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John Vanderslice

John Vanderslice

Global Head—Luxury and Lifestyle Brands
Hilton Worldwide

Veteran CEO and Marketing Executive John Vanderslice is Hilton Worldwide’s Global Head of Luxury and Lifestyle Brands. In this role he has launched the Luxury Manifesto, a series of web-based interviews with luxury thought leaders. The former Kraft General Foods brand manager—he led Kool Aid and Crystal Light—has plans to expand Waldorf Astoria and Conrad brands; properties are set to open in London, Berlin, Panama and Koi Samui. He is also working on a lifestyle brand that will launch in 2013. Elite Traveler’s Editor-in-Chief Doug Gollan caught up with Vanderslice at the The Waldorf-Astoria’s famed Peacock Alley to discuss what Crystal Light and crystal chandeliers have in common.

ET: Tell me about the Luxury Manifesto.

John Vanderslice: We started the Luxury Manifesto a year and a half ago. During that time the whole world of luxury was in an upheaval. People even considered not even using the word luxury anymore because it was a terrible, audacious word. People were hiding brands. I looked at all the numbers, all the demos, to understand beneath the numbers. I wanted to reach out to the leaders in luxury across categories and see what they were thinking and how they were dealing with it. They would learn what we were doing and I’d learn from them and together we’d go.

ET: Who have you interviewed?

John Vanderslice: I reached out to Steve Sadove, is chairman of Saks Fifth Avenue; Tommy Hilfiger; Lisa Hughes, the publisher of the New Yorker; Greg Furman of the Luxury Marketing Council; Nancy Novogrod, editor-in-chief of Travel + Leisure; restaurateur Danny Meyer; and Christopher Bailey, the chief creative officer of Burberry.

ET: What have you learned from them?

John Vanderslice: It’s interesting how different people are dealing with it. The theme has been, new luxury is different than old luxury, which was about materials and design and traditional trappings. New luxury is about experiences, memories, family connections and somehow blending those worlds. The Economist recently came out with a story about wealth. Basically, and this is funny, they said there are more millionaires on the planet now than Australians. Interestingly, 41 percent of those millionaires are Americans, 10 percent Japanese, 3 percent Chinese. Let’s not forget 47 percent of those millionaires were entrepreneurs, 16 percent inherited their money, and the other 23 percent were working Joes who made it in a company. So the target for luxury is not just the older set that only goes to luxury hotels. It’s the young hedge fund people that are just as likely to be at the Waldorf and they’ll be at the Hampton Inn on the weekend at a soccer game.

ET: How has the Manifesto affected the Hilton’s philosophy?

John Vanderslice: The goal of the manifesto is weaving its fabric through all of our brand standards and culture. It’s how you deal with that guest. It’s about how we deal with our people, with our staff, and with our culture. Those are the challenges. It used to be, you build a beautiful hotel and hire some people and you’ll be fine but it’s totally different now. Let’s face it luxury changed after 9/11. It changed after this economic downturn. But there’s no reason why we can’t keep this open.

ET: When you say the Hilton Luxury Group, what does that encompass?

John Vanderslice: We are responsible in three areas, which are Waldorf Astoria Hotels and Resorts, Conrad Hotels and Resorts and developing a new lifestyle brand. We settled with Starwood and we are developing a lifestyle brand. Per the terms of the settlement I can’t launch it until January 2013, but you can count on one thing: we are going to launch a lifestyle brand.

ET: Right now there are 25 Waldorf Astorias and 16 Conrads worldwide. Do you have a stated goal for the number of hotels you’d like the luxury group to get to?

John Vanderslice: I can clearly see both brands being the size of Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton which is 80 plus hotels each of them.

ET: Over how many years?

John Vanderslice: Give them a number, give them a date, never give them both (laughs). But seriously, if you look at the way those brands grew, Four Seasons was three then eight and 20 and then all of a sudden they are at 80. So I can’t predict. That’s the real answer I guess.

ET: If you go back, when Four Seasons and Mandarin weren’t there or just had a couple of hotels, Hilton was a leading luxury global brand.

John Vanderslice: It’s true. Your town was a town when you had a nice Hilton hotel and that was the Hilton downtown and then a McDonald’s opened soon after (laughs). But Hilton is the best full service brand there is. There’s no doubt about it. In April I rolled out brand standards for all of the hotels and put them all on the same page. I got everybody aligned and since then the guest satisfaction scores are through the roof and I’m hoping that’ll continue. Another thing, now with the Luxury Manifesto, we’re beginning to be recognized as a thought leader in luxury, which is new for Hilton.

ET: What differentiates the brands?

John Vanderslice: We really believe in brand pillars that build a brand. But there is hierarchy in the brands. Waldorf Astoria is Hilton’s leading luxury brand. For Waldorf Astoria the one thing is true Waldorf service. If you’re at the Reach Resort in Florida or at the Arizona Biltmore or here in New York, you should be able to feel this thread of Waldorf service. It’s almost like a good housekeeping seal of approval. The second pillar would be inspirational environments. When you walk in your heart flutters. You know you’re in an important place. The third part of the brand is rooms that are better than your home. There are a lot of brands that are focusing on the comforts of home. In my hotel, business travel or leisure travel it’s all a dream. You want a room that’s better than your house.

ET: What will the one defining thing be for Conrad?

John Vanderslice: Two words: smart luxury.

ET: How do you define smart luxury?

John Vanderslice: The answer is putting pillars underneath that, which is flawless service, connections, and worldly style. Those are the three pillars. I go to all of our hotels and I see guests. They love Conrad. Our satisfaction rates are very high in Conrad. It’s a luxury experience. You get what you pay for, everything is right, everything works, and everything is connected. The other thing is connections. Interestingly, the brand grew probably more business focused than anything else. We’ve built the best meeting spaces in the world. We’re exploding in Asia in leisure as well as downtown hotels. They want smart luxury in the leisure setting. The third pillar is worldly style. Sometimes you can use the word contemporary or modern. I hate those words because it evokes Lucite chairs. It’s from the world but also recognizes the local aspect of it. We’ll double the size of that brand in the next two and a half years.

ET: You were a brand manager at Kraft General Foods. Are there similarities between managing food products and luxury hotels?

John Vanderslice: The thought process about branding and really taking the thing you’re going to stand for, that is the same. I do spend a lot of time on whatever brand on figuring that out. It’s funny, even though I’ve been CEO of this and that, I’m still a brand manager like when I was 22 years old. The aspect is the same thing. Now from a luxury standpoint, my career has evolved. This is the pinnacle.

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Rome Cavalieri, Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts

Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort