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John Vanderslice, Hilton’s global head of luxury & lifestyle brands, and Kelly Vohs, GM of Conrad Chicago, give top-tier hotels a new context

BT: What is Hilton’s approach to the luxury and lifestyle hotel sector?

VANDERSLICE: Hilton’s luxury and lifestyle includes three brands: Waldorf-Astoria, Conrad, and Canopy, which is our newest brand. On the luxury end, Waldorf and Conrad, we established a vision about seven years ago to be the fastest growing, most innovative luxury hotel company. So today in Conrad Hotels & Resorts we have 24 properties open on five continents, and we have an additional 23 hotels that are currently under development, including eight opening in 2016 in Makkah, Xiamen, Manila, San Luis Potosi, Guangzhou, Osaka, Fort Lauderdale Beach and Chicago.

BT:  Tell us about the Conrad Chicago.

VOHS: Hilton in partnership with Lawrence Geller purpose-built this hotel, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, to be a true Conrad. Its size and its location are ideal for an urban market. It’ll be 289 rooms, three great restaurants, as well as 10,000 square feet of meeting space. We’re taking bookings now for stays starting Sept. 1.

VANDERSLICE: Conrad Chicago is going to be our sixth property in the US. It underscores our commitment of best-in-class hotels in key gateway cities. So that’s why we’re so excited about it.

BT:  What will set the Conrad apart from other Chicago luxury hotels?

VANDERSLICE: We have defined Conrad in what we call the smart luxury space. But what’s happened over the last several years is, the luxury traveler has changed dramatically – much more global, younger, more casual in attitude, plugged-in. And our innovation platforms behind Conrad totally line up with that new luxury traveler.

BT: How do you connect your brands with this traveler?

VANDERSLICE: We no longer look at demographics – income level, age, all of those things. We actually are into mindsets. And for each one of the brands, I have mindsets determined. Because at any given time, your mindset can change depending on your occasion.

BT: How so?

VOHS: If you got me on Thursday night when I was in Minneapolis, I’m one customer; when I’m there on Saturday with my family, I’m a different customer. So we have to be adaptable and shift gears on the fly. And that’s tough. You can throw all the technology you want at it, but basically it’s just humans connecting with humans, doing whatever they need at that time to help them win –   whatever that means to them.

BT: So technology alone can’t solve problems – it enables people to solve problems.

VANDERSLICE: Exactly. Where technology meets service is where the ballgame’s going to be in the luxury space. For example, the Conrad Concierge is an app that 250,000 people have on their smartphones. So everything the hotel provides is now at your fingertips. If you think about this new luxury traveler and their technical ability, it totally aligns with who they are. And they use it – it’s unbelievable – and when they do, our satisfaction scores go through the roof.

BT:  Less personal interaction equals higher satisfaction?

VANDERSLICE: Think about it. What we’ve done, we’ve taken the transaction out of it. Because luxury is always about service and it’s always about people, but it’s also how that’s articulated to the guest. I think, again, less transactional and more engaging.

BT: Is the look and feel of a luxury hotel changing?

VANDERSLICE: For sure, in a luxury hotel it’s always going to be about architecture, design. That’s kind of table stakes. But the differentiating factor now is experience that is driven by your culture. Conrad it a great example, because it was like the ball is coming to us. It’s this great alignment between a major consumer trend and the brand.

VOHS: Our rooms, per key, are extraordinarily expensive, but we did it in a manner where it’s beautiful, it’s simple, it’s clean, it’s modern. But even if you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a key, you need to fill the hotel with people who look you in the eye and say, I care about you – that’s where we’ll really differentiate.