Fifteen-year-old Frank Passanante was looking forward to vacationing with his family at Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu in the early ’80s, but he had absolutely no idea that it would provide the initial spark to his successful 33-year career.
“While staying there, I read Conrad Hilton’s book, ‘Be My Guest,’ and I became obsessed,” he says. “The principles that Conrad [Hilton’s founder] described in his book struck me. He was all about dreaming big and thinking big, and acting big, and he had overcome so much adversity. He talked about travel and hotels as something so glamorous and connecting. It really drew me to the business.”
Passanante went on to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree in hospitality management and marketing management from Florida State University. Shortly before he graduated, all the major hotel companies came to the campus to recruit prospective employees. “There was only one job that I wanted: I wanted to work for Hilton,” he says. He was offered an opportunity to enter the company’s professional development program at Hilton at Walt Disney World Village — now Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista — and began serving as a sales manager for the company in 1988. He has steadily climbed the Hilton ladder, serving in increasingly advanced sales and marketing management positions for individual hotels and regions before being appointed in 2018 to his current position, senior vice president Hilton Worldwide Sales – Americas.
During Passanante’s career, he has racked up an impressive string of accomplishments with Hilton, as well as the hospitality and meetings industries in general. He has helped to build teams, mentored many employees who have gone on to have very successful careers, and helped to oversee some significant hotel renovations and openings. He does not hesitate to single out one achievement above all others, however. “As I reflect on the achievements in my career — and I believe I probably share this with many others in the industry today — I am most proud of what we have been able to accomplish since March of 2020,” Passanante says. “Certainly, nobody in the business ever saw or experienced what we have all gone through with the pandemic, and how our industry and the hotel business, specifically, were impacted. It has been life-changing, and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in a crisis mode when we had so many folks, both customers and team members, that relied upon us, and continue to do so as we emerge and continue to recover. I can’t think of anything that I would rather share with my grandkids and others about my job that would be more important than what we’ve done in the last 20 months.”
One of the first things that Hilton did was on April 6, 2020, Christopher J. Nassetta, Hilton president and CEO, announced that the company would provide 1 million rooms to frontline medical professionals in the United States. In March and April 2020, Hilton’s sales teams sought counsel from some of their customers, made up of more than one dozen major medical associations — including the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association — and emergency physicians. Hilton ended up facilitating the distribution of the 1 million rooms through these customer partnerships. “We made a direct impact on those customers and their members in a very, very real and meaningful way,” Passanante says.
Passanante also lauds the way Hilton and its competitors in the meetings and hospitality industries united in a spirit of cooperation. He has served several meetings industry organizations, including the PCMA and Meetings Mean Business Coalition boards, and the Events Industry Council’s Apex COVID-19 Business Recovery Task Force. “There has never been a point in time when the industry has rallied so much around a common purpose — that is, in the service of our shared customers,” he says. “There has been a collective need to solve our customers’ problems, and that was the primary focus of the task forces that I served.”
He notes that the Events Industry Council’s website shows the work that many different organizations have been doing. It is presented in a guide format to serve as a resource and educational tool for industry professionals to use as they put aggregated resources and materials into practice. “That wouldn’t have happened without the energy and effort of the collective industry. At the end of the day, great things happen when people come together,” he says.
Passanante is also pleased with the way that Hilton, as well as the hospitality and meetings industries in general, have weathered and are bouncing back from the pandemic. Hilton added 400 hotels and more than 55,000 guest rooms during the heart of the pandemic, and in the third quarter of 2021, it opened 96 hotels, totaling 14,700 guest rooms. The company is continuing its ambitious growth, with more than 2,620 hotels and 404,000 guest rooms — 249,000 outside the United States — in the pipeline in its 122 countries and territories, including 27 where Hilton doesn’t have any existing hotels. Hilton’s expanding Las Vegas footprint includes the recently opened Resorts World Las Vegas, its largest hotel globally. It features 3,500 guest rooms and suites from three hotel brands — Conrad Hotels and Resorts, LXR Hotels & Resorts and a marquee Hilton Hotels & Resorts hotel — as well as more than 250,000 sf of flexible meeting space, six ballrooms and a 5,000-seat theater.
The company also unveiled the reimagined Virgin Hotels Las Vegas, Curio Collection by Hilton, which includes more than 1,500 chambers and suites, an exclusive spa, 15 food-and-beverage outlets, multiple entertainment venues, a state-of-the-art casino and more than 130,000 sf of indoor and outdoor meeting space. “We’re super-excited about both of these hotels because they are great meeting venues in the best meetings destination in the world,” Passanante says.
