Bringing Spark by Hilton to Life
Spark by Hilton is the company's first foray into the economy sector and Alissa Klees is the leader Hilton tapped for the sparky job. She brings more than 20 years of experience in strategic leadership, brand building, and owner support to Hilton’s newest brand. Prior to her current position, Alissa served as Senior Director of Brand Personality for Hilton’s All Suites and Focused Service Categories, where she focused on building a passion for the brands they represent and their unique service personality, with customers and fellow team members.
We chatted with Alissa to learn more about her two-decade career path with Hilton, where she served in various sales roles, from global account management to leading teams of sales professionals, to building a brand-new brand!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up outside of Detroit in the suburbs of Michigan.
What drew you to hospitality?
Before I started college, my parents encouraged me to earn some money for expenses. I got hired as a banquet server at the local Hilton Garden Inn, and that job sparked my love of working in restaurants and hospitality. Do you think hospitality is a “gene” or can be learned?
I think it’s a little of both. The desire to be in the business of serving others, whether you know them or not, isn’t inherent, but the skills needed to be successful can certainly be learned. You studied hotel management at Michigan State, what did you love most about that program?
While at Michigan State I studied food industry management with a minor in hospitality. That combination enabled me to learn the fundamentals of hotel operations while also understanding the supply chain and elements that go into a hotel from a food and beverage standpoint. I loved that this education made me well-rounded and exposed me to the industry, from seed to product, plus how to market that product. From there your first job was in restaurant management, did you think you wanted to pursue a career in F&B?
When I was younger, I thought I wanted to be a chef. Especially after starting my first job as a banquet server. For a short time, I even thought I would go to culinary school, but I received an amazing opportunity with The Drake that seemed like a perfect fit.
So, you moved into sales at The Drake, which was your first role at Hilton. How did you land that job?
My first role with Hilton was 20 years ago. In 2003 I started working at The Drake as the business travel sales manager before transitioning to Hilton worldwide sales two years later. After about 15 years you made the switch from sales to brand management, how and why did you do that?
During my tenure with Hilton, I rose to various ranks in sales and started to manage teams, but I had a strong desire to learn the other side of the hotel business. I was eager to use my skills for internal-facing activations and apply them to project management.
In your recent brand management roles, it seems like you have had to communicate brand values to team members and owners. How are those two audiences different?
Regularly communicating with different audiences, from team members to owners, has been a challenge I’ve welcomed in my recent brand management roles. With team members, I aimed to speak from the heart, to be both aspirational and engaging while also supporting Hilton’s overall mission. Conversely, owner communication is more focused on ROI, such as making an investment in Hilton and delivering returns.
Have you had mentors at Hilton and did they help you plot your career path?
From my personal experience and exemplified through the many awards the company has won over the years, Hilton is a great place to work. Over my 20-year career, I have had both formal and informal mentors that have helped me achieve the success I am thankful for today. Most notably, since my first day at The Drake, Kelly Phillips, senior vice president, sales, has been a guiding light in my career.
Do you have an executive coach? We’ve interviewed several women who have mentioned this recently, so wondering if it is a trend.
Yes, I currently have an executive coach. They help me prepare for big meetings and difficult conversations. They give me an opportunity to work on my presentation skills and tap into their strategic, listening ear to help me deliver information in the best way possible.
Sounds like an important part of your executive skill-building to have a coach. Congrats on earning Hilton's Circle of Excellence (Top 5%) and Elite Circle of Excellence (Top 1%), how did you do that?
Thank you. I won the Top Commercial Performance Award in Hilton’s Circle of Excellence for outperforming my sales quota. This is the pinnacle for sales professionals at Hilton and I was thrilled to be recognized for my hard work.
Seems like you are very driven to succeed, what motivates you?
I am motivated by challenging questions and driven to be the problem solver. It's very rewarding to watch something I built or an issue I solved grow into a successful activation. Can you share a failure, or time when something didn’t go as you expected and how you overcame that?
