Travel & Leisure
updated 10/14/2011 3:45:46 PM ET 2011-10-14T19:45:46

Lounging atop the new Hilton, in Gdańsk, Poland, I could easily forget that the rebuilt city was where World War II’s opening salvos were fired. I’m seated next to a fair-skinned Norwegian girl in a coral-colored bikini, and below, tables from the hotel’s restaurant, Mercato, spill out over the Motława River bank, where chefs grill steaks alfresco. An eye-popping sculpture made of 25,000 handblown glass seaflowers by local artist Edyta Barańska hangs in the sky-high atrium downstairs; my room is stylish and clean-lined, with gleaming Hansgrohe bath fixtures, and more contemporary artwork by Barańska. The deftly designed brick, slate, and glass hotel blends in seamlessly with the nearby historic façades; it’s not exactly what you’d come to expect from a Hilton.

Just as Gdańsk has emerged from the war and Communism’s aftermath, this Hilton is an example of a different kind of rebirth. It is but one of hundreds of new properties that Hilton Hotels & Resorts is opening in an effort to reignite a brand that once set the bar for luxury and deluxe modernity around the globe.

The company’s founder, Conrad Hilton, had a knack for polishing the reputation of an enterprise whose roots began with the purchase of the Mobley hotel, in Cisco, Texas, in 1919. He went on to acquire the Plaza and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York as well as the Drake in Chicago, and to wed Zsa Zsa Gabor (the marriage, like Hilton’s tenure at the Plaza, did not last, but the Waldorf-Astoria and the Drake are still part of the Hilton family). In the mid 20th century, Hilton built 17 properties outside the United States, many occupying prestigious sites in foreign capitals that served as carefully composed architectural symbols of modern capitalism and captured the local imagination (former Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser was such a frequent guest at the Nile Hilton that it was regarded as his presidential palace). “Each of our hotels is a little America,” the hotel king claimed in his 1957 autobiography, built “to show the countries most exposed to Communism the other side of the coin.”

By the 1970’s, Hilton had become the world’s largest hospitality chain, attracting well-heeled travelers who sought the comfort of a recognizable American name. But the tide began to shift in the 80’s, when hotel groups such as Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons started rolling out their luxury-minded brands; meanwhile, the boutique-hotel concept was gaining momentum thanks to a series of trendy properties opened by Ian Schrager in New York City. Hilton’s push comes at a moment when many of the brand’s competitors, including Starwood’s W, InterContinental’s Hotel Indigo, and Marriott, which launched Edition Hotels and the Autograph Collection, have all entered the boutique market. Now the pressure is on for Hilton to reimagine itself for the 21st century (one step in that direction: it has distanced itself from wayward reality star and socialite Paris Hilton, who has no official connection with the hotel group). “Part of its challenge now is to define its point of difference and drive that home,” says Chekitan Dev, professor of brand management at Cornell University.

How does Hilton intend to accomplish this? “We’re rethinking every aspect of the hotel,” Larry Traxler, the current head of design for Hilton Hotels & Resorts, tells me of his vision for revitalizing the 92-year-old company. The latest makeover is far-reaching and highly focused on design, following the consolidation of Hilton’s U.S. and international properties, which had long been splintered (Hilton Worldwide owns 10 brands, including luxury collections Waldorf Astoria and Conrad).

Since taking over two years ago, Traxler, whose previous stints include Hyatt Hotels & Resorts and Morgans Hotel Group, was brought in to radically shake up Hiltons worldwide and has directed the creation and overhaul of new resorts and hotels in Bangkok, London, the Seychelles, and Bora-Bora, to name a few. “We’re not doing the same thing over and over,” he says of the properties, which are built by local architects to distinctly reflect the destination and its culture.

Take the resort in Pattaya, Thailand, with its rippling white fabric panels on the ceilings designed to echo the waves and sandy beaches of the Gulf of Thailand just outside. Or Chennai, India, where the furniture is covered in traditional sari materials with bold textures. The Hilton New York Fashion District, in Manhattan, pays homage to the city’s fashion history with black-and-white vintage photos of the Garment District and a front desk that resembles an atelier’s cutting-room table. Walk into the recently revamped Brisbane Hilton and a glossy gunmetal marble foyer gives way to streamlined rooms punctuated by brightly colored pillows and ottomans, all created by Aussie designer Mark Landini; in fact, in every Hilton hotel, there will be a concerted bid to reenergize the lobby as a gathering place. At the worldwide headquarters in McLean, Virginia, the chain is showcasing a new lobby concept with an 18-hour bar that mutates from a breakfast station early in the day to a lunchtime eatery to an evening cocktail lounge. “We’re not getting rid of the lobby,” Traxler says. “But we’re trying to break a lot of the rules to achieve a more relevant hotel.” One that appeals to today’s wired, media-savvy traveler. High-tech workstations are integrated into the lobby itself rather than tucked away in a separate business center, giving the space a more flexible “living room” feel, part of what Traxler calls a wholesale transformation of the “Hilton DNA.”

The company has replaced its Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries with the more niche Peter Thomas Roth products, whose sleek, minimalist packaging echoes the modern lines mandated by Traxler’s new design standards. To that end, the brand also launched a wellness spa, Eforea: Spa at Hilton, which opened in Bangkok and Melbourne in March and will eventually roll out to 93 properties worldwide.

With Hilton reaching its centennial in just eight years, will these efforts toward its rebranding bid help it stand out from the pack? In Gdańsk, Poland, at least, the latest approach seems to be revitalizing Conrad Hilton’s legacy for a new generation of travelers.

Michael Z. Wise is a T+L contributing editor.

Copyright © 2012 Amex


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