How 2020 Changed My Life

Today I’m just 11 short days from my next birthday, but this time feels different. This was not a typical year for me, or anyone really. It all started in strange ways. Back in January, 16 million acres in Australia were burning, a devastating event that took place during the hottest and driest year on record in Australia. At the same time, I heard about a new virus in Wuhan, China, but nothing to worry about it. Years earlier, I heard similar news about SARS and never really made it big to America. A few days later, one of the most iconic and charismatic basketball players died in a helicopter crash, and suddenly everything started to feel a little bit surreal.

From January to March, I was having the time of my life. I was working for a great company, and I couldn’t ask for a better boss. My annual review was excellent, and I was feeling extremely engaged and connected at work.

Things started to change quickly in March. The estrange virus that was affecting China was spreading quickly to Europe, especially Italy and Spain. From there, it didn’t take long to hit hard America, and for the first time ever, things started to look bleak for the hospitality industry, and industry where I was working for the last eight years, and I thought it was recession proofed. We started to hear that hotels in Europe and China were suffering, and as the first cases were emerging in our country, occupancy rates were dropping in Seattle, New York, and other cities.

While these events were taking place, one regular morning, I was biking in our neighborhood, and I felt some pain in my chest and felt completely out of breath. I thought it was a bad cold that I got a few weeks earlier, so I stopped and tried the next day. The following day I quickly realized that something was off. I didn’t have cold symptoms anymore, but the chest pain was still there. I felt out of breath and couldn’t reach even seven mph when 12-15 mph was my normal. I decided to visit my primary Dr., who thought it was my heart. I was convinced it was not because I was “young,” and I’ve been exercising regularly for 10 years. He recommended an electrocardiogram that didn’t show anything, so other exams were performed that included a stress test, a nuclear stress test, and a sonogram. To make the long story short, a few weeks later, I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. It seems that in my case, this is generic. My grandfather died of a heart attack, and my uncle had the same problem I had when he was 49. This is known as familial hypercholesterolemia, which makes artery disease progress earlier and more rapidly than people without FH. Without treatment, the life expectancy of people with familial hypercholesterolemia can be reduced by approximately 15-30 years. My uncle died 27 years later from the day he was diagnosed. This situation really made me think about how I’m spending every minute of my life and how to approach life moving forward, so I can be there for my kids as long as I can.

It really never crossed my mind that I would require heart surgery in my late 40’s, but here I was; my world was falling apart. Not only was my health deteriorating, but my job security was at risk at the same time. No industry got hit harder than the hospitality and retail industry, including hotels, restaurants, and entertainment. Since the pandemic started, many globally known brands had gone under, such as Cirque du Soleil or JC Penny.

On March 12 I underwent heart surgery, and while recovering from it, on April 4th I was put on furlough by Hilton, a position that became a permanent layoff on June 26th. That suddenly put me in a really bad place; although I had good health insurance with Hilton, just my exams were $12,132, and my surgery was $93.061, so I maxed out my deductible of $12,700. So, in addition to paying this deductible, I was forced to pay $1,600 a month for my own insurance (COBRA) since I suddenly became unemployed. This was a depressing time because I could not look for a new job; with my condition, I was within the population with a high risk of dying for Covid-19. I didn’t want to be in an office with anybody or even interview in person. I was constantly crying, and I remembered that all I wanted was to be a kid again and lay down next to my mom, where I always felt safe. I was craving this feeling of security that I experienced when I was a small kid. My world was literally crumbling.

With no job, hospital bills, and an entire family to support, the first thing I did was to look for help. This is not easy to do, it required courage and humility, but it was the only thing that I thought it would give me the peace of mind I needed for my recovery. I created a GoFundMe campaign and set a goal of $9,000. I thought that amount would be enough to get me through three months so I would be able to focus on my recovery and look again for a job when I was ready.

