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VP HR Hilton Europe: "There's a mystique about hotels"

Katie Jacobs , 04 Jan 2013

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There’s a certain magic about staying in a great hotel – although anyone who travels regularly for business could be forgiven for forgetting it. Not that Ben Bengougam, VP HR, Europe, at legendary hotel group Hilton Worldwide, could ever be accused of doing so. He might spend his time travelling the world and see the inside of his company’s hotel rooms more than his own house, but it certainly hasn’t diminished his love for the industry, or for hotels themselves.

"There's a mystique about hotels," he tells HR magazine at Hilton's UK headquarters in Watford (they're nicer than they sound). "People go there for special events, to get married or as part of a holiday. Hotels ought to create memories. If you have a fantastic experience in a hotel, you never forget it."

The hotel industry is Bengougam's first real love. He started in operations, working his way up to managing a hotel, before moving into training. Within three years, he became the HR director of a small Italian hotel company.

"I went from knowing nothing about HR to being the human resources director," Bengougam recalls. "That's where I learned much of what I know." After that, Bengougam enjoyed flings with the technology and retail sectors - most recently as the HRD of beleaguered electronics retailer Dixons and then HRD at the Middle Eastern retail franchise operator MH Alshaya. He was working in Kuwait when he received a "compelling offer" from Hilton Worldwide: to head up HR in Europe, looking after 30,000 people in 31 countries, including Israel, Russia and Turkey.

"It was irresistible," he recalls. "I wanted to get back to the hotel industry. It sounds cheesy, but it really was my first love. And Hilton - wow. The brand has such iconic status. When I left Kuwait, my secretary said to me: 'Make sure you say hello to Paris Hilton.' Everyone thought she was walking around head office."

Although he has yet to meet the socialite (the Hilton family may cash in on the name, but they haven't been actively involved with the business for a long time), Bengougam's role sees him in constant contact with Hilton staff all over the world.

"We have an extraordinary number of long-tenured people," he says. "We have people who have been with the business for over 60 years. I recently met a butcher at a hotel in Istanbul who had been with us for 64 years. And he was proud to explain to me how he teaches young people to do his job: cutting meat without any waste. There are people like that all over the business. They have pride in the brand, and they enjoy the close-knit community of working in a hotel. It's like a family."

The hotel industry is a great training ground for young people, particularly those without traditional qualifications. "Youth unemployment is a huge issue and it's important we play our part," says Bengougam. Hilton offers apprenticeship programmes, graduate schemes (the 'Elevator' programme has top graduates running their own hotel within 18 months) and takes part in several Government and business initiatives worldwide.

"A lot of people join the industry with low levels of education, literacy or numeracy," he says. "They join vocationally because they have a call for the industry and want to build a successful career. You don't join us for a job - you join for a career and for life experience. Over 90% of our general managers are appointed internally."

And on a more personal level for Bengougam, that sense of nurturing young talent is what gets him out of bed. "I get so much satisfaction out of seeing someone join, very junior, almost skill-less, and then meeting them three years later when they're in a management position," he says. "I love that about this industry and this business. That's what gets me up in the morning."

For Hilton, the importance of brand cannot be understated. But with 10 different hotel brands in 91 countries - that's over 3,800 hotels, many of them run as franchises - how do you ensure consistently excellence service? After all, in the age of TripAdvisor, bad reviews are only an unwashed cup away. "People are almost brainwashed into their brand, whether that's Hilton or DoubleTree or Hampton by Hilton," jokes Bengougam.

"Delivering the brand is an imperative," he continues. "Whether it's a hotel we manage, own or lease, it's all about delivering the brand in its entirety, with full integrity. There's an enormous amount of work that goes into ensuring the standards are consistent and that the people, who are the most important thing, are consistent. We do a lot of training and work very hard on engagement, so it's natural that people feel passionate about the brand." HR is aligned geographically rather than by brand, which helps maintain consistent practices.

Getting the right staff is of course crucial, and for Bengougam that means finding people with a certain something special. "The most important thing is someone who enjoys service and giving someone a great experience," he says. "Someone with an easy smile and a warm personality. Everything else you can train. It's difficult to train that [personality] in someone who is naturally miserable." And the right Hilton manager is someone who, having most likely risen through the ranks to run their own hotel, makes the effort to get to know not only every one of their employees' names, but the names of their children. "We do like to get close to our people," says Bengougam. "It's part of our culture."

Hilton's current story is one of rapid growth, and to maintain quality, especially in new markets, is something that requires forensic planning. In Europe, the company has about 130 hotels in the pipeline, but that number is growing all the time. While maintaining brand consistency globally is essential, Bengougam points out the importance of being sensitive and relevant to varying local markets. "You have to be relevant in the local market, whatever you do as a global organisation," he says. "You can't just say: 'this is the global message, the global policy and thou shalt implement it in full without some sensitivity and understanding of what it means to be successful in a local market.' Our hotels take a local flavour, and that also translates into our HR practices."

Right now, it's Russia that's occupying most of Bengougam's thoughts. "We have almost nothing there right now," he explains. "No knowledge, no capability, no structure, very few people. We have to do some detailed workforce planning.

"But the most important issue from my perspective," he adds, "is to develop talent pools. Russia doesn't have a tradition of hospitality. Hilton and other hotel firms will have to create a culture of hospitality. We are doing that by working with educational institutions in and outside of Russia, building a curriculum of vocational skills and hotel-specific education. Two years before we open a hotel, we can create interest in the hospitality industry and build the skills base we are going to need. Growth is a challenge, but it's a good challenge."

When Conrad Hilton founded Hilton in 1919, his vision was simple: 'To spread the light and warmth of hospitality around the world.' It's a vision that holds true today. "Our cultural programmes and our brands are built around those concepts," says Bengougam. "Spreading warmth and smiles and the genuine desire to give someone a great experience." Spending time with him, I get the sense that, even as Hilton grows even bigger, it's a culture and mission that will remain intact.

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