Dino Michael, Senior Vice President and Global Head, Hilton Luxury Brands

Posted in People on 4 October, 2023

Understanding luxury is key when your world revolves around its seamless delivery. Discussing codes, cues and rituals with SPACE, Dino Michael explains why it’s all about the detail.

When news broke in 2012 that Admiralty Arch was to become a luxury hotel, there was a collective buzz of excitement across the industry. Though not uncommon for The Crown Estate to lease properties to the hospitality industry, few are as iconic as Admiralty Arch where the main thoroughfare to Buckingham Palace begins. So, when the invitation to a hard-hat tour of the property landed in my inbox, my eager acceptance was sent by return email.

Completed in 1912, the Grade I listed building provided offices and residences to the Sea Lords of the Admiralty and more latterly the Navy and the Ministry of Defence. Lying dormant since 2011 the property has never been open to the public, but all this is about to change, with the much-anticipated arrival of Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria – slated to open in 2025.

To the naked eye, it is only the traffic diversions along Pall Mall that tell you building work is in progress as you approach Admiralty Arch. The grand façade remains intact, showing little sign of the magnitude of work going on behind it. Stepping through the unremarkable site entrance, our small quizzical entourage was led to a meeting room where we dutifully slipped into something more comfortable: hard hats, hi-vis vests, and steel-capped boots. Clearly no stranger to a building site, Dino Michael gave us a warm welcome and a brief backstory to Hilton’s acquisition of the Arch, followed by polite though strict instructions not to take photos.

Lobby, Conrad Istanbul

Leading us through layers of builder’s dust and dark corridors, the tour began. Rickety staircases took us to hallways and grand rooms, offering alternate views of Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square beyond its famously curved walls. Architectural plans and visuals taped to bare brickwork along the way gave periodic glimpses of finished designs. As patient builders stood back, we navigated our way through scaffold towers and temporary walkways relying heavily on our imagination to visualise the end result. The interior bones of the building though strong are surprisingly utilitarian, reinforcing the fact that the original building was not designed with high-end hospitality in mind.

Keeping an overarching eye on progress, Dino Michael is a constant presence throughout the renovations, ensuring the infrastructure is in place to deliver the unparalleled quality of service associated with Waldorf Astoria. Admiralty Arch, however, is just one cog in the fast-spinning wheel of Hilton Luxury Brands, where, as Senior Vice President, the strategic growth, brand positioning and leadership initiatives across Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, LXR Hotels & Resorts and Conrad Hotels & Resorts, all fall under his remit.

Conrad Rabat Arzana, Lounge

Intrigued to learn more about a man whose professional life appears to revolve around luxury, I caught up with Dino shortly after the site visit and start by asking him how he arrived in such a role. Taking me back to his childhood he begins. “Well, I had a classic immigrant upbringing. My parents came to London as young kids from Cyprus, and as a son growing up in that environment, I was expected to be a lawyer, a doctor – or basically something impressive my Mum could tell her friends – to show just how well we’ve done.” Fulfilling the first part of his parents’ dream, Dino studied at the University of Law, London and on graduation, took a waiting job at Planet Hollywood. “Initially it was just to earn some cash – but I loved it and decided to stay. When I told my parents I wasn’t going to practice law and I wanted to work in restaurants, I think my Mum cried for a week!” Grimacing at the memory, he continued. “She was distraught! Cafes and restaurants were her background and although my father was a skilled pattern cutter for high street brands, as far as he was concerned it was ‘factory work’ and they wanted more for me.”

A succession of restaurant and bar jobs followed, and Dino learnt the industry from the ground up. Clearly a fast learner, he worked his way across the hospitality sector, becoming a consultant for venture capitalists and hotel brands. Gaining a solid reputation within the industry, he caught the attention of one of the most recognised hotel brands across the globe: Hilton. Though interested in what they had to offer, Dino admits he was hesitant to turn his back on his independence. “To be honest, when Hilton came knocking, I was happy where I was, and I actually said no quite a few times. I thought I wanted to remain independent and carry on doing what I considered to be ‘the cool stuff’. But in 2008, when I could see the recession approaching, I began to rethink my decision. When I finally spoke to them, they were so honest, gracious, and open, I accepted their offer to oversee the Food and Beverage operations – thinking I would probably stay a year,” he laughs.

Waldorf Astoria, Amsterdam

Fifteen years and several roles later, Dino is now firmly focused on the important issue of luxury, as he oversees Hilton’s portfolio of global luxury brands. “Working in F&B, I spent so much time in luxury, that really it was a natural transition in 2013 to move into luxury development. By then I understood the culture, the sensitivities, the nuances, and subtleties of the sector. It’s been a wonderful journey – and now here I am, looking after the category,” he grins.

