Exclusive interview with H. Stuart Foster, Vice President, Global Marketing, Hilton Worldwide, on the evolution of Conrad and Waldorf brands.

We caught up with H. Stuart Foster at the recent ILTM trade show in Cannes, and asked him to give us an overview of the current scenario for the group’s luxury brands…

We started out on a mission about seven years ago. We were a bit late in the game versus some of our competitors, but to be the fastest growing and most innovative luxury hotel group in the market. We had one Waldorf and eleven Conrads, mostly in Asia. Today we have 26 Waldorfs open and operating around the world and we have eleven in the pipeline. We have 24 Conrads open around the world and 22 in the pipeline. We’ve come a long way, and it’s because we’ve been focussing on experiences. There really are two levels of luxury out there: one is the “rich in life mindset”. For this, we don’t market to demographics, because a wealthy Emirati male and a wealthy New York woman have actually quite a lot in common when it comes to what they are looking for when they travel, whereas demographically they couldn’t be more different. And it’s really this idea that there’s a “rich in life” mindset, which is really what Waldorf caters to; experiences that are pinnacle moments in one’s life, for people that want to have veritable “hands on” service in an environment that is opulent and rich. We’ve put together the “true Waldorf service” in which every leisure guest gets a personal concierge – a dedicated person who handles your stay, checks you in, and allows you to bypass the front desk. Of course then there is the inspirational environment of every Waldorf – that sense of “wow” you have when you walk in the door. Then we started developing “experiences”.


Lamborghini experience @ Waldorf Astoria Dubai

An example of this is the partnership with Lamborghini, wherein at 17 properties around the world, we offer drives for our guests. In a two-hour outing, you drive a Lamborghini, led by a professional Lamborghini driver who drives in front of you, and you get to actually experience the destination from behind the wheel of a Lamborghini. Then we have a culinary experience that’s called “Tastes of Waldorf”, where we really celebrate all the wonderful chefs and great restaurants we have, and it’s really a competition between the different properties in terms of developing an iconic dish. The winning dish is then put in place at all the properties.

Is the salad still the “star” in New York?

Yes, in fact the competition was kind of inspired by the Waldorf salad, but Red Velvet cake was also invented there, as was Eggs Benedict. There’s an incredible history of iconic dishes hailing from the Waldorf.

What’s interesting as well is that at the Waldorf in New York, there’s a very comfortable, homely feeling. It’s not austere.

Exactly. We don’t use the term “butlers”, and we don’t have people wearing white gloves with silver platters. That old world luxury is not relevant any more. You can have a luxurious environment, but people may be wearing jeans. People rarely wear ties any more. Even though someone might want to feel rich in life, what that means to people is more natural, rather than forced.

What is luxury?

To me, luxury really comes down to the experience. People will pay a premium to have an experience that makes them feel rich in life, whether you’re buying that handbag or driving the Lamborghini or staying at a Waldorf Astoria.

In the past few years, research has shown that the fast growing sector of Chinese travellers spends a lot, but more on shopping than the hotel. Is that changing?

It’s definitely changing. Because they are new to luxury, and luxurious goods, they still travel to shop, but we are finding that the more experienced Chinese travellers are now travelling for culinary experiences, art and culture, and even golf. Of course you always have a very strong gifting culture in Asia, so a lot of the buying is now for gifts, not just amassing gifts.

We’ve created an experience platform called Conrad 1-3-5.

Getting back to experiences, what are you doing at Conrad as a differentiator here?

We’ve created an experience platform called Conrad 1-3-5. They are experiences that are one hour, three hours or five hours long. Depending how much time you have in between, before or after your business meetings, we have a website (www.stayinspired.com), which is in multiple languages. So if, for example, a Chinese traveller goes to New York and has one, three, or five hours of free time, we have curated things that are “real New York experiences”.

conrad_1-3-5It’s not everything. We’re not reviewing every restaurant, but we’ve curated the idea around the way people want to travel. You can choose shopping, food, culture, art, family or adventure. Then, depending on the time you have, you get the choice of what to do. It’s GPS enabled with a map, and it’s all in the palm of your hand. I call that smart luxury – people who are blending business and pleasure. I think that’s where a lot more of luxury is going and that’s why Conrad is really resonating. We actually hired the former executive editor of Conde Nast Traveller – Peter Jon Lindberg, and he did the curation of the experiences, so it comes from someone who really knows travel, and none of it is inside the hotel. It’s not like, “come sit in our bar and order this dish, or use our spa, or play golf on our golf course”. It’s all outside the hotels.

So this is a DIY thing…

Yes, that’s the difference between the Conrad and the Waldorf. At the Waldorf, the guest will hire a guide to take them around, while at the Conrad, people are more likely to want to explore on their own.


Waldorf Astoria New York City

Tell us about some of the new properties, or rebuilds…

Waldorf Astoria in New York is about to close. It will shut its doors in March 2017 for three years, and when it re-emerges it will be the most luxurious hotel in New York. It’s undergoing a major, major renovation that’s long overdue.


Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills

At the same time we are opening the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills – right on Wiltshire and Little Santa Monica – adjacent to the Beverly Hilton. The groundbreaking of the new Waldorf Astoria in San Francisco also just took place, on Mission and First. We’re opening a Waldorf Astoria in Bangkok, right on Sukhumvit near the St Regis. We’re really changing the reference point away from the old New York Waldorf Astoria that many people know – and when that comes back online in three years, fully renovated, this brand will really have a product story that will be unrivalled.

How is the way you work with travel agents evolving?

We have six people around the world who just focus on incentive programmes with agents. Then of course there are the consortia like FH&R, Virtuoso, Signature, as well as putting together the right programmes for the travel leaders and so on.

Our research shows that the percentage of people who say they’ve used a travel agent or advisor in the past year is around 20%.

How important is the travel advisor today?

Very, very important. Our research shows that the percentage of people who say they’ve used a travel agent or advisor in the past year is around 20%. It still means that one in five luxury travellers is still using an agent. And the role has changed. They’re not travel agents, they are risk managers. Therefore they are even more important, because there’s so much information out there. How do I sort through where I want to stay, where I want to eat, which destination I should go to? They’re consultants more than they are bookers. For more everyday needs, we encourage people to have a direct relationship with us, we are very encouraging to the travel agents, because we think they absolutely add value to the process. They’re thinking about how we can look after those guests in a way that’s meaningful. They’re not just selling a room.