Longtime Hilton exec to step down; reflects on career

MCLEAN, Virginia—Ian Carter, president of global development, architecture, design and construction at Hilton, remembers the first time he addressed his team after joining Hilton International as CEO in 2005.

“I had about 1,000 people in a room in London, and I said, ‘The only experience in hotels I can offer you right now is that I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels,’” he said. “’In the next two years I expect to learn a lot,’ I told them. And we did.”

Carter announced today he will step down in December from Hilton, following a 15-year career in hotel development with the company that spanned numerous countries, ownership changes and industry cycles.

When he leaves the company at the end of 2020, it will be to pursue other interests, likely in non-executive roles and board positions—a side of his professional life he has explored for years alongside his role at Hilton with companies including Burberry Group, Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group and Servpro, among others.

“I’ve always said I would never leave Hilton for another hotel company,” he said. “Hilton is the best in the industry. We have built an incredible team across the company. It’s unfortunately hit an unforeseen and devastating—at least for now—crisis in COVID-19. We’ve had tough news to deliver this week, but if we look ahead, I think the company will be well-positioned for the medium and long term.”

To that end, Carter said the timing was right and he’s happy to leave the company “after 15 fantastic years,” knowing that the leadership and teams in place at Hilton are made up of “extremely seasoned, great individuals and great teams with lots and lots of experience.”

“I met (Hilton President and CEO Chris Nassetta*) 15 years ago, and we’ve been on this ride ever since,” Carter said. “I’ve seen the company from many different angles and have met lots of great people.”

The turning points
Carter is the only senior executive at Hilton who was part of the company since the cavalcade of changes that characterized 2005 through 2007.

In late 2005, the U.S.-based Hilton Hotels Corp. announced it would acquire the U.K.-based side of the business, Hilton International, for $5.71 billion. While the two companies had enjoyed alliances and partnerships since the 1990s, they hadn’t operated as one company since Hilton Hotels Corp. spun off the international business in 1964.

Carter said when he took the Hilton International CEO role in 2005, “it was obvious for me that the real way forward for the company was as one. The question was just who would buy who.”

The deal, which closed in 2006, was a big turning point for the company’s history and for Carter’s as well.

“I have a fantastic photo of Barron Hilton, myself and (then Hilton Hotels Corp. CEO) Steve Bollenbach in the Chicago Hilton, where Barron’s father (company founder Conrad Hilton) used to have an office, in the building where President Kennedy used to have an office. The three of us are just sitting, having a moment after the re-acquisition.”

Carter was president of global operations at Hilton in 2007 when The Blackstone Group acquired the majority of Hilton Hotel Corp.’s shares, taking the company private.

It was “possibly the worst possible time, right at the financial crash,” he said.

But he cites “the incredible work Chris (Nassetta) did during that period” between 2007 and 2013, when Hilton completed its second IPO to again become a publicly listed company. Carter took on his current role in 2013, just prior to the company’s re-listing.

“We literally doubled the size of (the company),” he said. “Around the world, at a time when many (companies) were really struggling to stay alive, we doubled our footprint. When we re-listed the company, we were close to 4,500 hotels. Now looking back we’re at 6,100 hotels.”

Project highlights
Carter said many of his professional highlight moments are from the period of explosive growth Hilton experienced in recent years after the Great Recession.

“The company is almost unrecognizable globally from when I joined,” he said. “We had five hotels in China then, versus now when our pipeline, plus what we have (open), is 500.

“It’s a completely different company and it’s a testament to the people we hired around the world, the vision we have, taking brands to the markets and countries around the world.”

In the U.S., Carter said he is particularly proud of the partnership Hilton struck earlier this year with Resorts World Las Vegas. The partnership represents Hilton’s largest multibrand deal in its history and calls for a 3,500-room resort including hotels under the Hilton Hotels & Resorts, LXR and Conrad brands. The project is under development and pre-pandemic was slated for a 2021 opening.

“For Hilton to be back on the Las Vegas Strip was a huge deal for us,” he said. “I feel good about this one.”

Around the world, Carter pointed to franchise expansion in the EMEA region as a professional highlight, as well as growth across chain-scale segments in the Asia/Pacific.

The deal Carter and his team struck in 2014 between Hampton Hotels and Plateno Hotels Group to develop 400 hotels in China represents the true nature of partnerships he said he’s enjoyed most about his time at Hilton.

“This deal was not easy to do. It came together through a lot of great relationships,” he said. “It took us a lot of time to figure out how we were going to do it. We got to know each other really well before we figured out whether it could work.”

Those partnerships that turn into friendships are all highlights, Carter said.

“Having been hotel owners ourselves, we know what it’s like to sit on the other side of the table,” Carter said. “It’s ultimately about the connection with people. It’s not a robot investing in a hotel property; it’s a person. It may be an investment fund, and those have personal connections. And it may be a family or group of families, investing in something that will become their family heritage.”

“I have great friends in this industry, many of whom I’ve argued with,” he said with a laugh. “These are hotel owners we’ve had good, robust discussions with, and we have our war stories, and I know they’re still friends.”

Today’s challenges
Carter recognizes that the challenges the industry faces with COVID-19 are “clearly different” from past recessions and global events but maintains the fundamentals of the industry remain strong.

“I wouldn’t expect the hotel footprint to grow as quickly as it has (the past few years) in terms of new-builds,” he said. “Existing and new owners will take a pause. But the opportunities we’ll see in conversions really step up at times like this, like they did in 2008 through 2010. It won’t balance out, but it’s shifting our thinking and resourcing to make sure we’re getting our owners back on their feet as soon as possible.”

At the end of the day, he said people around the world from all backgrounds won’t lose their love of travel.

Even if he’s not in the hotel business three years from now, Carter said he will gain a lot of satisfaction if he can look back and see a global industry back on track, with people re-hired and companies growing.

And as for himself, he said he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I can say with absolute certainty that I love this industry, and joining it was the best move I ever made,” Carter said.