Hilton Petaling Jaya undergoing makeover

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THE iconic Hilton Petaling Jaya — the longest managed Hilton property in Malaysia — is a popular landmark to most Klang Valley folks, thanks to its strategic location along Jalan Barat and beside the busy Federal Highway.

The hotel recently underwent a major RM50 million refurbishment. The rooms and facilities, such as the executive lounge and Kristal ballroom, now have a sleek contemporary look, complemented by subtle tinges of colour and infused with some local design elements.

However, there are already plans for more refurbishments. The management revealed that they will continue to invest another RM9 mil, which will be carried out in stages over the course of the next 2 years.

On a recent trip to speak with Peter Webster, general manager of Hilton Petaling Jaya, City & Country found that it was business as usual despite the ongoing works and repainting of the building's façade.

The hotel continues to run like a well-oiled machine, drawing a surprisingly sizeable mid-week lunch crowd at its Paya Serai coffeehouse and Genji Japanese restaurant. A number of guests were spotted checking in and out of the hotel while we were there, while some of the staff were setting up Hari Raya decorations. We were also told that a durian stall would be set up at Paya Serai for Ramadan, much to the delight of the locals.

Hilton PJ 2.0

Webster was in good spirits when we met him in the meeting room on the executive floor, which offered a generous and unobstructed view of the Petaling Jaya skyline. "I'm glad the weather has cleared up. About a week ago, due to the haze, I couldn't even see the buildings across the road," he said cheerfully.

Prior to his posting to Hilton PJ a year ago, Webster, who was born in England, was the general manager of Hilton Short Hills in New Jersey, US. Having been with Hilton for almost 26 years, it comes as no surprise that he is an avid traveller and has visited numerous Hilton hotels around the world, whether it is for work or holiday with his family.

Webster has been involved in dozens of refurbishments during his career. So what led him to specialise in hotel refurbishments? "I have always loved interior design and architecture, so there was already a natural inclination in me to seek out opportunities in that field of work.

"I like to look at spaces and try to figure out how to get the best result out of them, by getting feedback and ideas from the guests, as well as the team members," he says, adding that he believes refurbishment works should never be rushed. "Even small projects can takes months of planning. It's all about the details."

After several projects, the management took notice of his interest and very hands-on approach in refurbishing. Since then, overseeing such projects has become his forte. When a project is completed, he is posted to another hotel.

According to Webster, his role in the refurbishment of Hilton PJ has been a little different compared with his previous projects. "When I was posted here, the majority of renovations were already underway. It was my job to re-launch and change the public perception of this historic hotel. We wanted to introduce everyone to Hilton PJ 2.0. It's not the same hotel you remember," he explains, adding that there are still many little projects occurring all the time — small enhancements aimed at improving guest experience.

Even now, there are several ongoing works on the property, including painting and repairing the exterior, replacing the west wing roof and upgrades to the employee locker room. The planning process usually takes a year to 18 months, depending on the size of the project.

On the repairs and painting of the façade of the building, Webster says, "We realise that even though so much work was done inside, the hotel didn't look any different to the passersby. Eventually, the management opted for a similar colour scheme. We want Hilton PJ to complement the buildings around it, but not different enough to draw undue attention."

When asked how much longer he will be based here, the perpetual nomad chuckles and says, "About four weeks more, actually. I have been promoted to regional general manager for Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. My new role starts in August and I will [be] based in Singapore."

Will this affect any of the renovation plans? No, says Webster, explaining that a five-year plan is already in place. "We need to constantly look ahead. Even though something looks fine now, you just know with experience that certain items will need replacement or refurbishment after a certain period."

The change of pace

There have been several trends pervading the hospitality industry in the recent years. One of the most apparent, and the greatest challenge for hoteliers, is the change of pace.

As a result, renovations are now an ongoing process. "In this business, you are always renovating. If you don't renovate for a year, it's hard to make up for it next year. Hence, the best thing to do is to make sure you are almost always doing something to stay ahead of the curve," Webster explains, adding that the hotel has been receiving better reviews on travel sites such as Tripadvisor.com since the refurbishment began, while occupancy has increased about 10%.

People want to be more environmentally-responsible, he says, adding that the enthusiasm to go green differs from country to country. "In the Caribbean, for example, people prefer ceiling fans in their rooms instead of air conditioning."

Guest expectations have also increased. What was once dubbed "luxury" is now a norm. Internet access has become a must for all hotels that want to remain at the top of their game. Webster says the scenario is so different from 15 years ago. "Back then, most hoteliers would have needed a lot more convincing on how all these would affect their ROI [return on investment]."

Things have also changed in the culinary department. Themed buffets and show kitchens are popular now. "Guests are now interested to see how their food is prepared. They want more interaction with the chefs," Webster says, adding that in view of this, the management will be adding a show kitchen to Paya Serai near future.

30-year heritage

Hilton Petaling Jaya's roots can be traced back to when it was known as Jaya Puri Hotel. In 1982, the hotel came under the management of Hilton when the then Pernas Hotel Chain Holdings Sdn Bhd (now known as Tradewinds Hotels & Resorts Sdn Bhd) bought the controlling stake.

In February of that year, Jaya Puri Hotel was closed for a RM40 million renovation and reopened in 1984 as the Hilton Petaling Jaya. The 398-room building was Hilton's second hotel in Malaysia and the 17th Hilton International hotel in Asia-Pacific. Another round of renovations in 1992 saw the hotel's built-up area increase from 210,000 to 433,996 sq ft, with a total of 554 rooms.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of July 29-Aug 4, 2013.