How Hilton brought its Tru brand to life

How long does it take to take a hotel brand from dream to reality? In the case of Hilton Worldwide: Less than two years. 

In January, at the Americas Lodging Investment Summit, the company unveiled a model of Tru by Hilton, its new midscale concept designed to compete against the likes of La Quinta and Choice’s Comfort brand. The first hotel under the new brand will open next year. 

At this week’s BDNY held at New York City’s Javits Convention Center, several Tru insiders gathered to tell the story of how it will open its first hotel 22 months after teams began imagining "What if..." 

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“We were losing a major demographic because guests were going for less-expensive hotels,” Alexandra Jaritz, global head of Tru by Hilton, said, estimating that as many as 18 million guests were opting for the competition instead of a Hilton hotel. While Hilton has plenty of legacy product, none of it was in touch with the evolving needs of modern guests. This, she said, created a “white space” for the company.

Hilton tapped Cincinnati-based FRCH Design Worldwide to create a new midscale hotel in early 2015, and Tru was on its way.

Building a Brand

With its new concept, Hilton wanted to challenge the traditional midscale segment with all-new construction, stand-out branding and plenty of tech options, such as digital check-in and digital key, Jaritz said. 

With these ideas in mind, teams from both Hilton and FRCH started working together to create their new brand—but a new goal gave the project a tighter deadline: They were determined, Tom Horwitz, principal at FRCH Design Worldwide, said, to premiere a model of the hotel at ALIS in January—just nine months away. 

To speed up the process, Adrianne Korczynski, VP and creative director at FRCH, said, the teams leveraged the “DNA” of existing Hilton properties and past projects, including Hampton Inn & Suites, Home2 Suites and Hampton’s Forever Young Initiative—an upgrade to hotel and room designs, launched in 2013.

From Hampton, the team opted to create small guestrooms of 228 square feet, a concise food-and-beverage plan with a bar and a zoned lobby. From Home2, they planned “eclectic” design and color and decided to make the lobby an “active space.” From Hampton FYI, they planned flexible guestrooms and “clever” bathrooms. 

By June of 2015, the team knew both what they wanted and what they did not. Platform beds were in; box springs were out. Traditional dressers and closets were gone, replaced with a “landing zone” that would let guests store their luggage on a bench and hang clothing from a rod. Cardboard models of rooms were built, and employees of both Hilton and FRCH could walk through rough versions of the spaces and determine what they liked, offering input and criticism. 

King vs. Queen

But there were certain points of contention as ALIS drew closer, said Mitch Patel, president & CEO of Vision Hospitality Group, which will develop and manage one of the first Tru hotels, especially when it came to determining the size of the guestroom and the size of what would go into it. “For the longest time, the width of a standard hotel room has been 12 feet,” he explained. “You had a finite fixed space for the bed, walkway and a bulky TV that took up 2 feet. But those TVs are gone. Why do we need 12-foot-wide rooms?” Marriott’s nascent Moxy brand brought the room width down to 10 feet, he said, which allows a hotel to add square footage to “other uses.” 


With no TV cabinet and no traditional dresser, the teams debated how wide the room should be, and what kind of bed would be the best fit. King beds are “legacy,” Patel said, but a queen-sized bed would let the rooms be narrower. While research indicated that guests would be fine with a queen-sized bed, the Hilton team knew that king beds are a popular option, and decided to trust their instincts. (Most importantly, Patel said, Hilton Worldwide CEO Chris Nassetta agreed with them.) 

Then there was the issue of a guestroom desk, which some designers have adapted into multipurpose tables—or eliminated altogether. As the Hilton and FRCH teams experimented with different positionings for the desk, they realized that they were overthinking. Instead of a fixed desk, they selected a portable chair with an attached table, letting guests move the workspace to wherever they want it.

And then there’s the bathroom. To no one’s surprise, tubs were out and showers were in (modeled on the Home2 Suites’ showers). Lighting, however, became an intense focus for the designers, who realized that they could improve the brightness of the bathroom by selecting electric mirrors with side lighting. “Pricing had come down over the years,” Patel said. “Having a bright bathroom is very important. That will not go away.”

In total, the average Tru king-bed guestroom takes up just 231 “hard-working” square feet—56 percent of the size of an industry-average guestroom—and double queen guestrooms are 280 square feet, 44 percent the size of the industry average.

The Lobby

If the guestrooms were going to be small, the teams knew they needed a large lobby to give guests a place to socialize, dine and relax. By creating open-plan “zones” to suit different needs (eating, socializing, working and playing), the team maximized the usage of the space’s 2,770 square feet. 

The “Hive” (the brand’s term for the lobby) is dominated by the Command Center (front desk), with a social media wall with real-time content and a 24/7 market where guests can grab snacks, drinks and supplies. Games like table-tennis and foosball will be available, as will “stadium seating” for socializing. The breakfast area was inspired by Home2 Suites’ lobby breakfast bar. When breakfast is over, the tables can be used as desks.  

With these decisions in mind, the teams brought their model to ALIS in January, unveiling the hotel and explaining its message to attendees. At the conference, Phil Cordell, Hilton’s global head of focused service and Hampton brand management, said that Tru would not be a conversion brand, although two properties in Chicago and Boston will be adaptive reuses. “This is not a flag-flip brand,” he said at the time, adding that Tru is available for dual-brand development, especially paired with Home2 Suites. 

As of September, Hilton Worldwide had 120 Tru executed agreements, totaling more than 11,000 rooms, with another 200 hotels in process representing more than 18,000 rooms.

Customization

For now, all Tru hotels will be new-builds, except in hard-to-enter markets. The hotels will follow a general prototype of 98 rooms, although room count can go as high as 129 or as low as 82.

Lobbies, Jaritz said, would be consistent across all properties, but the brand is offering three guestroom packages dubbed “Glimmer,” “Spark” and “Burst.” This solution solved the dilemma of creating a consistent experience at scale while making each property local. “That was something we wrestled with,” Jaritz said. 

Public spaces at each hotel will have local artwork in public spaces, and the F&B options in the marketplaces will include local items, including local craft beers. Staff members at each hotel will be encouraged to recommend local spots to guests through artwork around the Command Center. “There needs to be consistency in product, but there are other ways to be local,” Jaritz said. 


Photos (c) 2016 Hilton Worldwide