The newly reflagged Hilton Munich Airport held its official grand opening last week, where some of Hilton’s top executives promoted the brand’s holistic views of airport hotels moving into the future.

According to Rob Palleschi, global head full service brands of Hilton Worldwide, he says Conrad Hilton pioneered the airport hotel concept with the launch of the San Francisco airport property in 1959. It basically served as a big billboard that directed a lot of eyeballs toward Hilton’s new hotels worldwide and the reality of international travel for more consumers.

“Conrad thought that if people had a good experience in San Francisco, the next logical stop was Tokyo, and so on, so the airport hotel platform has always been in our DNA,” says Palleschi. “We’ve seen the transformation going from what were once low-rise properties predominantly focused on convenient one-night stays, to now what is really becoming a destination with a large number of guest rooms and facilities for meetings, special events and product launches.”

Previously a Kempinski property until this year, Hilton Munich Airport consists of two banks of guest rooms connected with a 70-foot high glass atrium covering a large lobby lounge and restaurant. The lobby is as social of a public space as any trendy lifestyle hotel, with enough open area to bring in full size farm equipment and military vehicles for product launches, as the hotel has in the past.

A 160-room expansion begins this spring, while the Wi-Fi infrastructure will be replaced beginning next month. The Charles Lindbergh restaurant is consistent with 4-diamond hotel restaurants. There’s a full size pool next to some of the 30 meeting rooms—all with natural light. And dozens of artworks from the local MUCA urban art gallery are showcased in the lobby, including rare prints of Andy Warhol without makeup.

Meaning, the hotel design, quality of amenities, natural daylight and overall guest experience is not unlike a full-service property such as Hilton Vienna Hotel, located in a prime spot in the heart of the Austrian capital. The same can be said for Hilton airport properties in Frankfurt, Copenhagen and the new Amsterdam hotel, which are comparable to branded properties in their respective urban cores.

Walking next to Palleschi on our way to a meeting room, he stopped at the Warhol prints and acknowledged that some old school executives feel this is too avant garde for a Hilton airport hotel. He flatly denied that, saying, “We need more of this. This is the future and it’s what our guests are demanding.”

During our interview with Palleschi, we asked him if there’s a lot of internal conversation at Hilton about airport hotel architecture and interior design.

“We are consciously moving toward more innovative and creative hotel design at the airport locations,” he answered. “I would say we’re over-indexing on the side of creative design from the standpoint that we need to get away from the impression that it’s an airport hotel. Or it’s just like a bus terminal, a transit point…. So we work with every owner on an individual basis, and we’re influencing the design to have things like more natural light, more art, and a guest experience that better integrates the local vibe.”

Regionalizing the Hilton Brand

Integrating Hilton product better with the local vibe has been a priority at Hilton HQ over the last two years. There is no longer a systemic drive to create one global standard for amenities, international cuisine, room furnishings, and everything else.

“We’re making efforts to somewhat regionalize the Hilton brand, which is a little bit different than what we’ve done in the past,” explains Palleschi. “In the past, we’ve tried to come up with a single platform of consistent standards across the globe. Now what we’ve been reviewing over the last 18 to 24 months, based on a lot of guest surveys and feedback is: Do we have to have a single amenity package across the globe? Wouldn’t it be better if we delivered on guest expectations specific to Europe or Asia or North America?”

Presently under construction, the new Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol opens this fall, and it’s being designed as one of Hilton Europe’s flagship hotels to test out European-centric design, amenities, and food and beverage. Likewise, Hilton Rome Airport Hotel is presently undergoing renovation, which will be another live test property, along with others in Beijing and Tokyo.

“To go to a GM in the middle of China and tell them their muffins are the wrong size according to brand standards is just wrong,” says Palleschi. “That’s the folly of us trying to globalize things, because today it’s about how do you deliver regional guest experiences that have a high level of quality touch points that guests demand. People want different. They’re saying they just want something different.”

In addition to delineating hotel product by geographic region, Hilton Worldwide is redefining the guest experience for its four product segment categories: airport, urban, suburban and resort. For airport hotels, the emphasis is on urgency, seamless user experience, and super fast communications. That places a priority on keyless entry and modern Wi-Fi, more so than the other three product segments, according to Palleschi.

Hilton’s HHonors app presently allows guests to check-in/out and choose their specific room. Beginning this year, the app will also facilitate keyless entry once guest room door locks are changed, starting with all Hilton-operated properties in North America. The international portfolio will follow suit by the end of 2016.

