By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK – The COVID-19 crisis affected virtually every industry on Earth, but perhaps none quite so much as travel and hospitality.
With everyone fearful and taking shelter at home, leaders had to strategize about surviving to the next day. Among them: Chris Nassetta, president and chief executive of hotel giant Hilton.
Nassetta spoke to Reuters about the ways C-suite executives cope with such existential threats – and come out on the other side.
Q: Few industries turned upside-down as much as yours, so what did you learn about getting through this moment of history?
A: It reinforced what we knew from living through other crises, like 9/11 and the Great Recession. Over time, we developed a playbook about how to deal with crisis, and this year probably added a few new chapters.
The basics of the playbook are essentially the same. I call them the Three Ps: The first is to protect people, since we have hundreds of thousands of team members and almost 200 million customers.
The second is to protect the core business, to make sure we have the staying power to get through anything.
And the third is preparing for recovery, because what goes down comes back up. The deeper the crisis, the larger the opportunity.
Q: As a leader, people look to you for direction – how do you handle that when you do not really know what is ahead?
A: When there are significant unknowns, what people want to have confidence in is that you have a plan to address it. Create visibility into your plan by communicating constantly; break your plan into parts, so people can see progress; and then celebrate the successes you are having with the plan.
If you do that, then people will believe the sun will come up tomorrow. That’s the job of a leader, in good times and bad: to paint a picture for people in the organization and to inspire and motivate them to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Q: Did this era cause you to rethink any ways of doing business?
A: Yes and no. If you woke up in a year or two, while there will be some changes, I think more will look the same than different. My philosophical view is to be a steady hand at the wheel.
But on a micro level, it is an opportunity to change a bunch of things. Issues like contactless entry, or controlling the environment in your room from your own device, or how we deliver the basics like housekeeping or food and beverage.
It’s an opportunity to take a step back, and ask: “What is it customers want – and what might we be able to do differently?”
Q: The labor equation is changing rapidly with the Great Resignation. How are you coping?
A: That’s probably the biggest challenge we have had. It is easing a bit, but this is going to take some time.
For six years running we have been named a “World’s Best Workplace,” so we have been focused for a long time on building an incredible culture. In today’s world we are also paying more, and continuing to look at benefits, and accessing different pools of labor like temporary workers who want gigs for more limited periods of time.
Q: You mentioned crisis as containing opportunity. What opportunities do you see ahead for the industry?
A: People have long been shifting how they spend their disposable income, away from things and more towards experiences. That has been going on for the last 10 or 20 years.
Now people are realizing, after being locked in their basements for so long, that life is very short. They want to get out and travel, see the world, meet family and friends and loved ones — and experience cultures.
It’s the human condition to want to interact with people, and once we are fully through COVID, that is going to propel us forward.
Q: What advice do you have to survive dark times?
A: Before COVID, this was one of the fastest-growing industries on Earth, and I’m confident that when we get to the other side, we are going to pick up where we left off.
It’s a dynamic business, and there are a lot of opportunities for young people to move up. Look at me: I started out plunging toilets at a Holiday Inn in Washington, D.C., and now I’m running one of the biggest companies on Earth.
(Reporting by Chris Taylor; Editing by Lauren Young and Jonathan Oatis)