The response was incredible; between family and friends, I collected $8,770 USD, just 2.6% short of my goal. That was enough to help me pay my medical bills and get me through the most challenging months of my life. Many friends were incredibly generous, and I would always be grateful for them; even my high school classmates, people who haven’t seen in decades, contributed 16% of the total I collected. I received help from people I never expected, and it was great to feel that good things still happen in this world.

During my recovery, I had the chance to spend more time with my family, especially with my mom, who told me unheard stories about our family and her. If I had a difficult time in this pandemic, she had a much worse experience when she was a young girl. Her mom died from typhoid fever, ironically another epidemic that hit Colombia back in the day. At six years old, she found herself without parents because her father never married her mom and lived with another woman already with three kids on his own. Consequently, my mom was raised by her grandmother and her two uncles Jorge and Luis, moving house frequently from one side of the city to another. Growing up, she had to pay for everything she wanted, including her clothes and education. She had to work continuously and only graduated from University when I was already 6. Those stories gave me the strength I needed to fight this battle, and little by little, I emerged out of this hole.

If something valuable I learned on this pandemic is that what you need is more important than what you make. That’s the true definition of wealth, and this year, that had become my main goal. This year I had already dropped 41 pounds by changing my eating habits drastically. I cut sugar, salt, bread, chocolate, rice, red meats, jelly, ice cream, and many other things that I realized were killing me. From time to time, I get one of those, but it is an exception, not the norm anymore. If I get rice, it may be only once a month, same with ice cream, bread, and other things. After my surgery, I learned how to cook, and I’m using my kitchen regularly to make my meals. I love it, and I feel I understand a lot more about nutrition and healthy eating habits.

Today I feel like a new person. I feel that I’m more in control of my life, and I value a lot more every minute of it. No longer I spend time with people I don’t want to be with or accepting jobs just for the sake of it. I already plan to achieve financial independence within a year, and I’m working relentlessly towards it. I’ll share more about how I’m doing it in a future post; for the time being, I’m glad life gave me a second chance, I’m happy for the time I have been able to spend with my family, and I’m delighted for the new things I have been able to learn. Thanks to all of you that, from one way or another, were there for me. If there is something I have clear now, is that the world constantly changes, and that’s permanent; nothing stays the same. We should embrace change with excitement and hope. I haven’t been more positive in my life like today, and despite the adversity, I’m convinced I’ll be on the other side of the river very soon.

Until next, Libardo.

A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton | Part 5: Branding

Recent History of Hilton Branding Strategy

Before we talk about branding, it is important to understand what a brand is. If we approach the question philosophically, a brand is just an entity that exists in our collective imagination. If tomorrow, all Hilton hotels disappear, the brand will continue to exist. This is because a brand is what we perceive about a particular product or service, and not a physical entity.

Only the mandate of a judge can dissolve the Hilton brand. This is because in our heads, the law is above the brands or in an “imagined order.” In practical terms, Hilton only exists in our inter-subjective imagination, in other words we all agree that Hilton is a major brand. If you really think about a brand, it lives on a small piece of paper sitting somewhere in the country. Lawyers actually refer to corporation brands as “legal fiction entities.” 

To understand the evolution of brands we need to go back 70,000 years ago, to the beginning of the cognitive revolution. At that time, early humans only gathered with about 150 individuals at a time., If groups grew larger, social order destabilized and these groups eventually dismantled (1) . 

Thanks to the development of “fiction,” humans were able to gather in much larger groups, today comprising millions of people at a time. Fiction allows large numbers of strangers to cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. This development was, in fact, the beginning of religions, imaginary geopolitical boundaries, brands, and so on. All of these concepts exist only in our heads, these “myths” and our collective imagination allow us to co-exist and collaborate in much larger groups than pre-cognitive revolution humans. 

Despite the fact that brands live only in our heads, their influence is so great that a corporation can buy private property, open bank accounts, get loans, and mostly any other transaction intended only to serve humans. In fact, today corporations have a lot more power than people. In the blink of an eye, they can get the resources they need to operate, way beyond the capabilities of individual humans. In this pandemic, for example, Hilton raised $1 billion from American Express and $500 million in senior unsecured notes (2) while I, as an individual member of society, have been waiting for my federal unemployment benefit since March. Brands can do this, because collectively, we believe they have a lot of value. But how much are we talking about? In Hilton’s case, we value the brand at $10 billion (3). 