“We have to have tools to bypass the front desk so we can enable people to check into guest rooms quickly, and it’s the same for departure so they can blow through the lobby,” he says. “We also need to have extraordinary bandwidth and the biggest pipes we can get at airport hotels.”

The Rise of the Airport Hotel

Patrick Fitzgibbon, SVP of Development in Europe/Africa for Hilton Worldwide, sat down with us to discuss Hilton’s aggressive focus on airport hotel expansion. He explained how the segment is generally recession proof, with significant potential for growth due to the overall rise in air travel.

“My kids get on and off a plane like we used to get on and off a bus, so it’s become very natural for them, and they’re not in the minority,” he says. “So I think that travel, both business and leisure, will continue to grow. One only has to look at what’s happening in Dubai and Istanbul’s airports, and the constant debate around the world about adding a second or third or fourth runway. It’s a sector that we’ve identified as a hotel company that has enormous growth opportunity.”

Fitzgibbon adds that airports today, such as Munich’s gateway with over 30,000 employees, are evolving into small cities as they expand their roles beyond itinerant travel experiences into retail, leisure and culinary experiences.

Airport hotels are evolving in parallel with that, driving more small meetings business and more room nights. At Munich Airport, the headquarters for Audi is based nearby in Ingolstadt, so the car manufacturer uses the airport hotel to house thousands of employees annually during sales training sessions and product demos.

“The airport hotel market has changed immeasurably in recent years,” says Fitzgibbon. “I remember when we opened the Hilton at Melbourne airport: great gym, great public areas, phenomenal restaurants, great bars. These are spaces that you walk into and go, it’s not just a bed experience, it’s a hospitality experience. And for meetings, airport hotels have become an incredibly important market in their own right.”

Christian Stoschek, SVP of corporate division quality/project management at Munich Airport, elaborated further on the evolution of airport and airport hotel quality. He told us that the SKYTRAX airport benchmarking system presently ranks only four hotels in its 5-star category, and they’re all in Asia: Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo.

“We want to be the first airport to bring the SKYTRAX 5-star ranking outside of Asia,” says Stoschek. “The way to do that is by engaging all stakeholders in the passenger journey, and that includes the airlines, companies like Audi, and Hilton Munich Airport. The focus used to be on infrastructure but that has now changed completely. It’s about creating an excellent guest service experience, and obviously the Asian mentality is very strong in this area.”

The process at Munich Airport to achieve the SKYTRAX 5-star ranking began in earnest two years ago with the goal that, “The guest shouldn’t move from one area of the airport campus to another and feel like they’re not part of Munich Airport,” says Stoschek.

One of the main priorities to date has been motivating all of the companies invested in the airport to adopt the same service mentality and service standards as Asia’s leading gateways. That began with getting everyone sitting at the same table, which was an impressive accomplishment of its own.

“The challenge for us is changing German attitudes” says Stoschek. “But once the stakeholders started to see the synergies, they have come to understand the value.

We asked Fitzgibbon is he’s seeing a similar shift toward airport stakeholder alignment taking place worldwide.

“We’re seeing more and more of that, and one of the reasons we were successful in securing this contract is that we really saw what they’re trying to do here at Munich Airport,” he said. “For our business, we work with airports and airlines globally hand in glove, it’s very very important…. Especially if you want to bring in the Asian airlines as they start to grow, you’ve got to think about what facilities they need, what language do they need to see in the airport, etc. So there’s a whole raft of complementary facilities and services that need to work together.”

Fitzgibbon uses the analogy that airports are now emulating hotels, where every guest experience touch point has to maintained at a consistent level of quality. So just like a hotel brings together all of its various staff departments everyday, airports are calling meetings on a regular basis with everyone from custodial companies to the airlines’ regional executives.

“If one part breaks down—whether it’s with taxis, bathrooms, retail, restaurants, bar, baggage, security, check-in—that’s the one thing people tend to remember and maybe tell their friends about,” explains Fitzgibbon. “As our kids and their kids grow, travel is going to change immeasurably and airports are going to be the hub for that. We don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like, but at Hilton, we do know we want representation at every major airport in the world. It’s a huge opportunity and it’s where our customers are and where they want to be.”

Greg Oates covers hospitality and tourism development. Email him at go@skift.com.

Photo Credit: Hilton Munich Airport is beginning a 160-room expansion this spring. Hilton Worldwide