Q&A with Gary Steffen Canopy by Hilton

Gary Steffen, global head, Canopy by Hilton, knows a thing or two about launching a brand, having guided the debuts of both Canopy and Curio Collection by Hilton. He recently spoke with Hotel Business about the current state of Canopy and how his GM experience shaped his career.

Tell me about the brand’s evolution thus far. I am proud of how far Canopy has come over the past few years—and for all that lies ahead.

We developed the brand out of robust consumer research and owner involvement. From surveys of more than 9,000 consumers, we learned travelers were looking for “something more”—specifically, an energizing, comfortable stay with more included value. We built Canopy based on these insights.

Taking the time to “get it right” was an important element in creating Canopy. Following our research, we built a full-scale model room at Hilton’s headquarters to gather feedback from both owners and consumers, and then implemented real-time adjustments.

All the hard work and time spent in creating the brand is just beginning to pay off. We opened our 11th property in October and have a pipeline of 40-plus hotels under development—15 of which are expected to open in 2020.

Our success is also evidenced by the incredible partnerships we’ve formed, which have helped us create unique upper-upscale experiences.

How are you preparing for future growth? More than anything, we’re very excited for the year ahead. We’re bringing Canopy to at least three new countries and seven new states in 2020. It’s going to be a busy year, but we have been working with these owners for several years and are pleased to see their beautiful properties open in their own backyards.

We’ve grown the Canopy team this year with the additions of Harald Han, director of brand management, and Jessica Testa, senior manager of brand management and development. We are a small but mighty team, and we work very closely with our ownership groups to advise on everything from design to the types of personalities we recommend hiring.

As part of Hilton and its Luxury & Lifestyle team, we leverage the amazing network of resources, including our experts in food and beverage, marketing and development.

What does the future look like for Canopy beyond 2020? We have plans to bring Canopy to even more dynamic neighborhoods around the globe. We expect to open in places like New Orleans and Chicago in the U.S., Madrid and Cape Town, South Africa, in 2021. And, we’re planning to debut the brand in Canada and Thailand in 2022.

We’ll continue to grow the brand the same way we are today—working with our development teams around the world to find the right owners in the most vibrant neighborhoods.

Each Canopy property is designed around the local culture of the neighborhood in which it’s located. How do you work to achieve this? Embracing the local culture is the foundation of the Canopy brand. No two Canopy properties will be alike, as each is designed to draw on the life of the locale and spirit of the community.

Our ownership partners are critical in bringing Canopy to life in each market. Most owners are residents of their respective market and they know the local culture through and through.

Instead of relying on one cookie-cutter prototype, we empower our owners to shape their property’s design and programming based on what will work best in their town.

While all our properties are unique, they are united by a few elements that make them “Canopy,” such as open and flowing spaces, a top-notch F&B program and a personality-filled staff.

The Canopy employees—or enthusiasts, as we call them—are also key in creating authentic guest experiences. Canopy enthusiasts are locals themselves and are full of recommendations for the best things to do in town.

A final example of how we become a part of the local fabric is Canopy’s food and drink offering. We work with Proprietors LLC, the training arm of renowned bar chain Death & Co, to train the hotel bar enthusiasts, and together they create a drink program that showcases local ingredients and spirits.

Was there anything you learned from the Curio launch that helped you with Canopy’s? The entire journey creating and launching a hotel brand is really complex, but definitely fun. It “takes a village” and I feel lucky to have worked with so many Hilton experts when launching Curio and Canopy.

It all starts with conducting wide-scale research and defining the white space of where there’s opportunity to better serve guest needs. The research then informs everything—from the brand name to brand identity, differentiators, design narratives, etc.—and experts weigh in along the way, including current Hilton owners who act like advisers. There’s also a great deal of project management and coordination with internal and external experts to make sure you accomplish all the tasks that enable you to bring the brand to life.

What was your first job in hospitality? I started my career at a summer resort in Wisconsin, where I grew up, as I was going to school to be an accountant. Like many of us in this industry, it was pretty much by accident that quickly turned into a passion for the hospitality industry and taking care of guests. Needless to say, I changed my career path and graduated with a hospitality degree.

I think one of the biggest benefits of the hospitality industry is the endless number of job opportunities. You can start out as a busboy at a summer resort (like I did) and, through hard work and meeting the right mentors in your life, work your way up to become a GM or work on a brand at headquarters.

How did that and your work as GM at several hotels prepare you for your current role? I think the operations experience provides a level of credibility and relatability with owners and the leaders of the hotels. You can put yourself in their shoes when you are thinking of the how the brand differentiators will not only lead to guest satisfaction and loyalty, but also the return on investment for your owners. HB