Hilton understands the power of branding. It seems almost counterintuitive that the Hilton brand is more valuable today than in 2017 when it owned and leased 150 of the largest hotels around the world. Hilton’s brand is also more valuable than Marriott’s brand, even though Marriott has 16% more hotels than Hilton. 

Disparities like these in brand valuations are normal — it all depends on how well companies craft their story. Just look at what happened recently in the automotive industry: for the first time Tesla was ranked the most valuable, surpassing Toyota in market capitalization for the first time (4). Tesla produced 367,000 cars in 2019, while Toyota produced 14.7 million (5). Tesla’s brand in this case seems to be more valuable for investors’ than Toyota as investors are betting that Tesla would be more successful in the future, with Toyota lagging behind. Toyota’s ugly Prius hasn’t been successful in selling the story of the electric future, and that has hurt Toyota’s brand image and reputation. Tesla value is off the charts for a company of its size, but in our minds, or at least on investors’ minds, that’s how much it is worth. 

After this brief introduction to brands, you should be able to appreciate their power and the benefits that come with this power. Some people think that putting a monetary value on a brand is crazy, but it is not. That’s why celebrities can charge $5K, $8K or even $50K to write a 140- character sentence and share it in social media. If nobody pays you $10 to send the same tweet, your personal brand is not as strong as you think. Brand value can be translated easily into real businesses and real dollars. 

Hotel corporations with strong brands attract millions of loyalists, hotel owners, employees, and business partners, and that’s what Hilton does best. In the hotel industry, Hilton occupies rank #1 in our collective “imagined order.” We perceive small brands as weak, because we believe they can be acquired or go out of business in a recession a lot easier than a major brand. Small brands are at the bottom the “imagined order” and large brands at the top. 

Branding played a key role in Hilton’s corporate culture transformation. This is because brands not only impact customers’ perceptions, but also that of employees and business partners. A good brand would be able to attract and retain talent more easily than a weaker brand, and Hilton knows that well. When a brand is good, it attracts the best talent in the industry — people want desperately to work for it, sometimes without even considering other options. 

Brand value can also change over time. At some point not long ago, Hilton was part of a pool of weak, troubled brands. The company was divided between the European and the Americas operations, and the subsequent acquisition of different brands led to a disintegrated culture without a north. To learn more about how Hilton was able to realign, read my article about the topic here

When Chris Nassetta joined the company, he realized that the brand had to be repositioned, and although he almost immediately drafted a plan, the results only started to materialize many years later. One of the first documents on record of Chris’ actions was the 2012 Brand Strategy and Action Plan book. Published internally, the plan provided some direction on how the Hilton brand promise should be delivered and what changes should be implemented. 

In this 121-page document, Dave Horton, the global head of Hilton brand at the time, did a great job explaining the challenges of the brand and what the future should look like. This is how he put it:

 “The amazing story of Hilton Hotels & Resorts continues. As the most iconic name in the hotel industry, our power and reach allow us to deliver our Brand Promise — To ensure every Guest feels cared for, valued and respected — at a level that’s simply unmatched worldwide. But in 2011, we refused to lean in our legacy. The level of collaboration exhibited across our global portfolio was nothing short of inspiring. Through our innovation, dedication and genuine passion to shape relevant experiences, we went beyond our Brand Promise. We ignited a Culture and, by aligning our initiatives and support teams to meet the needs of each of our regions, have set the stage to differentiate our unified Brand as never before… We’ve invested a great deal of time, energy and resources into forward-thinking initiatives intended to level the playing field. Guided by a clear Brand architecture, and armed with our first global Brand management platform, we must now approach 2012 with an emphasis on simplification, execution and amplification.” 

