Best of the year: Hilton and KLM CEOs discuss travel and hospitality’s place in the world

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Chris Nassetta & Pieter Elbers on stage at The International Hospitality Investment Forum, Berlin (Credit Mark Green)

In 2019 the travel and tourism industry contributed 10.4% of global GDP ($9.2 trillion), and 10.6% of all jobs (334 million). Understandably, those pre-COVID numbers have taken a hit as travel restrictions and stay at home orders restrict movement across the world. 

With all this in mind, how should the sector look to reposition itself now? At IHIF, which was held in Berlin in September, two leaders grappled with the issues in an onstage discussion. Pieter Elbers, CEO of KLM, and Chris Nassetta, CEO of Hilton, spoke about the challenges ahead – one of the biggest, outside of COVID, being the climate emergency.

“[M]y own view, is that we have a responsibility to everybody on Earth – given the scale of this industry, that we represent 10% of global GDP, we're 10% of all jobs in the world. That means that we are having a huge impact, right, environmentally, and we can have a better or worse impact,” Nassetta said.

“If we band together, we can have a tremendously positive impact by doing it," he added.

Elbers said the pandemic has brought forward many of the trends that were starting to impact the industry.

“[A]t the beginning of COVID-19, there were all kinds of speculations that the world after COVID-19 would be a very different world in a very different place,” he said.

“I think the reality now is we're not having a very different world. But some of the trends which were there prior to COVID, have just been accelerated: On digitization and some of the other issues, labor shortages on the market and pressure on talent. But the key issue, which has really accelerated over the past two years is the topic of sustainability.”

The airline industry has come under pressure for its impact on the environment and airlines like KLM are trying to come up with improvements.

“[A]t KLM, we operated the first ever flight on synthetic fuels. And it was just a small portion of the fuel. But it was a first step, like how we started 10 years ago with biofuel. If I see what some of the big manufacturers are doing, it's really impressive,” he said.