Hilton also is aggressively expanding its portfolio in Mexico, where more than 30 properties are in the development pipeline to supplement the more than 70 that are currently open. Passanante is enthused about the recent opening of the Hilton Cancun, an All-Inclusive Resort on 100 acres of Mayan coastline in Mexico. It will feature 714 guest rooms, nearly 100,000 sf of meeting space and 12 unique culinary experiences. An adjoining Waldorf Astoria hotel is scheduled to open in mid-2022 with 55,000 sf of meeting space. On the Riviera Maya, Conrad Tulum, another all-inclusive property, recently opened and will be connected to a new Hilton hotel in the spring. Collectively, they will offer some 1,000 guest rooms and 80,000 sf of meeting space.
Passanante also is excited about the addition in July of Signia as the company’s 18th brand, which is providing another attractive option to meeting planners. “It’s our new portfolio of premier hotels that will largely be located in highly sought-after urban or resort destinations,” Passanante says. “It is intended to appeal to sophisticated business and leisure travelers. The brand was built based on feedback specifically given by meetings professionals and many other stakeholders. It definitely is a meetings-oriented brand with full-service amenities, premium meetings and events spaces, and state-of-the-art technology.”
The first Signia property opened last summer as a result of converting Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek to Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, and the meeting facilities are undergoing a major expansion. The brand’s initial new-build property, the 975-room Signia by Hilton Atlanta, which is attached to the Georgia World Congress Center, is scheduled to open in 2023 with 75,000 sf of meeting space. “We also have some other very exciting meeting destinations that we either just opened or are opening that really speak to our commitment,” Passanante says. “I couldn’t be more excited about the return to group travel and live events.”
The company offered its first in-person event in three years, Americas Commercial Conference 2021, late last year at Resorts World Las Vegas. It brought together Hilton’s commercial leaders from marketing, sales, customer experience, commercial operations and several properties as participants learned how to continue to drive recovery initiatives, foster internal relationships, and bring back travel and in-person events.
Hilton also has been busy adding new technological tools for meeting groups and other guests. “We’re creating self-service tools that allow customers to shop, book, experience and plan their meetings seamlessly, which is very important because everyone is starved for resources today and looking for efficiency,” Passanante says.
The company has been piloting Digital Key Share, which allows up to four guests to have access to a room’s digital key by using the free Hilton Honors app on a smartphone. The Digital Key program, which was launched in 2015, now is available at more than 80% of Hilton’s properties worldwide and at all 18 Hilton brands. Also, this past October, Hilton introduced “Diary of an Event Planner,” a digital series in which Hilton Worldwide sales professionals are sharing advice on how to prepare for in-person conferences. The series is part of the EventReady Playbook, which was launched in 2020 to provide meetings and events planners with guidance, inspiration and solutions for creating and executing engaging, safe events.
In June, Hilton announced that it was partnering with Groups360 to help launch GroupSync Engage, the hospitality industry’s first integrated, direct-booking solution for group room blocks. It is providing meeting planners with the ability to view guest room blocks and book them in real time at 5,000 of Hilton’s hotels. Passanante says that “very soon,” planners will be able to also book meeting space through GroupSync Engage.
Passanante says that Hilton will also continue to evolve its meeting-room technology and booking-to-billing technology.
Another program, Meet with Purpose, launched in 2015 as a component of Travel with Purpose, will be refreshed. It has focused on three pillars: mindful eating, covering food and beverage offerings; mindful meeting, focusing on giving back to communities; and mindful being, targeting health and wellness. “Customers today, especially those that have shared values with us and others in placing a priority on CSR, sustainability and people-planet issues, are making it a part of their decision tree,” he says. “They are important considerations when they’re considering where they’re going to spend their money on travel. They are important to decision-makers, but we’re doing these things because they’re the right things to do.” He adds, “We will be engaging more on the mindful meeting aspect, which really speaks to sustainability, which is more important to our customers than it’s ever been. Also, our LightStay Event Impact Calculator [which focuses on carbon emissions, energy use, water and waste associated with meetings] is industry-leading, and will take a much larger stage as we refresh Meet with Purpose. We will focus on other activations, such as more things groups can do in communities when they meet.”
Like all other hotel companies worldwide, Hilton was hit hard by declining business during the pandemic. This required the company to quickly and efficiently institute some major changes, such as boosting health and safety. That was partly done through the creation of the Hilton CleanStay program, in which the company partnered with Reckitt, the makers of Lysol and Dettol. Passanante thinks some of these changes need to be retained. “We’ve been saying that this past year has been a decade of innovation all wrapped into one condensed year,” he says. “The pandemic didn’t just change the way people travel; it changed the way people live. We have made a concerted effort to not just recover and return to normal, but to recover and be better and stronger than ever before in serving our customers. He adds, “I don’t think we’ll just snap back into old ways. There have been too many meaningful changes, and we have innovated in ways that are responding to ways customers really want to experience travel and our hotels.”
