Hilton group's area VP and head of SEA Alexandra Murray is optimistic about return of travel and hospitality industry

Consumers are expected to travel just as much in the year ahead, if not more.

Murray: Human connections are at the core of hospitality and something I thrive on (All photos: Hilton Group)

Options: Is the hospitality industry breathing a collective sigh of relief now that Covid-19 seems to be well and truly behind us?
Alexandra Murray: Travel is springing back! With the easing of restrictions, the continuation of pent-up demand and the increase in flight frequencies, we are seeing tourist arrivals returning to pre-pandemic numbers across most markets in Southeast Asia. Hotel occupancy levels have also increased, driven by the leisure travel segment and business transient travel as company meetings and conventions resume. As such, we stand ready to welcome more guests with the reliable and friendly stays they are looking for, ensuring all travellers can enjoy exceptional experiences where they feel truly cared for. On the people front, we have also been actively investing in our employer brand building to attract hospitality-minded talent across all our markets, leveraging industry-leading recruitment technologies, providing upskilling programmes, and expanding our recruitment strategies to tap into alternative talent pools.

How did you ease yourself back into things?
Personally and professionally, I started travelling again in the middle of 2021 while I was still holding responsibilities for a portfolio of hotels across 23 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Hilton. At that time, many countries in the region were reopening their borders and business momentum was edging up. It was rejuvenating to revisit the various markets and be able to personally thank every member of our amazing teams for their contributions. At the start of last year, I also took on my current role in Singapore. Travel was almost at a virtual standstill in Southeast Asia then and it was great to see the sharp uplift of the situation in many of our destinations from the second quarter of 2022. Now that we’re in 2023, it continues to rebound strongly. Human connections are at the core of hospitality and something I thrive on, so it is simply fantastic to be able to personally connect with our owners, team members and business partners.

What is your 2023 forecast for the industry, especially from a regional perspective?
Southeast Asia, with its many popular destinations, is Hilton’s second-largest market in Asia-Pacific. We are optimistic the region will continue to stay at the forefront in 2023. In fact, according to Hilton’s latest trends report, we can expect consumers to travel just as much in the year ahead, if not more, as they turn to deeper, more engaging human experiences and seek destinations that address their holistic wellness needs.

The Hilton group seems to be particularly aggressive, with a slew of hotel openings. Can you tell us some of the key locations to look forward to?
As the fastest-growing hospitality company in Asia and with tourism recovery in full swing, we are set to nearly double our portfolio across Southeast Asia in the coming years, with 53 hotels trading currently and 44 in the pipeline. In 2022, we saw significant additions to our portfolio, such as the opening of marquee hotels like Hilton Singapore Orchard and Hilton Maldives Amingiri Resort & Spa.

Last month, also opened Conrad Singapore Orchard, our second Conrad hotel there. This year, we will continue to expand in key destinations in Southeast Asia’s primary and secondary gateway cities, where our guests want to be. That includes Hilton Garden Inn Da Nang and La Festa Phu Quoc, Curio Collection by Hilton, in Vietnam, and Hilton Yala Resort in Sri Lanka. We are also set to welcome new brands like LXR with the opening of LXR Bali in 2023 and expand our Waldorf Astoria brand into Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur over the next few years. Southeast Asia is an incredibly vibrant region. Our continued focus will be to leverage our diversified offerings across our portfolio of brands to pursue growth through different avenues by working with the right partners to deploy the right brands in the right locations.

How do you feel the post-pandemic guest has changed and how is the group adapting to meet — and even predict — their needs?
As we emerge from the pandemic, we can expect consumers to travel just as much, if not more. Hilton’s trends report says travel will be a means for consumers to create deeper connections, not just with friends and family but also local cultures, communities, and the planet. They are also looking for more immersive travel experiences that allow them to create meaningful change. Overall wellness will remain a priority for travellers as they seek destinations that align with their holistic wellness goals and priorities. This includes accessibility to fitness amenities; healthier food and beverage options; and wellness experiences to improve their mental and emotional health. Our properties across the region currently offer an expansive range of unique spa treatments to rejuvenate the minds and bodies of wellness-minded travellers. Conrad Bali, for example, offers sound healing sessions led by a local Indonesian sound healer who creates an alluring blend of binary beats and theta waves that activate the body’s natural healing system and balance the seven chakras.