I see failures as great learning opportunities. A challenge we sometimes face at Hilton is how we engage with team members on property. It’s an art and a science to both meet the team members where they are while also providing a platform they want to come to. This is something this is always evolving. Who inspires you right now?
My Dad has always inspired me. During his incredible career in public service, he faced many highs and lows but handled them all with grace. I keep him and how he navigates obstacles in mind as a rising leader at Hilton who deals with different types of challenges. You are also a mom to two kids, now ages 8 and 5, at what point during your career did you take maternity leave? Any tips for transitioning back to work for other women?
When I had both of my children, I was managing a team of sales professionals but took full leave each time. I felt like I had so much to prove when I returned, but it’s important to recognize that your world has changed. How you show up might feel different, but it doesn’t make you any less of a professional, especially when you give your best.
Switching gears, tell us more about Spark! I love the modern, clean aesthetic. What does the process of creating a brand from scratch look like, how do you even start?
The introduction of Spark by Hilton follows extensive research that identified an open space in the industry and the opportunity to serve even more guests and owners by addressing a major unmet demand for value and consistency. Our quantitative exploratory research in the U.S. and U.K. helped us better understand the consumer, the impact on Hilton brand perceptions, whether this new brand would change stay behaviors, and more. A panel of target customers was tapped into throughout the process, including building what the brand stands for, what the guest offering is, how it comes to life on property and how it looks. We also dug into their priorities in the hotel experience, building a robust target customer profile and a deeper understanding of which elements of the hotel stay to prioritize. In addition, we conducted visits to more than 100 hotels in the economy category to better understand what the current offering looks like and how Hilton could deliver an unmet demand for consistency and value in this space. I’ve heard that bringing a brand to life is like having a child, do you think there are any parallels?
There are certainly parallels. You are creating and loving something with all your heart and want other people to love it too.
Why did Hilton decide to enter the economy space?
Our founder Conrad Hilton's mission was to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality and to offer a hotel stay for every type of traveler for every trip occasion, and Spark by Hilton delivers on that vision. In a time when travel has undergone great upheaval and many travelers are looking for greater value, Spark by Hilton was specifically designed to serve even more guests through a new uplifting yet accessible class of hotels that meet and surpass expectations at an affordable price point. Spark by Hilton will also enable Hilton to expand its footprint into untapped markets. We have identified more than 100 markets with no Hilton presence as of today, providing a great opportunity for the brand and the company to serve even more travelers. Congrats on having 100 deals already in the pipeline, that is super exciting. What do you do now that the brand is launched?
Now that we have launched, I act as chief cheerleader for the brand. The team looks to me first for answers and guidance so we can attract even more travelers to the Hilton portfolio. Right now we are partnering closely with the development team to ensure we find the best assets and locations to bring Spark by Hilton to life and utilize the conversion kit to bring consistency to the market. How did you get the opportunity to be the brand lead on Spark?
For the last five years, I have been studying service personalities for Hilton’s focused service and suites brands. I have also been studying the profitability of investing in these brands.
What challenges do you hope to take on next at Hilton?
It’s too early to say what is next. Spark is my baby and my current challenge for now, and I am eager to watch my baby grow up.
What is your morning routine?
2023 is the year of self-focus. I give 20 minutes to myself every morning before starting the sprint of getting my kids up and out the door.
What do you do for self-care / exercise?
I exercise on my Peloton and get a weekly manicure.
Spark Hotels will have a bagel bar, what is your personal favorite type of bagel?
An everything bagel with garden vegetable cream cheese.
What is your best tip for how to close a deal after working in sales for so many years?
Follow up within 24 hours and outline three takeaways. Show you listened!
What is the best advice you ever got?
Dress for the part you want, not the part you have. Always be your best in every situation because you never know who is going to walk into a meeting or call you on Teams.
What is the worst advice you ever took?
Never let them know you don’t know the answer in the sales process. Now I know, it is OK to tell people you don’t know and are committed to getting the right answer.
What books, podcasts, or TV you are into right now?
I am part of a women’s book club and embrace a Kindle. Right now, I am reading Spare.