Hilton Hotels, acquired by the private equity firm Blackstone Group last year, has launched an aggressive push to expand its luxury portfolio. Hilton has a second, lesser-known luxury brand, Conrad, which hopes to expand both its presence and name recognition in the Americas as part of Blackstone's new luxury push. Hotels editor Jeri Clausing recently talked with Conrad CEO Richard Blamey.
Q: Conrad is not a name that is well-known in the Americas.
A: Conrad Hotels was born out of Hilton Hotels Corp. in the early 1980s. The first property opened in 1985 in Australia.
Conrad was started as a vehicle through which Hilton Hotels Corp. intended to grow internationally, because in the 1960s the Hilton family divested themselves of the right to the Hilton name outside of the Americas. That is where Hilton International [reacquired by Hilton Hotels in 2006] came from.
So by definition our efforts were concentrated internationally. We concentrated in the early days in Asia and Pacific regions, Australia, Hong Kong. In the '90s there was also growth in Europe, where we first developed in Brussels and Dublin.
Q: How many hotels do you have now?
A: We are 18 hotels currently, and we have seven in the pipeline.
Q: How many Conrads are there in North America?
A: We have hotels in Miami and Chicago. We have a hotel in South America, in Punta del Este in Uruguay. And we have a hotel in Indianapolis, which was an opportunity we grasped with great enthusiasm because we had an opportunity to be the leading luxury hotel in the city.
Obviously Indiana is not a gateway city in the same way as San Francisco or Los Angeles, which are target cities for us.
Q: What does your future look like under Blackstone's ownership?
A: My view is first of all, that when Hilton Hotels and Hilton International came together, it was a great opportunity. Now that Blackstone has acquired Hilton, I think the opportunities are even greater.
First of all, I think any company or organization that is in private ownership has a greater degree of flexibility.
Secondly, Blackstone brings to the table a huge amount of expertise and knowledge of the hospitality industry around the world.
They are not new to this sector of the industry. They are quite intent on moving forward and growing not only the value of the companies but also the individual brands.
The third element of Blackstone is they bring to the table an existing group of brands under the LXR brand. We will be converting many of the LXR assets. Some of them may convert to Conrad, some may convert to Waldorf-Astoria, some may convert to Hilton.
That is a way we think we can grow the Conrad brand in North America. That is an opportunity that only comes around once in a lifetime.
One other thing to mention about Blackstone is the recent hiring of [former Starwood executives] Ross Klein and Amar Lalvani.
That demonstrates a huge commitment to the luxury sector.
Q: How are the Conrad and Waldorf-Astoria brands different?
A: We have always distinguished Conrad from Waldorf-Astoria by really earning a reputation for providing guests with a highly individualized experience in a contemporary luxury environment. Waldorf-Astoria is more classic.
What we will be doing in coming weeks with Ross Klein is looking at ways to further develop the distinctiveness of the two brands.