Pool at Conrad Bali Suites

For guests seeking meaningful travel experiences, we have programmes under Hilton’s Travel with Purpose, which help guests positively impact the communities they visit. For example, Conrad Koh Samui’s on-property farm produces approximately 1,300kg of fruits and vegetables and 6,000 chicken and duck eggs every month for the resort’s restaurants and bars, as well as cacao and coffee beans for chocolate bars and ice cream. Guests can try their hands at collecting eggs, composting and harvesting vegetables as part of the farm tour experience. People will also look for technological and human innovations that make travel easier and more frictionless this year, from personalised dining recommendations and reservation adjustments to hotel technologies that make for a stress-free stay.

What are your personal favourite aspects of a hotel stay?
The opportunity to create deeper connections with my family while relishing moments of connection with nature and local communities, especially when we’re able to contribute towards meaningful change. On our last family trip to the Maldives, it was such a treat for my daughters to snorkel and see sharks in real life. While staying at Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, we had the opportunity to participate in the resort’s coral propagation programme, part of its efforts to educate guests on marine life. Travelling responsibly is also important to me, whether I’m on the road for leisure or business. In Singapore, every single guestroom in Hilton Singapore Orchard embraces an eco-friendly guest experience with energy-efficient technology. Rooms are equipped with bulk bath amenities and glass-bottled water in a hotel-wide effort to eliminate single-use plastics. I’m proud to share that it recently became the first hotel in Singapore to introduce an onsite water filtration and bottling system that treats, purifies, mineralises, and bottles up to 500 bottles of premium drinking water in reusable glass bottles in an hour.

Which destinations are on your immediate 2023 travel list and why?
The first destination on my 2023 travel list has to be Japan. With the country’s borders now reopened to tourists, I am looking forward to catching the cherry blossoms and exploring its beautiful countryside with my family in spring. Vietnam is on the list too, a country of rich history, amazing scenery and tantalising cuisine. My family and I enjoy beach destinations and nature, which makes me particularly excited about the opening of La Festa Phu Quoc, Curio Collection by Hilton. As the largest island in Vietnam and renowned for its pristine beaches, Phu Quoc is part of the Unesco World Biosphere Reserve. The resort also sits within the Sun Premier Village Primavera, a local tourist attraction that reflects elements of iconic Amalfi in Italy. Its beachfront location in South Phu Quoc also makes it the perfect destination for families and couples to unwind and reconnect, which is just what we as a family thrive on.

We understand you relocated to Singapore just last year. What have been your favourite discoveries?
Singapore has been wonderful and what I enjoy the most are the nature spots here. My family and I regularly visit MacRitchie Reservoir and the Botanic Gardens to slow down and appreciate local nature and wildlife. We also go out on boat trips around Singapore’s coastal fronts for great views of the skyline and to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. We also try to enjoy the many cultural events on offer at the Esplanade and in Chijmes as often as we can.

What’s a perfect weekend like for you?
Sunshine, a nice nature walk and a barbecue at the poolside or a concert in the evening.

What are you listening to right now?
You will always find some Ed Sheeran and Kygo collaborations, Anne-Marie, Imagine Dragons, Train or Coldplay and the occasional German pop song on my playlist. 

What are you reading right now and why?
The Little Big Things by Henry Fraser. It provides a fascinating insight into the life of young man who unexpectedly suffered significant physical trauma and finds the inner strength to overcome his injury and live fully and meaningfully. A truly inspirational and touching read that humbles and shows me how important it is not to take anything in life for granted.

Lastly, is there a book you always reread?
Life is too short to reread books ... or watch movie reruns. 

This article first appeared on Feb 13, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.


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