2012 Brand Strategy and Action Plan

One of the first steps Chris Nassetta took to rebuild Hilton’s brand was to incorporate the Hilton name to each of its hotel brands. He understood that “Hilton” carried a lot of brand power, but smaller brands such as Homewood or Hampton Inn, not that much. This was a clever move and marked the beginning of a new branding era for Hilton. This shift led to an increase of portfolio branding and better allocation of marketing dollars. For the first time, Hilton’s brands were not competing with each other, instead, they were targeting consumers with different needs on a new dimension. As a consequence, Hilton’s brand improved significantly, leaving other hotel companies in the dust. 

Today all Hilton brands carry the Hilton name. For instance, “Hampton Inn” is is “Hampton Inn by Hilton.” The same applies to other brands such as “DoubleTree by Hilton.” and “Homewood Suites by Hilton.” Although it seems like a minuscule change, it had a huge impact on Hilton’s brand value.

Surprisingly, other major hotel brands haven’t followed suit. Sheraton stills Sheraton, Aloft stills Aloft, and Four Points is actually by Sheraton, despite the fact that all of these brands are part of the Marriott portfolio of hotels. Accor rarely uses the name Accor when marketing individual brands such as Ibis, Novotel, or Swissôtel. The Accor brand is not displayed at these hotel properties which is a missed opportunity for reinforcing that “imagined order,” which, at the end of the day, brings value to a brand.

Although this change is credited to Chris, the truth is that the first Hilton hotel that pioneered this concept was the DoubleTree by Hilton in Lima, Peru. When this property opened in Latin America in the year 2000, it was the only DoubleTree in the country, so its management team added Hilton to its name to take advantage of its major brand power. 

Today Hilton is the 63rd most valued brand in the United States (3), much higher than Marriott, currently at 78. The brand grew 17% between 2018 and 2019 while Marriott dropped 30%. The fastest-growing hotel brands came from Hilton’s portfolio: Homewood Suites, DoubleTree and Hampton Inn (5). The full finance brand report can be accessed here

The impact brands have on customers benefits business partners and employees. Loyal customers and willing to pay more for a company they feel is better aligned with their needs and preferences. This added value translates into incremental revenues which, in turn, translate into more profits for the company. With this incremental revenue, Hilton has been able to benefit employees through a variety of industry-class benefits and advance business partners by reducing franchise fees, in many cases 1% or 2% (6), as well as improving occupancy levels and daily rates at the hotels, below similar brands.

Employees feel prouder working for a reputable brand, and they feel more confident about the future. These feelings help drive levels of engagement to new highs, while people perform at work beyond expectations. As Chris Nassetta and Matt Schyuler have said repeatedly, when you are in the business of people serving people, happy employees really matter. 

References

1. Harari YN. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: Harper Perennial; 2018.

2. Clark P, Smith M, Surane H. Hilton Selling $1 Billion Loyalty Points to American Express: Bloomberg; 2020 [Available from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-16/hilton-selling-1-billion-in-loyalty-points-to-american-express.

3. WPP. Brandz Top 100 Most Valuable Brands 2020. WPP; 2020.

4. BBC News. Tesla overtakes Toyota to become world’s most valuable carmaker: BBC News; 2020 [Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53257933.

5. Taylor M. Hilton Overtakes Marriott as World’s Most Valuable Brand: Travel Pulse; 2019 [Available from: https://www.travelpulse.com/news/hotels-and-resorts/hilton-overtakes-marriott-as-worlds-most-valuable-brand.html.

6. Dent J. Rethinking Hotel “Brands”. 2019.

A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton | Part 4: Thrive

For Hilton, thriving is not just a fancy word, it encapsulates all parts of an ambitious culture program that started more than ten years ago. The concept of “Thrive at Hilton” was adopted globally after Hilton struck a partnership with Ariana Huffington’s organization Thrive Global. 

