Management Secrets from The Cleanest Hotel Chain in America

Our room at The Skirvin Hilton Oklahoma City.

When our family road-tripped across the country last summer, we stayed in numerous hotels.  Since our family travel budget does not afford for luxury accommodations we, like most families, look for clean, safe, affordable hotels with perhaps a few amenities like a swimming pool. Nothing fancy. It is always a nice surprise, however, to get a little more for your travel dollar–something wonderful you weren’t expecting. There were two hotels in our travels that delivered that surprise and spoiled us for the rest of the trip!

What made these hotels so special? The first one wasn’t really much to get excited about at first. It was located in a southern suburban strip mall next to a Spanish-language grocery store. The exterior was relatively plain but there were many cars in the parking lot. The other was an elegant, old-fashioned building in the downtown district of a large western city. What did these hotels have in common that so impressed us?

The rooms were stunningly clean! In fact, “clean” doesn’t really describe these rooms. There was no evidence that anyone had ever inhabited these rooms since they were built! The paint and carpeting were pristine, the linens smelled fresh and looked new, the furniture was dust-free and had not a scuff or scratch on it, the bathroom tile gleamed. If I didn’t know better, I would have sworn that someone just finished renovating the rooms one week before.

I looked and looked for any signs of imperfection in these rooms and I found none. None! I have never been in any hotel (or home for that matter) that rose to this level of fastidiousness.

So, naturally, it piqued my curiosity. What did these hotels (The Hampton Inn & Suites Knoxville, North I-75 and The Skirvin Hilton in Oklahoma City, in case you are wondering) have in common? It turned out they have the same parent owner: Hilton!

Hilton Worldwide is the parent company of 10 different brands of hotels:

  • The Waldorf Astoria Hotels
  • The Conrad Hotels and Resorts (named after Hilton founder Conrad Hilton)
  • Hilton Hotels
  • DoubleTree
  • Embassy Suites
  • Hilton Garden Inn
  • Hampton Inn & Suites
  • Homewood Suites
  • Home2 Suites by Hilton
  • Hilton Grand Vacations

It turns out that the entire Hilton hotel chain is franchised and therefore most of the Hilton hotels are owned by different investors. Hilton does offer a management services company, Hilton Management Services, that hotel franchisors can choose to use but they are not required to.

"The Hilton Hotel Madrid Airport - 2008." Photo by By UggBoy♥UggGirl. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

When you think of all the variables involved in managing the Hilton hotel brand it is almost astounding that Hilton can maintain the same high standards of quality from Tennessee to Oklahoma (and worldwide for that matter), particularly when it is likely the management of each hotel differs. Then, factor in additional complicating variables like the fact that most housekeeping employees are unionized and that cleaning and maintenance costs are expensive and have to be paid for by each hotel owner. You have to be pretty ambitious (and optimistic) to believe you can pull this off.

Conrad San Juan Condado Plaza Hotel, Room 508. Photo by vxla. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Yet, Hilton does it!

How? We can guess a few management secrets from the Hilton websites.

1. Set the standards sky high.

“Hilton’s vision is simple, yet filled with promise and expectation. In a wide range of venues around the globe we strive to create a consistently superior lodging experience – one that earns the loyalty of our guests by surpassing their expectations every day in every way.”

Hilton Development

2. Innovate.

“For each of its hotel products, Hilton strives to be the ‘best in class’. We rigorously analyze each market segment to determine which attributes the traveling public expects and desires, then incorporate those attributes into the standards we set for each type of hotel. Such standards are continually reviewed and updated to ensure that we maintain our competitive edge across all categories as well as maintain the integrity of the brand.”

Hilton Franchise Development Brochure

“Hilton remains synonymous with hotel because of its innovative approach to products, amenities and service. Whether becoming the first hotel to install televisions in guest rooms or the first hotel in the world to earn both LEED and Green Seal environmental certifications, individual Hilton hotels always lead the way. Among its industry firsts, Hilton developed the concept of franchising hotels, launched the first airport hotel, introduced the first multi-hotel reservation system and became the first U.S. coast-to-coast hotel chain. After more than 90 years, Hilton’s expertise and insight of global travel remains unmatched.”

About Hilton

Current innovations:

“The HILSTAR reservations system is one of the most technologically advanced reservations systems in the hotel industry.”

Hilton Development

“Our new Hilton Breakfast is a breakfast offering that will meet each and every guest’s request for the taste and service-style they prefer. This includes breakfast on-demand that offers both à la carte and menu selections. It is a comprehensive buffet featuring a descriptive ‘Follow Your Color’ guide providing an easy way for health- conscious guests to choose their individual breakfast based on basic nutritional labeling (e.g., low fat, low sodium or high fiber selections).”

“New Hilton Fitness by Precor presents the latest equipment for a more personalized workout. Every Precor elliptical, treadmill and bike comes with its own TV screen and headphones.”

Becoming a Hilton

3. Rigorously inspect and monitor your progress.

“We will protect the value of our brands. . . . We will not compromise on the quality of our brands and hotels. . . .

“[E]very Hilton hotel is required to meet brand standards for quality and service as outlined in our comprehensive Hilton Brand Standards manual. To ensure that those standards are met, our quality assurance specialists regularly inspect each Hilton property, evaluating the hotel not only from a brand management point of view, but also from the guest’s perspective.”

Hilton Development

4. Be a demanding but fair business partner.

“Our core business principles are based upon such timeless values as teamwork, fair play, mutual respect and open communications. Franchising is a two-way street, and we understand that our franchise owners have expectations of us, just as we have expectations of them. . . .

The long-term health of our brands depends on [a commitment to product and service quality]. In the guest’s mind, a brand is only as strong as its weakest property. Rigorous enforcement of standards helps both of us.”

Hilton Development

5. Spend money to make money.

What are those brand standards exactly? How do they get the bathrooms so spotlessly clean? We have a few clues from the Embassy Suites operating standards that specify simple things like how often to wash duvet covers and pillows and rotate mattresses.  But the real meat of these operating standards appears to be in the investment in maintenance and décor that a franchisee is required to make, including updating the room furnishings at least every 10 years and making substantial improvements every year.

Revamping the hotel every 10 years and making incremental maintenance every single year is a huge financial responsibility for the owner. This is probably the secret as to why Hilton hotels look so good. If you adopted this approach in your own home or business, you would be doing the equivalent of a whole-house remodeling project every 10 years. While most people probably upgrade a room or two every 10 years, the whole house is beyond most people’s budgets.

Why would anyone incur such an expense, particularly a cash-strapped hotel owner facing lower occupancy during hard economic times? Hilton’s strategy appears to be that their standards never compromise, no matter how difficult or expensive it may be to meet them. It is a gamble that appears to be paying off. Because Hilton hotels are known to have such high standards, they can easily charge a price premium over other hotels. Even in heated competition, Hilton doesn’t have to be the lowest priced hotel. Their investments in cleaning and maintenance continue to set them apart.

For our own family’s travel, I now do book with a Hilton bias. While I always check the hotel’s reviews on a site like  Hilton hotels tend to have consistently strong reviews and usually include a comment about how clean they are.

What is your experience with Hilton hotels? Were you as impressed as we were? Could you stand up to the scrutiny of a Hilton franchisee? Please share in the comments.