Five questions about sustainability & travel with Erwin Verhoog, SHC jury member

Erwin Verhoog (HTH ’88) is Vice President Operations – Continental Europe, at Hilton. Having held multiple leadership roles within Hilton, Erwin is renowned for his undying passion for hospitality and innovative mindset. Currently, he oversees the managed portfolio of Hilton’s full service and luxury hotels in Continental Europe. From Portugal and Spain to France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland and other European countries, Verhoog and his team ensure a personalised guest experience that promotes “Travel with Purpose”; Hilton’s ESG strategy to promote responsible travel and tourism globally. The latter is accomplished by creating positive environmental and social impact across their operations, supply chain, and communities.

What are the two travel trends you predict in a post COVID-19 society?

Just like every cloud has a silver lining, the crisis brought both challenges and opportunities to our business. This may have been an unprecedented crisis but special things have come out of it, especially when it comes to customer behaviour. The two biggest trends I notice are in the areas of buying perspective and sustainability.

On the one hand, we are experiencing an incredible amount of last-minute business and although you might say that those short-lived terms are only for now, I do not think that is the case. People have become even more ad hoc and impulsive in buying online, either shopping or traveling. We see that the lead time for people to travel and put a meeting together or organise an event is incredibly short. In turn, this is a challenge for us as organisations because of the big human resource scarcity in our industry.

On the other hand, we notice that sustainability is at the top of our customers’ minds. At Hilton we organise regular Customer Advisory Boards (CABs) with our individual customers, travel agents, or big corporate companies; we did these during COVID-19 too. The interesting thing is that in the first three-four months of the pandemic, the number one topic was around hygiene, protocols, safety. But already after a few months, and well before the start of vaccinations, the topic of sustainability was back on number one. People are definitely more conscious of it nowadays, especially when it comes to modes of transport and length of stay. They would rather plan their travels and group their flights in such a way that their impact on the environment is as small as possible.

Staying in the topic of sustainability, what kind of projects are you taking on as VP at Hilton?

At Hilton we try to promote sustainability at various levels. For instance, as VPs, Senior Directors and GMs we have an ESG target that we work towards and it’s a key metric in terms of how we measure the performance of our hotels. As a result, we have formed within our organisation in Europe several operation priorities with a focus on ESG, such as how to behave wisely when it comes to utilities, how to resource our hotels, etc. At locations like Azores, Faro or Lisbon where there’s plenty of sun, we try to deploy new technologies like solar panels. These are used to bring the water up to 40 degrees, so we only need to bring it up to 55-60 degrees with traditional heating equipment.

We also aim to ensure transparency of our activities among our customers via LightStay, our proprietary ESG management system which allows us to measure, manage, and report our performance towards our goals at every Hilton property worldwide. Teams can record everything on LightStay; from water usage and amount of recycled waste to ROI sustainability projects and more, everything gets put into the system. At the same time, the system “knows” the history and the way a hotel is set up in regard to energy usage. So, when a customer enquires a meeting room of X number of people for Y days, we can actually present information on the number of the carbon footprint that this meeting will give in the quote. And LightStay does not end there! In countries like the Netherlands and Germany we have partnered with social enterprise South Pole to offset the carbon footprint of meetings and events at no additional cost to the guest.

Nevertheless, I am delighted to say we are not unique in this. More and more hotels and companies are working on the topic of sustainability while ESG has become part of the daily agenda.

Progress on the topic of sustainability is not happening fast enough. If I/ we as Hilton can add some speed, some sense of urgency to the topic, then I can gladly do that. I think this sums up my drive to join the Sustainable Hospitality Challenge as a jury member this year.

Erwin Verhoog - Vice President Operations – Continental Europe, Hilton

Tell us a few words about the “Travel with purpose” ESG strategic framework of Hilton.

Hilton launched its Travel with Purpose 2030 Goals in 2018 as part of its ambitious ESG strategy, “Travel with Purpose,” making it the first global hospitality company to set science-based climate targets. Recently, Hilton announced strengthened greenhouse gas emissions goals — which aim to cut emissions intensity by 75% in its managed hotels and emissions intensity by 56% by 2030 in franchised properties. These goals have been validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a global body enabling businesses to set ambitious emissions reductions targets in line with the latest climate science.

How is Hilton investing in youth? Is there a special plan?

We absolutely have a special plan for youth, not only because we want to but because we have to. Our youngest team members are particularly asking for it in the way we design our workplace, to the many initiatives we invest in such as involving them in sustainability projects, prioritising mental health and wellbeing or championing diversity, equity and inclusion. We have the Board of Future generations, which comprises of people of different ages who engage monthly on various topics and take on projects. There is also reverse mentoring; executive leaders like Simon Vincent or David Kelly have a mentor from our younger generation! They meet every month with younger people in our organisation to hear from them and learn what moves them. There are so many incredible careers at Hilton, and so engaging with young people to highlight these opportunities and making sure our company evolves to meet the needs of different generations is absolutely critical.

What is the drive behind your participation in the SHC as jury member?

I have two sons myself; the oldest is 21 and the youngest 19. This means that I know up close that sustainability is an important topic to them. Therefore, it is important to us as well. They are about to embark on building their future and we need to do it together. We are jointly responsible. Also, due to the nature of my job, I am on the road a lot and wherever I go I have noticed that you cannot escape the topic of sustainability. Frankly speaking, progress on this topic is not happening fast enough. If I/ we as Hilton can add some speed, some sense of urgency to the topic, then I can gladly do that. I think this sums up my drive to join the Sustainable Hospitality Challenge as a jury member this year.

The final round of the Sustainable Hospitality Challenge will take place from 19 – 21 September in Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai. Finalists from the Hotel Management School Maastricht, Cornel University, Hotel Institute Montreux, Swiss Hotel Management School, and Hotelschool The Hague will compete during the Future Hospitality Summit (FHS), one of the biggest events in the wider Arabian region. There, the students will have the chance to showcase their innovative solutions for a new model of sustainable living in front of a prominent jury of the industry’s biggest leaders.