An In-Depth Look at the History of the Hilton Hotel Brands

Think about great hotels, and you’re thinking about Hilton hotel brands. The company had a net income of nearly 900 million dollars in 2019. 

You might think that the history of hotels shows consistent success for Hilton. But that is far from the case. 

Who founded Hilton Hotels? What sorts of challenges has Hilton faced over the years? What brands do they have, and what are their distinguishing traits? 

Answer these questions and you can gain a deeper appreciation for the incredible vacation industry. Here is your comprehensive history of Hilton. 

The Founder

Conrad Hilton was born in 1887. He had the mindset of an entrepreneur from an early age. Before he turned 25, he had worked in a variety of professions, including as a bellboy. 

He then served as a member of the New Mexico House of Representatives. When World War I broke out, he served in the Army. While he was in Europe, his father died in a car accident. 

He returned to the United States and inherited some of his father’s money. He decided to buy a bank, but he found the industry too stifling. He opted to buy a hotel in Texas instead. 

Hilton’s hotel was an immediate success. In 1925, Hilton built a hotel and labeled it with his name. The Hilton Dallas was designed to face away from the sun, helping guests feel comfortable. 

In 1927, Hilton opened the Waco Hilton. This was one of the first hotels to have cold running water and air-conditioning. It was also a success, and Hilton’s name became known as a hotel entrepreneur. 

Dealing With The Great Depression

In 1929, Hilton created Hilton Hotels, Incorporated. This consolidated his different properties under one company. 

That same year, the Great Depression occurred. The travel industry was particularly affected, as fewer people went on vacation and stayed in hotels. 

By all appearances, Hilton was weathering the storm. He opened the El Paso Hilton in November 1930. Eight hotels were under his control in 1931. 

Yet Hilton had substantial debt. In 1931, he defaulted on a loan for $300,000.

A Texas family took control of Hilton’s properties, though they hired him as a manager. Hilton fell out with the family, leading to a costly lawsuit. 

Hilton spent much of the 1930s struggling to make ends meet. By the end of the decade, he had signed away three of his hotels to other managers. But he was still in firm control of five properties, and he returned to buying new ones at the end of the decade. 

Mid-Century Success

In 1942, Hilton bought new hotels in Los Angeles and New York. This made Hilton the first person in the hotel industry to own properties on both coasts. 

The entrepreneur had his eye on a bigger prize. The Waldorf-Astoria had opened in 1931, and it was regarded as one of the greatest hotels in the world.

Hilton bought the New York hotels for the purpose of honing his skills in New York hotel management. He hoped to buy the Waldorf-Astoria for himself. 

The Hilton Hotels Corporation was founded in 1946. The next year, it began selling stocks on the New York Stock Exchange.

This brought new life into the company, allowing it to open its first international properties. The Caribe Hilton opened in Puerto Rico in 1949. That same year, Hilton managed to buy the Waldorf Astoria. 

As the hotel chain grew, Hilton and other employees developed new amenities. The Caribe Hilton’s bartender created the pina colada in 1954. Hilton Hotels created the first office for hotel reservations in 1955. 

Hilton San Francisco Airport opened in 1959. It was the first airport hotel. Many competing hotel chains began opening their own airport hotels.

Influencing Popular Culture 

By the 1950s, Hilton Hotels was an internationally famous hotel chain. It began having significant impacts on popular culture. 

In 1959, the first Grammy Awards ceremony was held at the Beverly Hilton. Hilton then became the official hotel partner of the Grammy Awards. 

Elvis Presley stayed at a Hawaiian Hilton while he filmed the musical, Blue Hawaii. In 1973, he returned to a Hilton as he prepared for his “Aloha from Hawaii” concert. 

Elvis was not the only rock star to enjoy Hilton Hotels. John Lennon and Yoko Ono did their bed-in protest for peace at the Hilton Amsterdam. Lennon also wrote the lyrics to “Imagine” on a piece of Hilton New York stationery.

