Business interview: Simon Vincent, Hilton Worldwide

STRIDING into a discreetly roped-off section reserved for his arrival, Simon Vincent plunks down a rather hefty duffel bag before a quick and friendly round of introductions, writes Kristy Dorsey.

Simon Vincent, President EMEA of Hilton Worldwide. Picture: Contributed
Simon Vincent, President EMEA of Hilton Worldwide. Picture: Contributed

The recently-refurbished Connich Bar of the Hilton Glasgow isn’t particularly busy this weekday afternoon, and staff are clearly aware that a senior executive is in their midst. A somewhat nervous young waitress quickly arrives, and after a few minutes of deliberation, Vincent orders mint tea and settles into his orange-clad armchair.

Though physically at ease, the president of Hilton Worldwide’s European, Middle Eastern and African operations has a subtle vim about him. The impression is soon confirmed as he pats the bag at his side, noting that it’s full of kit for a trip to the gym after a flight to London later in the day.

“I’m going to a formal dinner tonight, which means several courses of rich food, so I need at least an hour of some physical activity before I go,” he explains.

With more than 300 hotels across 64 countries under his remit, Vincent has learned how to grab his exercise fix amid a busy schedule. It seems he’s not too fussy how he gets it – golf, tennis, whatever – but the 49-year-old clearly relishes a workout.

Today’s stop-off in Glasgow is for the formal opening of the group’s newly-overhauled back office at Cadogan Square, which employs some 160 people handling activities such as payroll, pricing and websites. Staff are also getting an update on progress at the group, which has been on an expansion drive since the US and international operations were brought under common ownership by private equity investor Blackstone in 2007.

Despite some speculation that Blackstone may soon be looking to take the group public, Hilton doesn’t disclose any details when it comes to financial figures. However, Vincent says the company is growing in absolute terms, with strong revenue generation.

“It is quite interesting,” he says. “The hotel sector is notoriously cyclical, but we are definitely on the up right now.

“What is interesting in the UK is the regions performed better than London during the first quarter.”

The group’s hotels in Aberdeen have been particularly strongly on the back of the booming energy sector. Meanwhile, a recovery at the luxury end of the market has benefitted Edinburgh’s Caledonian, which has operated under the Waldorf Astoria brand since last year’s £24 million refurbishment.

However, it’s not just the like-for-likes that are contributing to group growth.

In addition to the existing properties, Vincent has roughly 200 new hotels in various stages of development across the EMEA region. The UK pipeline is healthy – even though it is one of Hilton’s most mature markets outside the US – including five openings planned for Scotland.

Two are due to begin trading later this summer: the 139-room DoubleTree by Hilton in Edinburgh’s city centre, and a 95-room DoubleTree planned for Dundee. Both are conversions of existing hotels, the group’s preferred method of expansion in the UK.

Vincent also hopes to introduce Hampton by Hilton into Scotland in the near future, adding to the four brands already in operation north of the Border. The move will bolster the group’s economy offering, which currently includes the Hilton Garden Inns trading in Glasgow and Aberdeen.

Expansion in Scotland became possible after the unification of Hilton’s North American and international operations, which traded for decades as separate businesses, albeit in close co-operation. Whereas Europe was previously dominated by the mainstay full-service Hilton – plus a smattering of luxury Conrad hotels – the addition of mid-market brands previously restricted to the US has opened up new opportunities.

It is this multi-brand drive that persuaded Vincent to resign as chief executive of online travel agency Opodo and join Hilton in 2007.

“It was a big international brand, and I was convinced by the growth story,” he says. “The magnitude of the brief, the ambition of the company, and the scope of the remit were all appealing.”

So far, Vincent has overseen the opening of more than 100 hotels across his territory. Notable hot spots for expansion include Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa – areas where Hilton has historically had little or no presence.

Expansion in these emerging markets is being driven by new-build hotels financed by property investors. Despite the flurry of activity, Vincent says he has no specific numerical targets.

“What I am trying to do is execute on the opening of the existing pipeline,” he says. “There is no magic number. We look at each opportunity on a case-by-case basis.”

Even so, the rate of expansion is rapidly gaining momentum. Last year, EMEA accounted for about 15 per cent of Hilton’s global development pipeline. Vincent reveals that figure now stands at close to 50 per cent – a pace he is clearly comfortable with.

“I think I am at my best when I am in a fast-moving, high-growth international environment,” he says.


Born: 28 May, 1963

Education: Brockenhurst College, City University London

First job: Washing up in a seafood restaurant at the age of 16

Ambition while at school: “I was a really keen sportsman, but I realised I wasn’t good enough to be a professional, sportsman, so I guess I thought the next best thing was to work for [sports management company] IMG – but I never did.”

Kindle or book? “I like to see the physical book.”

Favourite place: “I love Amsterdam – it’s quirky.”

Favourite hotel: Hilton Tel Aviv

Can’t live without: “I don’t function if I don’t exercise, so I guess it is exercise.”

What makes you angry: Bad manners, and arrogance

Best thing about your job: “Diversity, probably, just the geographical diversity, and I get to meet so many different people from different cultures.”