The origin and evolution of Thrive@Hilton

This partnership between Hilton and Thrive Global was originally conceived to solve a specific problem Hilton was facing. Back in 2017, a Hilton study revealed the harmful effects of mobile devices in the workplace. The use of mobile devices became a problem when Hilton transitioned from not allowing to fully allowing these devices during work shifts, with basically no restriction. This caused a “digital overload” among team members. Matt Schuyler says, “Our statistics show that on average we are all pushing out 200 emails a day, we are bringing back 200 emails a day from outside our respective organizations. We are checking these devices 150 times a day in our social media applications …That was eight or nine hours a day just on the device.” (1) As a result, Hilton decided to partner with a knowledgeable organization that could help it solve this problem, and the Thrive Global partnership was born. 

The rollout of the program at Hilton evolved to Thrive@Hilton, which is now the umbrella value proposition under which all team members’ programs exist today. These programs include Health & Wellness, Training, PTO, Learning, Recruiting and Referral. The broad idea of the program is to make sure team members understand that they can bring their whole self to work and thrive. Hilton is committed to supporting everything team members are interested in, enabling them to thrive at work. 

Hilton is the first hospitality company to partner with Thrive Global, an innovative wellness startup that was launched in 2016. It is estimated that burnout, fatigue and stress cost US industries $300 billion a year. The day of the partnership announcement Chris Nassetta said that “the company launched the Thrive@Hilton partnership to help our team members understand our people and flourish in every area of the business, from corporate to hourly, from the front desk to back-of-house. We strive to help Team Members feel more resilient, focused, and optimistic about their work, which we believe will support our company’s continued success.” (2)

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A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton | Part 3: Listening

If there is something embedded in Hilton’s DNA is listening. As I mentioned earlier, the first thing Chris Nassetta did when he joined Hilton was to spend his first 100 days flying around Hilton’s properties worldwide and listening to owners, employees, and partners. (1) This was the best method for Chris to understand what he needed to do to turn the company around.(2)

Hilton has different strategies to “listen” to people; here below, I describe the ones that I have experienced over my years at Hilton. 

Surveys 

In 2009, when Matt Schuyler joined Hilton, he asked for any existing feedback regarding employee satisfaction and their needs. From his previous roles, especially at Capital One, he knew that listening to employees was key to understanding their needs and introducing meaningful changes. 

When Matt realized this data didn’t exist, he came up with a great and ambitious solution: the first “Hilton’s global team member survey”. (or GTMS for short). The purpose of this survey was to collect important views and opinions from Hilton employees worldwide, from both corporate and “back of the house” team members (housekeeping, engineering, bartending, front desk, etc.). This survey became an immediate success, with a completion rate of 92% and over 150,000 participants (3). This survey has been the best tool Hilton has to identify team members’ needs and desires. Matt says that “listening to team members is the best way to learn how to meet their needs and determine what they will need in the future;(4) listening helps leaders learn. Without employee insights, companies stagnate.” (5)

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A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton | Part 2: Alignment

Part 2: Alignment

When Chris Nassetta joined Hilton in 2007, he used his first 100 days to listen to Hilton hotel leaders around the globe.(1) He then described Hilton as several companies that were not aligned, somewhat like “getting into a boat with oarsmen rowing out of sequence.”(2)

The problem was that the company was almost 100 years old and had been put together through merges and acquisitions.

  • In 1985 Hilton purchased the Statler chain for $111 million, the largest real estate deal in history at the time.
  • In 1964 Hilton International spun off as a separate corporation; this created two independent companies, Hilton Hotels Corp. in the Americas and Hilton Group plc in Europe.(3)
  • In 1996 Hilton acquired Grand Vacations Limited, formalizing a four-year-old partnership that was the beginning of Hilton Grand Vacations.(4)
  • In 1999 Embassy Suites, DoubleTree, Homewood Suites, and Hampton Inn were acquired by Hilton for $3.1 billion in cash and stock. At the time, all four brands were owned by Promus Hotel Corp.(5)

Some of these acquisitions were already the result of previous purchases, for instance, Doubletree acquired Red Lion Hotels in 1996, but in 1997 Doubletree merged with Promus Hotel Corp, creating the six-largest hotel company in terms of the number of hotels. Promus Hotel Corp was later acquired by Hilton in 1999. All these mergers created a “Frankenstein” hotel company, made up of different cultures, different goals, and different people overlapping similar roles. Chis said at the time that it was, in fact, like seven different companies operating in silos without any alignment.(2) Hilton at the time looked like one company to the outsiders, but it wasn’t, it didn’t have a consistent mission, vision, values, or key strategic priorities.

