Hilton CEO discusses move to N.Va.

Hilton president and CEO Christopher Nassetta (right) tells Washington Business Journal publisher James MacGregor about the company’s latest initiatives during “Mapping New Economic Opportunities,” an economic symposium held Feb. 1 at the Fairview Park Marriott. (Photo by Brian Trompeter)

Christopher Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton, says his decision seven years ago to uproot Hilton’s headquarters from Beverly Hills, Calif., to Tysons was the toughest day in his career, as it meant laying off hundreds of people.

Most of the company’s employees were on the East Coast, and Northern Virginia offered a high quality of life and extensive talent pool, Nassetta said Feb. 1 during “Mapping New Economic Opportunities,” an economic symposium held at the Fairview Park Marriott.

“I had to reboot the hard drive,”  he said. “The company had become complacent and needed a massive disruption. If you want to reset a culture, change the people.”

Asked by moderator James MacGregor, publisher of the Washington Business Journal, about the impact of Airbnb Inc., Nassetta said that big player in the new “sharing economy” does not pose a major threat to the traditional hotel industry,

Online lodging services cater to certain kinds of people – those seeking longer stays, leisure weekends and economic value – while 75 percent of Hilton’s customers are business travelers, he said.

“In a way, [Airbnb] is a democratization of travel,” Nassetta said. “We’re delivering a very consistent product wrapped in hospitality. In the end, it is very easy for us to coexist with one another.”

Nassetta predicted that as companies like Airbnb grow, they will be more heavily regulated on fire, labor, safety and handicapped accessibility, the way standard lodging providers are.

The travel-and-tourism industry abounds with economic opportunities and accounts for 10 percent of global gross domestic product, he said.

“The bigger we get, the more people we have,” Nassetta said. “We’re a huge engine for growth for economies all around the world.”

Freedom of travel fosters such economic benefits, said Nassetta, who indicated he would advocate for that with Trump administration officials, who are focused on national security.

“You can actually enhance security at the same time as easing travel,” he said, adding that a “massive amount of data sharing” would be required.