The word ‘luxury’ is a prerequisite when discussing high-end hotels and comes with certain expectations. But everyone’s idea of luxury is different – even more so in today’s ever-changing landscape of tourism, and so I ask Dino about his own definition of the ubiquitous word.

“Luxury is about understanding detail,” he begins, “and it doesn’t matter where you get that understanding from. When I consider my Dad’s world of fashion and design, this is where I believe I learnt about detail; the refinement of the stitch, how the location of a buttonhole affects the whole makeup of a shirt – it gave me an appreciation of design and craftsmanship.” Explaining how this translates into hospitality he continues. “When you work in a restaurant, whether it’s Planet Hollywood or fine dining, you get to understand finesse, ritual, craftmanship and curation. You are trained to look for things that are out of place – we call it the ‘line of sight’. You shouldn’t see the contents of a refrigerator, or the mess of a kitchen in the distance. When you take a plate to the table it’s the way you position that plate on the table, it’s the positioning of the meat on that plate, it’s the way the table is set – there are cues and codes that once you understand, are translatable and transferable. It’s all about service, philosophy, and detail. It’s certainly not about telling people ‘Ooh, you’re in luxury!’ It’s our behaviour that reassures you.”

Having recently experienced a less than favourable ‘welcome’ at a hotel where ‘reassurance’ isn’t a word that springs to mind as I recall the check-in process, I ask Dino about the aforementioned cues and codes when a guest arrives. “We talk about psychology a lot in hospitality,” he tells me. “It begins when you’re getting out of your car – it’s about us recognising your body language. If you get out and walk straight through the door, we know you are comfortable being taken care of. We’ll take your bag and escort you to your room. But if you go straight to the back of the car and grab your case, we’ll take a step back. You probably like your independence, and you don’t want to be fussed over. If we ask how your trip was, and receive a monosyllabic answer, then again, we’ll take a step back and not overburden you with questions – we need to read signs and understand those cues. Back in the day, Hilton represented luxury through furniture, fittings, hair salons – phones in bathrooms – imagine that!” he laughs. “But today, the luxury traveller has all that in their homes, so our role is to make them feel ‘at home’”.

Waldorf Astoria, Cairo Heliopolis

As I begin to appreciate the work that goes on behind the scenes in terms of service, it dawns on me we haven’t even touched upon the design side of luxury, and I ask Dino how closely and at what stage he gets involved with the interior design of a new hotel. “The team and I become involved once the designer has been selected and start by giving them a deep dive into the brand, telling them what a Waldorf Astoria is and what defines it. They will then interpret that through their own design lens, with our internal design team on hand throughout the process. I’m there at key moments – at those design milestones when a decision needs locking in. At that point I will then go away, do the costings and apply the reality lens!” he smiles. “There are budgets, so refinements invariably need to be made. Occasionally, we have to push back when we can see a design idea that simply won’t work. We understand guest habits and how they use the room; where they want to put their case, how they like to unpack…” And the list goes on. From the orientation of the bed through to the placement of the dining table, Dino knows his guests’ behaviours possibly better than they know themselves.

When not traveling, Dino divides his time between Washington DC and his family home in London. Having worked in 70 different countries for Hilton, I close the interview by asking him if London and the Admiralty Arch project represent something special. He smiles affectionately. “It really does you know. I still have a photo of me in Trafalgar Square as a kid, in my boiling hot tweed jacket – that my Mum insisted I wore to impress the family visiting from Cyprus – and there I am, covered in pigeons with Admiralty Arch and Nelson’s Column in the background. It is special, because it’s one of those buildings that has never really done anything for the public – it’s just always been there. It was always about going through it, and not really thinking about the building itself.”

Discussing the project itself, he continues. “It’s a challenge because there are definite things you can and can’t do. It makes me think of the children’s book: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. ‘If you can’t get under it, you’ll have to get over it…’ But the beautiful thing about a historic building, is that guests will forgive anything because they know it’s the building that provides the architecture, the history, and the interest within it.”

I have seldom interviewed anyone who has such an innate understanding of their industry as a whole. Ostensibly, the interview was about the meaning of luxury, but in reality, Dino gave me a masterclass in the definition of hospitality, all delivered with humour, humility and intelligence. Everyone has their own idea of what luxury is, but in its simplest form, it’s all about the detail.



















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