New Leadership

Conrad Hilton hoped to keep his family within the vacation industry. His son Barron Hilton began his adult life as an entrepreneur, working in various industries. Conrad saw his success and asked him to join the Hilton Hotels Corporation in 1954. 

Barron Hilton helped lead a number of initiatives. He ran a program to add air-conditioning to each Hilton hotel in the 1950s. 

In 1964, Hilton Hotels split in two. Conrad Hilton stayed in control of international hotels, while Barron Hilton served as the head of domestic operations. Barron became interested in gambling, and he bought two casino hotels in Las Vegas during the 1970s. 

Conrad Hilton died in 1979. According to popular legend, he said, “Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub,” before passing away.  

The End of the Twentieth Century

Hilton Hotels doubled down on its efforts to achieve customer loyalty. In 1987, they created the Hilton Honors Program. 

This allowed guests to receive points every time they stayed at a Hilton hotel. They could also receive points if they used a partner of Hilton. They could then use these points for free nights. 

The Hilton Grand Vacations Club (HVC) started in 1994. HVC creates affordable timeshares for people loyal to Hilton properties. The HVC cancellation policy is known for its flexibility and affordability. 

The next year, Hilton opened a website. They allowed users to make room reservations and receive special offers throughout the day. 

New Hilton Hotel Brands

In 1996, Hilton opened the first Hilton Garden Inn. The chain offers rooms at mid-prices, making vacations affordable for lower-income people. Garden Inns have fewer amenities, but they offer free breakfast and Wi-Fi access. 

In 1999, Hilton bought the Promus Hotel Corporation. This allowed them to take control of several brands at once. 

DoubleTree is another mid-priced brand. But it offers more amenities than the Garden Inn chain. It is most famous for its chocolate chip cookies, which are available to guests for free. 

Embassy Suites is a high-priced brand. It is well-known for its many amenities, including a full breakfast buffet. Guests can also attend an evening reception and have free drinks. 

Hampton by Hilton is a little more expensive than DoubleTree while offering more amenities than that brand. The chain has a “100 percent satisfaction guarantee,” meaning customers can receive refunds if they don’t enjoy their experience. 

Homewood Suites is a residential-style chain. It caters to guests who need to stay in a hotel for a long period of time. It offers amenities similar to apartment complexes, like laundry machines. 

The Twenty-First Century

Hilton Hotels has been mounting an aggressive campaign to expand across international borders. DoubleTree and Homewood Suites opened its first Canadian hotels at the start of the decade. Hilton Garden Inn opened in Europe in 2006. 

While the company expanded its cheaper hotels, it looked to consolidate luxury customers. It opened the Waldorf Astoria Collection in 2006. Guests buy high prices at resorts to receive incredible amenities, including meals at Michelin Star restaurants.

The Hilton organization has rebranded itself to appeal to international audiences. In 2009, it changed its official corporate name to Hilton Worldwide. That same year, it opened new hotels in Africa and Asia.  

The company forged ahead through the Great Recession in 2007 and 2008. It even opened two new brands in the 2010s.

Curio is a luxury brand similar to the Waldorf Astoria Collection. Canopy is designed to reflect modern sensibilities. Hotels incorporate environmentally-friendly resources and guests can receive free bikes so they stay in shape. 

Hilton has lost profits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the company expects the demand for hotels to return to pre-COVID levels by 2022. Most of its properties remain open to guests. 

How Hilton Has Made History

Hilton hotel brands have a long and winding history. Conrad Hilton founded the company, and he was initially successful. But the 1930s was a decade of deep struggle and reinvention. 

He turned things around after World War II. Hilton hotels began influencing pop culture, including through the pina colada. 

The company then surged in international prominence. It started customer loyalty programs and began opening a number of chains. It now runs luxury and lifestyle hotels. Hilton is going strong, but it is just one company in the hotel industry. You can find out more by following our coverage.