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Hilton CEO Waxes Positive on Recovery as Travel Industry Gains Strength

Christopher Nassetta bolsters travel industry investors and leaders with reports of rising numbers and notes of initiatives necessary to see pre-pandemic numbers again

Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta told CNBC last week about reasons to be optimistic as we look at the recovery of corporate travel following a prolonged coronavirus-related slowdown.

“This is as good as I’ve felt since the pandemic started in terms of where we are and what I see in forward-looking trends and bookings in the business,” Nassetta said in an interview.

And while the leisure travel sector has been driving the travel industry’s recovery in recent weeks, Nassetta noted he expects to see an explosion of activity in the leisure category this summer. But the rise of business travel again is critical for a complete rebound in the hospitality sector, if not travel and tourism.

The head of the Hilton chain also spoke at the World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) annual Summit, which was held in Cancun, Mexico two weeks ago. As the current chair of the WTTC, he delivered a keynote that aimed to circle the wagons to get the cooperation of international representatives in this sector to work together with their governments as well as their associates and competitors to bring the crippling COVID crisis to a halt.

“We can see the light at the end of the at the end of the tunnel. I think it’s fair to say 2020 challenged all of us enormously. But we’ve persevered as an industry in so many inspiring ways. We’re not through it, but we are on the brink of recovery, and it is critically important, more than ever in the history of our industry, that we work together as travel resumes around the world,” said Nassetta. “People are really eager to get out and create those new memories, to make those connections, whether that be for leisure or for business. These are things that just can’t be done on a screen. We have had a really good chance to see what happens when Travel and Tourism is stalled — the economic and social impacts are enormous. Our industry’s contribution to global GDP dropped by an astounding 49 percent last year and we lost 62 million jobs in one year.

“Our sector needs to lead the way in advocating internationally for the opening of borders and common sense approaches to ensure safety and consistency at every step of the traveler journey as we progress through this recovery,” he continued. “we can do this; we can open borders, we can get people moving. We just have to be intelligent and coordinated with measures like seamless, secure internationally-accepted health credentialing systems and widespread effective testing to help reduce the need for quarantining — allowing travelers to move safely and more freely around the world. And it’s important that we work together with countries, and with the private sector all over the world to bring it to life with existing and new technologies.”

In a later interview he added that business travel is coming back. The WTTC event was one example of that – it brought together tourism ministers and captains of the travel industry from all over the world for a carefully considered and safe onsite, interior event. Some 600 people were in attendance for the three-day event, which had a successful live virtual component and was tabbed as a hybrid meeting.

“Business travel, while it’s lagging, it’s coming back. It’s probably about half the levels that we saw at the prior peak,” Nassetta said. “Group and events are lagging that, but they’re coming back.” Hilton has been experiencing a boost in corporate bookings of late, mostly in markets where virus spread is abating. Nassetta added that in those markets business travel is back to “effectively 75% of volume levels that we saw in [2019].”

“There is a huge opportunity in front of us,” said Nassetta in his conference keynote. “I know a lot of people think travel has been forever impaired. The reality is the next two to three years, when we get through this pandemic, we can we can emerge from this period and build a better world for all of us to travel.”