, just six of which have opened during Blackstone's tenure.
Shortly before Blackstone took over, however, the owner of several independent luxury resorts convinced Hilton to launch a second luxury chain. The inspiration? The Waldorf Astoria, the iconic midtown Manhattan mega-hotel. Although there are now 23 Waldorfs around the world, many are Waldorf Astorias in name only. They still largely attract guests thanks to their original names, such as the Arizona Biltmore, the Boulders in Arizona, the Grand Wailea on Maui, La Quinta in California, the Boca Raton Resort in Florida and El Conquistador in Puerto Rico.
Worse, the rambling Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan is hardly the torchbearer for modern global luxury lodging. Years ago, Hilton hived off the best rooms and rebranded them as a separate hotel called The Waldorf Towers. And Hilton finally stripped the Manhattan hotel of its "flagship" designation this summer. The chain's new standard bearer: the 346-room Waldorf Astoria in Ras al Khaimah, one of the sheihkdoms of the United Arab Emirates.
The Hotel That Wasn't There
Few doubt that Blackstone will score with the Hilton Worldwide IPO. The lodging industry is the upswing and occupancy rates and nightly room rates have returned to pre-crisis levels. Lodging stocks are prospering: Starwood (NYSE: HOT) is up 19 percent this year while Hyatt (NYSE: H) is up 17 percent and Marriott (NYSE: MAR) has risen 14 percent.
But for us road warriors, there's precious little to like about Blackstone's six-year-run at Hilton or the chain's future as a quasi-independent global lodging behemoth.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.