Q&A With John Vanderslice, Global Head, Luxury And Lifestyle Brands, Hilton Worldwide

Way back in January I spoke at the Luxury FirstLook conference put on by Luxury Daily in New York (a terrific event, by the way). Several of the other speakers intrigued me. One, in particular, gave a speech that I immediately wanted to bring to attendees at Forrester's Forum For Customer Experience Professionals East: John T. A. Vanderslice, the global head of luxury and lifestyle brands at Hilton Worldwide (those brands being Waldorf Astoria and Conrad).

Here’s one of many things John said that struck me: "Today's luxury buyers make investments of passion." That’s a far cry from the way customer experience (CX) practitioners usually talk about emotional engagement. But it struck me as an authentic way to describe super-affluent buyers who’ll pay to reenact the life of a Roman gladiator or to take a trek through the wilds of Nepal.

I ambushed John on his way out the door and recruited him to speak at our forum, which he did earlier this week. He was great. And he was also gracious enough to answer some questions that we posed to him, which we’re now happy to share with you.

Enjoy!

John Vanderslice

1. When did your company first begin focusing on customer experience? Why?

Providing exceptional customer service has always been the most inherent part of Hilton Worldwide’s culture and DNA since the company’s inception in 1919 through today, which spans 10 brands. From a luxury perspective, we have always strived to be nimble and forward-thinking and are constantly adapting our customer service operations to suit the evolving needs of the luxury traveler. Today’s affluent consumers seek new and innovative ways of enhancing the quality of their lives through memorable experiences, not just products. It is more important now than ever before that we focus on creating an experience that is truly extraordinary and attuned to each of our guest's desires, needs, and preferences.

2. What were the first steps your hotel brands took to improve customer experience? Why did you choose to start that way?

As the operator of two of the most iconic hotel brands in the world, we have always known that we have a unique opportunity to reinforce and replicate the luxury experiences we deliver to guests.

In 2010, after having acquired a number of landmark properties in spectacular destinations, Waldorf Astoria Hotels And Resorts' brand leadership took a step back to look at how we could strategically position ourselves as the preeminent luxury brand in the marketplace. We conducted extensive research, interviewing more than 100 general managers, managers, and executives while conducting property visits and workshops to cross-examine the luxury traveler experience and how the brand would deliver truly unforgettable experiences. The results of this exercise helped us enhance our service culture and create an internal message everyone could understand and embrace. Our new service platform, True Waldorf Service, is the outcome of this multitiered project and has proven to be a tremendous success in its early stages of implementation.

While Waldorf Astoria continues to excel in providing tailored service and creating lasting impressions, its younger sister brand, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, has taken a unique approach to delivering a tailored customer experience. A survey commissioned by the brand in 2012 revealed nearly 75% of luxury consumers already use a smartphone, tablet, or computer when booking elements of their travel. In order to carve out a niche for itself and lure tech-savvy guests, Conrad developed the Conrad Concierge application for iPhone, Android, and tablet.  

This intuitive hospitality software platform is completely integrated with each hotel’s management system across the portfolio to ensure that every aspect of the guests' stay is seamless, effortless, and on their terms. Whether it is selecting in-room amenities prior to arrival, ordering room service, or arranging a wake-up call, the Conrad Concierge app offers our guests the ultimate luxury — the luxury of being themselves — by putting them in control and letting them make personalized decisions whenever and wherever they want.

3. What if anything is different about what you're doing now to improve customer experience versus what you did when you were starting out?

In support of two unique luxury brands, we have essentially developed two separate global cultures, guest-driven customization platforms, and marketing strategies. Waldorf Astoria is about True Waldorf Service — enabling hotel team members to deliver a high-touch, unforgettable experience during each stay. Conrad is committed to offering guests The Luxury of Being Yourself by appealing to their high-tech sensibilities and desire for a truly unique and customized stay. These well-defined cultures provide a framework for our hotels to operate within to deliver exceptional service that is personalized to each guest, on every occasion.

4. What advice would you give to a company trying to plan its own path to CX maturity?

First and foremost, define and set out to understand your audience members, determine what makes them tick, and consistently deliver an experience that resonates with them and exceeds their expectations. Secondly, do not be timid or afraid of technology. Be bold and employ new methods and channels that engage consumers while differentiating yourself among your competitive set.

P.S. from Harley: Here's where you can see the article Luxury Daily wrote about John's speech at Forrester's Forum For Customer Experience Professionals East, 2013, on Wednesday.