One of the main changes that will be retained is enhanced virtual and hybrid offerings, which have been vital to planners during the pandemic. “Virtual has a place to convey information and hybrid has proven effective for small collaborations, but the value of live, face-to-face events has only been exaggerated,” Passanante says. “Human connection is absolutely paramount, and travel is an unstoppable force. While digital elements of meetings will continue to be incorporated, there is simply no replacement for live events. That’s what we’re hearing from our customers and that’s what we’re experiencing ourselves. Elements of hybrid and virtual experiences will be incorporated, but they’ll serve as a way to supplement and extend audiences, certainly not replace the invaluable human connection that is offered by live events.”
Passanante has seen plenty of innovative developments while serving Hilton. It has grown from one brand and 265 hotels when he started to 18 distinct brands, more than 6,700 hotels and 1 million guest rooms. He thinks this continuous expansion is helping Hilton to fulfill its mission by serving increasingly more customers, including meeting groups, and providing them with a greater variety of options. “We are extremely blessed that our founder gave us our collective purpose and vision — to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality,” he says.
Passanante says this purpose guides him every day, and says that it is “what keeps me going.” It also resonates with some of his main influences while growing up on Long Island in New York City. He credits much of his success to the influence of his father’s strong work ethic and his mother’s creativity and kindness — but also points out the importance of his extended family, particularly his grandparents. His father’s parents were immigrants from Naples, Italy, and he grew up with a large Italian family. “That brought all the chaos, craziness, fun and excitement that you would expect in a giant Italian-American family,” he says. “That had a huge influence on how I see experiences, and how I see food and the central role that it plays in life. On the flip side, my mom is a Southern belle who grew up in rural western Kentucky. My family on my mom’s side is all in the South. So, there was a stark contrast between my life as an Italian New Yorker and spending every summer of my childhood in a very small town in rural western Kentucky, where I experienced Southern hospitality, Southern food and Southern pleasantries. It was an extremely different environment, but one that very much influenced who I am today and how I like to live life by melding those two things together. They couldn’t be more different if you look at them independently, but the central theme of each was family values, family fun, really valuing family time — and food, breaking bread together, was important to both sides.”
This emphasis on family and traditional values have been central in Passanante’s career, as well, and resonate with the type of camaraderie Hilton strives to cultivate with its employees and guests. “I am willing to push boundaries, to tackle the really hard things and have the ability and willingness to challenge myself and others,” he says. “I’ve often said that I live — and even prefer to live — in permanent white water. I much prefer to be in an environment where we are rolling really fast and have to be agile, quick and ever-changing.”
This energetic approach to life carries over to his long-term passion for endurance sports, including long-distance running, swimming, biking and triathlons. After the birth of his first child, however, he realized the importance of balancing his ambitious nature with a more collaborative approach. “From a leadership perspective, I like to think that I am definitely passionate and very direct, but I’m also very collaborative,” he says. “In retrospect, I think that the most important turning point in my life that shifted my thinking was fatherhood. When I became a father, I had responsibilities other than just myself and my wife. It forced me to shift my mindset from being an individual contributor — a hard-charging sales professional who was very focused on performance — to a team mindset, one that thought much more about others and accomplishing things through them, and being more empathetic and appreciative of the greater good to drive performance versus individual performance.” He adds, “This made me a better and more effective leader. It allowed me to very quickly progress into different leadership roles.”
During his career, he has also developed a greater appreciation for the importance of listening. “I’ve learned that it’s important to listen more than you talk,” Passanante says. “I probably didn’t get this until further along in my career, but then I very quickly realized that whether it was in a sales environment where I was interacting with customers, stakeholders or team members, or family, it’s necessary to listen, listen, listen. Listen loudly — and then talk.”
He emphasizes the importance of listening while nurturing a coaching culture at Hilton to ensure that his sales teams develop strong connections with customers and deliver consistently strong performance. “The culture at Hilton really starts at the top with Chris Nassetta and our senior leadership team, but within the sales organization, we believe that we bring that to life in a very significant way,” Passanante says. “I think that the coaching culture we’ve created is really powerful and was central to our ability to see a path forward during the pandemic. If we didn’t have the coaching culture in place, I’m not sure we would have persevered the way we have the last 18 months as our team has become even more reliant on each other’s support, coaching and empathy.”C&IT