Dino Michael took on one of the most coveted jobs in travel, that of global head of luxury brands for Hilton Worldwide, in November 2019. Four months into his tenure, the industry collapsed around him.

That means that for most of the time he’s been in charge of Hilton’s crown jewels—Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, and the collection of independent properties known as LXR—he’s been focused on difficult, long-distance troubleshooting, rather than glamorous long-distance travel.

For someone who started the year dreaming big about the renovation and reopening of New York’s iconic Waldorf flagship and expansion plans around the world, the Covid-19 pandemic may have come as an especially big shock. But speaking with Bloomberg Pursuits from London, Michael is steadfastly optimistic.

“The one thing that has stood out to me over the last few months is—given how big an enterprise we are—how nimble we’ve been able to be,” he says, pointing to the quick rollouts of flexible cancellation policies and strict cleaning measures that the company committed to under the CleanStay initiative it announced in late April.

Even with the company’s second-quarter earnings reports that show overall revenue per available room dropping by 81% year-over-year, with the luxury segment taking a disproportionate hit when compared with extended stay and limited service brands, Michael is bullish. His two highest-end properties in New York, the Waldorf and the Conrad, have clung to life while such mid-priced behemoths as the Hilton Times Square surrendered to fate.

“Right now,  service looks a little different. It’s more hands-off, we understand that. But service is even more important right now … and with winter coming, there’s real opportunity.”

On New York’s Waldorf Astoria
The Waldorf’s long-awaited reopening was supposed to take place in 2021. As with many an ambitious renovation, that’s been pushed back—most likely until 2022, Michael says. Roughly two-thirds of its 1,400 rooms are being converted into luxury condos designed by Jean-Louis Denoit; the sales office for Waldorf Towers opened in February, with 75 units listed, just before the pandemic arrested all development in Manhattan.

But the spaces travelers know and love will be “restored” more than “renovated,” Michael says, of an effort to return to their original postwar grandeur.

“We’re taking out every single window frame, peeling back every piece of wallpaper,” he begins, describing a project that's estimated to cost $1 billion. “We’re doubling every room in size. I think we’ll have the largest entry-level room in the city—over 620 square feet.” He also mentions such historical refurbishes as converting the ornamental flower pots at the top of the Park Avenue entryway back to the large lighting fixtures that once spotlighted women’s dresses as they waltzed through the double doors. In the process, at least 80,000 decorative objects have been removed and put up for auction.

As for the oversized meeting and event spaces that have made the hotel a global bastion for fancy weddings and black-tie galas? Michael says “it’s too early to tell” how this will shake out, though he feels confident that the spaces will continue to see life for hybrid events that some attend in person and others check into virtually.

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