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A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton – Part 1: The People, Matt Schuyler

Matt Schuyler, Chris Nassetta’s biggest ally at Hilton

The incredible culture transformation at Hilton led by Chris Nassetta is not by any means, the effort of just one person. A transformation of this magnitude requires synchronized teamwork executed with precision and simultaneously around the globe.

Hilton has more than 6,000 properties, in 114 countries and territories (1). It has 460,000 team members worldwide, 55,000 of them in the US alone (2). At this scale, any change requires not only a massive level of effort but incredible coordination between all the corporate offices and hotels. To make things more complicated, size is not the only challenge for culture adoption. Hilton’s workforce spans five different generations (3), from boomers through Gen Zers; that means change has to be appealing for everyone, regardless of their cultural background or age. This requires a huge understanding of people, their motivations, desires, and cultural background.

Chris Nassetta assembled the best possible team for this endeavor, including Matt Schuyler. A leader who came to the company from outside the hospitality industry, Matt proved critical to executing Chris’ vision for Hilton.

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A Brief History of the Corporate Culture Transformation at Hilton – Part I | The People | Chris Nassetta

Chris Nassetta – Hilton

Most people think that culture transformation is mostly the job of a leader, and it can be achieved in a short period of time. Nothing can be furthest from the truth. A corporate culture transformation like the one Hilton experienced took 10 years on the making and many people working behind the scenes. But those ten years are just the tip of the iceberg; the reality is that this process started 36 years ago when Chris began to put together the pieces of what an excellent corporate culture was and what that entailed. He was 17 at the time, and much of the culture we see today at Hilton was a long time process that was shaped by Chris’ experiences. When Jon Gray from Blackstone called Chris to discuss the opportunity at Hilton, he told him, “you have been training your whole life for this position.” and that was the truth (1). In these chapters I’ll explore the beginnings of this process and how continuously keep evolving. On chapter one will be focused on the people that led to the change, but later on, I will be highlighting the strategies and implementation I have perceived most effective. 

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My world flipped upside down

My life was a living dream three months ago, my career was successful at Hilton, the best company to work for in the United States in 2020, I had the best boss, and my work-life balance was at all-time high. Last year I was the runner up of the circle of excellence, a Hilton award to the best performers from commercial services and customer teams worldwide, my morale was high, and I couldn’t wish for something better. On February 17, 2020 I traveled to Miami to meet with my team (marketing planning and performance), but little I knew that that trip would be the last one we had together. 

Great moments in Miami, in our last team meeting of our planning and performance team
Great moments in Miami, in our last team meeting of our planning and performance team

While we were in Miami, we had a great time. It was as fun as any of our previous trips to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago or Montreal. But something was slightly off. One night while walking from the hotel to a nearby restaurant in South Beach, I didn’t feel well, I felt out of breath, and my chest was hurting. From Miami, I scheduled an appointment with my doctor, just to make sure there was nothing wrong with my health. 

When I was back in Orlando, my cardiologist ordered an electrocardiogram, an ultrasound, and a stress test. The results came back relatively quickly, and the news was not good. I was diagnosed with coronary artery desease and I was scheduled for surgery on Friday, March 13th. For some reason, my cardiologist called me back a couple of days later to push back the surgery date to March 25th. Since my health was deterioration quickly, my wife called the hospital and asked if they had an earlier date available, thankfully they did have one, and I was rescheduled for Thursday, March 12th (by the way, a much better date than Friday the 13th for a heart surgery).

At that point my health was not the only bad news, the outbreak of the coronavirus in China was spreading like fire around the world, and started to hit hard already some parts of the country such as Washington and New York states. 

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