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Marathon Man: An Interview with Navjit Ahluwalia, Senior VP & Country Head of India, Hilton

With over a dozen brands under its belt, Hilton has been welcoming guests for nearly a century now. With its host of luxury services, an eye for detail and a generous rewards programme, Hilton has caught the imagination of travellers across the world. When it comes to new and emerging markets for the brand, India ranks high in the global hospitality market. Overseeing the expansion plans of the Group in India is Navjit Ahluwalia, Senior Vice President and Country Head of India, Hilton, who is currently in charge of 33 hotels, trading and under development, including the recently opened Conrad Bengaluru, while leading the growth strategy in the country. Today’s Traveller caught up with this dynamic leader, who spoke at length about the Hilton Group, the potential of the hospitality market in India, the operational challenges one faces in the country and finally, how he unwinds during his free time. Ahluwalia starts by emphasising the importance of the Indian hospitality market, saying that after the United States and China, India is slated to be the third largest hospitality market in the world, although he could not be certain about when the country would be able to hit the magic mark. “India,” says Ahluwalia, “is not a 100-metre sprint, rather it is a Marathon. So, you need to have the stamina and the training to compete in a Marathon. Creating brand value in India, along with new properties, operations teams and guest experiences, takes time. Patience is the key.” The congenial corporate culture of Hilton is well-known, says Ahluwalia. Recently, a survey conducted by CareerBliss – an online career review portal – placed Hilton in its list of happiest US companies. Work place environment, the compensation package and benefits were some of the criteria chosen for consideration. As Ahluwalia puts it, “We want to create a culture which makes it fun for people to work. This is not particular to India, but in fact, a global culture. Hilton already has it. It is a culture of thrive, which very few companies have. We are a company that believes in the larger purpose of what we are doing – whether it is about connecting people or making a difference to the environment around us. That is why people want to stay with us for years together. However, such things are easier said than done. This is due to the fact that as a corporate, we still have an interest in making the company commercially viable.” Ahluwalia takes time to ponder on the nature of the market in India. The country has gone through various cycles of growth. The international hospitality companies started coming only in the early 2000s. India saw a period of growth from 2000 to 2008-09. Subsequently, the growth slowed down. But, we now see the second cycle of that growth, says Ahluwalia, adding that the hospitality industry still faces a number of problems.

Unlike Hong Kong, India’s total number of rooms is quite negligible. Further, infrastructure still needs to be developed in India, and one has to operate according to the local taste and preferences in order to effectively tap into the local market. Ahluwalia cites an example to strike his point home – “The difference between the Indian market and the market abroad is all about service and product differentiation. In the US, while there may not be much difference between a Hilton and Double Tree by Hilton in terms of the product, there is a huge difference between the services offered. India, however, is a different story altogether. In India, no matter what rooms you are providing, you must provide all the essential services offered by the hotel. Further, customers may find other hotels which may provide you with full services at cheaper rates. As such In India, there is not much of service differentiation, but a lot of product differentiation. Unlike international markets, prices of rooms in India are not based on services provided, but on room sizes. All these factors make India a tough market to crack,” Nonetheless, Ahluwalia is upbeat about the Hilton brand, which is all about teamwork and dedication, and will be celebrating its 100-year-Anniversary the following year. However, the astute hotelier still likes to think of the company as a startup. “This again ties up with the flourishing career prospects that the company provides,” says Ahluwalia. One can start from the very bottom and move up the corporate ladder. His own career is a reflection of this. When it comes to innovation, disruption and creativity, Hilton is the clear leader. The company is also heavily investing in the new digital technology. Ahluwalia’s firm belief is that India holds immense potential. The new-found leisure sector is booming and as infrastructure develops, more destinations will be added to the Hilton portfolio in India. Ahluwalia states, “Today, we have a chance to mould India in the way we want. India is rapidly changing and we want to tap this growing market.” It is never ‘All work and no play’ for this fit and dynamic corporate. Cycling and running are two of his greatest passions. “I regularly participate in the Half Marathon,” signs off Ahluwalia.

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