Ross Klein, global head of luxury and lifestyle brands for Hilton Hotels Corporation, likes to get his hands dirty. He claims to be happy under the bonnet of a classic car and threatens to spend the interview showing off pictures of his latest project: renovating a 1969 Jaguar E-type with his father.
Getting dirty also translates to his work life, where he says he is happy to get close to the everyday duties of a hotel business, occasionally taking on the role of a chambermaid and changing the sheets or greeting guests as they check in. Klein explains: “We’re very involved in culture and training; you can’t do that in a vacuum.”
Both of these admissions seem astonishing given Klein’s immaculate presentation. There’s not even a hint of a crease in his on-trend purple Pringle shirt. His tanned complexion and Hermès belt help complete the image of a perfectly preened luxury brand executive.
Klein doesn’t see his willingness to get involved with the basics of a job as clashing with his attention to detail. The thorough approach can be seen in the unveiling of Hilton’s new premium lifestyle brand – Denizen Hotels.
After months of speculation, the project has been revealed to comprise a group of more boutique-style hotels aiming to be culturally sensitive to their locations. The name Denizen means “citizen of the world”.
Denizen Hotels is in development negotiations in 17 cities including Miami, New York, Jerusalem and Istanbul. Each hotel will have a different “personality”, from the “Nocturnal Socialite” in London to the “Eco Innovator” in Las Vegas. Klein says these guest profiles have been borne out of how people live and how they are going to use the hotels.
Hilton Hotels pinched Klein from Starwood Hotels & Resorts last June. He was president in charge of Starwood’s luxury brands such as W, which themselves broke the mould of the traditional chain hotel market with quirky design features and unique services on their launch.
Klein was brought in because while Hilton is known as a premium brand, its main strength was delivering a consistent look, feel and service around the world, rather than creating edgy, contemporary luxury.
Klein repackaged three of Hilton’s hotel brands into a new luxury and lifestyle division (Waldorf Astoria; Conrad Hotel and Resorts; and The Waldorf Astoria Collection). Klein was then tasked with creating a fourth lifestyle brand with a more boutique feel. He explains: “We realised that there was a little bit of a space, a vibrant space in the lifestyle category, and Hilton has not entered it contemporarily.”
Denizen is supposed to appeal across the generations, with a fusion of styles from traditional boutique touches such as chandeliers to technology spaces and “hubs” to relax in.
Klein is keen to make sure that the design of the locations stands out. His passion for design is something he honed during his time working for fashion company Ralph Lauren, where he saw first hand how the combination of stylish design and thorough marketing succeeded. “Ralph’s definitely my hero on both sides of the coin,” he admits.
Amar Lalvani, now global head of luxury and lifestyle brand development for Hilton Hotels Corporation, formerly worked with Klein at Starwood Hotels and says this combination of commercial and creative talent is Klein’s greatest strength.
He adds: “The most important thing is that he thinks completely outside of this industry, which I think this industry needs a lot more of.”
One way in which Klein does this is by asserting that he doesn’t want the “Den” to be simply for guests but to form part of the local community too. While there will be guest-only areas, many elements will be open to the public. Many hotels discourage non-residents or business users from making use of facilities but Klein says he wants the locale to see a Denizen as a place to pass time.
“We want each one of the properties to feel like it originated there rather than like it has just been plonked into the space,” he says.
He goes on: “If home is your first place, work is your second place. Our hero [Howard Schultz] at Starbucks says he created Starbucks to be your third place. Aspirationally, we’re hoping that the Den becomes that fourth place for that community.”
Klein built up his ideas for the Denizen brand after taking into consideration the views and opinions of 4,500 people. He says it’s not the snazzy aesthetics of the hotel that inform the brand; the design has been informed by the strategy process.
Klein doesn’t talk about the Denizen brand as a “luxury” one, preferring to call it “upper upscale”. This is the careful talk of a recession where the hotel industry is seeing fewer business guests checking in.
Klein says it was important to consider an offer “which doesn’t look naughty on the expense account” during the development of the brand, but at the same time create an engaging personality rather than dull corporate blandishments.
While the mention of corporate accounts suggests that the hotels will attempt to appeal to the business market, Klein isn’t keen to talk too much about the demographics he’s targeting with his marketing. Instead he talks about how marketing must find consumers on a “circle”. It’s about engaging the customer before their stay and after their stay as well as during their stay. “It’s about having that interaction and dialogue with the guests,” he says.
There has already been plenty of online dialogue in the run-up to the announcement of the hotel brand. Guerilla-style marketing tactics were used, with a countdown website creating a buzz on forums.
There was such an interest in the website when it finally went live last week that it went offline for a while. Klein jokes: “I thought only my own mother and father would go on it.”
He adds that his parents are very supportive of what he does. He even produces an email from his 71-year-old computer-wizz dad writing his thoughts and advice on the new Denizen Hotels’ website.
His father will surely be keeping a watchful eye on the rest of Klein’s marketing strategy, which the dutiful son reports will also be modern enough to reflect the brand’s values: “I would say that non-traditional media is going to be a big part of the brand.”
For all the talk about the boutique nature of the Denizen brand, its backing by Hilton forms a major part of its ability to launch during a time when many upscale offerings are being rolled back.
Klein admits that the “Hilton engine” will give it a good start. He claims: “We have the Hilton Honour programmes, which at any one time have about 8 million active members.”
Much of the success of the new chain may well come down to word-of-mouth marketing, however, so Klein is anxious that the experience is pitched at the right level for the Den guests: “Part of the times we live in is that the best endorsement is peer to peer.”
Hotel marketing is aimed at more than the guest, however. There are four different customers that Klein and his team have to convince that this lifestyle brand is for them: the people building the property, the travel trade, employees and then guests.
“Each business unit is a microcosm of the brand,” he suggests.
In order to co-ordinate this global marketing and communications strategy, Klein says he’s not the boss overseeing the process but feels he’s akin to a show producer with the hotel as his theatre.
“The show has to go off without a hitch. It’s curtains up every day, and everyone has to give their top performance,” he warns.
In the middle of a recession, launching a new hotel chain is a bold step. For Klein, focusing on the overall “show” experience rather than simply the bed and the room is vital.
While the new hotel brand certainly has the visual appeal to put on a good face for its audience, this may not be the clearest indicator of Klein’s success. That will come if getting his hands dirty behind the scenes with alluring marketing and clever strategies can ensure that Denizen remains part of the global hotel scene for years to come.