On the Cusp of Greatness

Country head of Hilton in India, Navjit Ahluwalia speaks on the prospects of his company in the sub-continent

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Photo Credit : Himanshu Kumar,

NAVJIT AHLUWALIA made a very well publicised switch to take over as the head of Hilton in India, as their Senior Vice President and Country Head. Ahluwalia has decades of experience and has to bring this to bear for his new job, which sees him heading a global brand in the country, which hasn’t really expanded and penetrated the market as much as its competition. 

Ahluwalia’s 30-years in the hospitality industry has been him work for global majors including, most recently, a more than decade long stint at Marriott International where he was Senior Vice President, Hotel Development.

Ahluwalia gave BW Hotelier an exclusive interview and this is an excerpt from that chat that we had.

BW HOTELIER: What are your plans for Hilton now that you are heading the team in India?

NAVJIT AHLUWALIA: I think it’s quite clear. Hilton has got a number of brands and the hospitality industry in India is growing leaps and bounds. Across the world, we are having a great time for travel in general and like I’ve always said, India is really a marathon and we are probably at the 5 km mark right now. We are very under represented in the number of hotel rooms. We have been growing steadily. 2004 was when the first big international company came into India, before which there were pretty much only domestic hospitality companies. I remember in those days, initially when the hotels around Mumbai airport were being built people said, will they survive. Suddenly there was a great many brands, the Hyatt Regency, the ITC, the Meridien, but as you can see they are all flourishing today and more hotels have opened. The same was said when Aerocity opened near the Delhi Airport, or even BKC. Even today, we don’t have giant properties. The largest hotel in India is probably around a 1000 keys, all put together. There are no 3000 room and 4000 room hotels like in China or the US. With our population, I don’t think it would be imprudent to say, that in the next decade, there may be a 2000 or 3000 room hotel coming up in this country.

BWH: What are the brands in your offerings that you would like to concentrate on in your India business?

NA: I think we will be really looking into all our brands because they all really cater to different price points to different customers and India is such a diverse country that there is really a glaring need for luxury, a clear need for hotels in the budget category as well. India has a big luxury market. In fact, the easiest penetration is in the luxury space and so most hotel companies have entered the market with luxury hotels. Clearly there is a great need for a Waldorf Astoria in key markets. 

BWH: Tell us a little bit about the immediate plans for the company in India?

NA: Our immediate plans are to open three hotels this year. The Hilton is opening in Goa, a Double Tree by Hilton is opening also in Goa as well as a Double Tree by Hilton in Ahmedabad. All would open either later this year, or maybe one may go to the first quarter of next year. Clearly, I think for us, we have a lot of opportunities because we aren’t there in a lot of cities. As a developer if you’re going to build a new hotel and you would look at representation currently of the hotel companies in the city, clearly, you would see the opportunity for building a Hilton branded hotel because it would have only one or two in your city. Given the distribution pipe that we have which is second to none. As an owner, you would want to get the benefit of that. All our Hilton reward members, the strength of our global distribution system. It’s quite evident we are becoming the first choice for any new owner or developer. 

BWH: What is the difference here in Hilton compared to other large companies?

NA: I think that the others have developed a lot and already have significant inventories in most cities so. We are opportunistic like most hotel companies are. We have certain strategic goals. We do want to be represented in the key gateway cities and in some key resort locations. But because we are not coming in with a war chest to buy land and build hotels. We have to be looking for opportunities. If there’s an owner who is looking to convert his property into maybe into a global brand, that would be an opportunity for us. It will be a lot of new builds, but also some conversions for us.

BWH: In your view, what is the brand perception of Hilton in India?

NA: I think that the good news is that Hilton’s brand image internationally, is absolutely awesome. When we talk to people in India, they recognise that. The legacy and strength of the brand. It’s one of the largest hotel companies I the world. Before the Marriott-Starwood merger, it was the largest. People don’t doubt that it’s one of the best hotel companies in the world. What happened before was more a question of things that were beyond everyone’s control that prevented Hilton from establishing themselves at a faster pace, and our customers and partners recognise that. The good news is that the brand image has not been tarnished in India because of this. 

BWH: What does the future in India look like now for you?

NA: We are very optimistic more than any other hotel company about India now, because most other hotel companies are not in that cusp of evolution, where we are. We are entering a period where the supplies have all been exhausted. For the last few years people were not building hotels. Occupancies domestically are creeping up into higher numbers. In the next two three years the average occupancy in India will start hitting 70 percent and above so we will see rate increases starting to come back. So more people will invest and develop newer hotels. When that happens, you will automatically get the opportunity to get your brands our there. I think there is also a recognition that India is still largely untapped as a market. There is a lot of focus from our global level to make sure we have the right talent and the right intention to place ourselves formidably.

BWH: What do you think about the China India comparison that is often made?

NA: I think that is a very unfair comparison because the number of new cities and the infrastructure in China is far ahead of India. We are probably at least 15 or 20 years behind China.

BWH: How careful is Hilton when it chooses a partnership?

NA: I think its something that happens both ways. Owners choose brands and we choose them. If you’re a good performing brand and you’re well established and recognised. You become the first choice for owners. Then you also have the ability to be more selective and strategic in your method. I think that is most important for us. We do want to get our hotel in the right locations. It’s always about the right product, at the right location at the right time, then everything comes together perfectly. And you get into an endless cycle of growth.


This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'MICE issue'


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