As dean of the University of Houston Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership, Dennis Reynolds has no time for complacency. Whether it is implementing the latest technology or green-lighting industry-leading research, Reynolds is always pushing his program, which ranks among the top hospitality programs anywhere in the world, to even greater heights.
And what better way for Reynolds, and Hilton College, to reach those greater heights and show that the sky really is the limit, than with a new, glistening eight-story tower at the Hilton University of Houston hotel.
“We are truly ushering in a new era in hospitality,” said Reynolds. “Not only will this new tower provide a fantastic experience for our guests, but it will also give our students even more top-notch educational opportunities like nowhere else.”
"You get the best of hospitality right here on campus.”
Reason to Celebrate
Reynolds was joined by UH President Renu Khator, representatives from Hilton Hotels & Resorts and dozens of distinguished Hilton College alumni for the new tower's ribbon-cutting. It was President Khator who shared Reynolds’ vision and was instrumental in securing the financing for the project, a $30.4 million revenue bond approved by the UH System Board of Regents that will be repaid through profits generated by the hotel.
“Not only does this expansion provide new training opportunities for the students at Hilton College, but it benefits the entire campus as well,” Khator said. “We now have the capacity to host conferences and other large events, and you get the best of hospitality right here on campus.”
The ceremony capped off a long weekend of events billed as an old-fashioned Hilton junket, including a star-studded Casino Night in the Conrad Hilton ballroom, that brought a few famous UH faces back to campus, like former NFL star Greg Ward and acclaimed restaurateur Doug Brooks, retired chairman, president and CEO of Brinker International, one of the world’s leading casual dining restaurant companies.
“The original hotel was beautiful but kind of generic, there wasn’t anything uniquely ‘UH’ about it,” said Brooks, a Hilton College alumnus and member of the UH System Board of Regents. “But now, all of the rooms and public spaces feature pictures and artwork of UH athletes, band members, cheerleaders, even Shasta. So now when students, faculty, fans and alumni come here, it feels like you’re at the University of Houston. It feels like home.”
The Project: Expansion and Renovation
The 64,000 square-foot tower, designed by Houston-based Kirksey Architects and built by DPR Construction, features 70 new guest rooms with state-of-the-art amenities and sweeping views of the UH campus and downtown Houston. The project also included a complete renovation of the hotel’s original 80 guest rooms, lobby, public spaces and courtyard.
The new tower is connected to the original building via skybridges on floors three through eight. Each room features technology which enables guests to personalize and control certain devices, such as the television, air conditioning and room lights from the Hilton Honors app on their phone. Thermostats only activate when the guest unlocks the door and enters for maximum energy efficiency.
Reynolds said the larger, 150-room hotel is more in line with typical, full-service Hilton franchises and will give students a more realistic learning environment and guests a higher-end experience.
“We had gorgeous ballrooms, lots of meeting space for conferences and conventions, but not enough guest rooms. Now we have that capacity so we can host a big event, like a wedding, and guests can spend the night,” said Reynolds. “We’re also a learning laboratory, so by doubling the size we’re giving our students a bigger, better toolbox they can take with them after they graduate.”
The hotel passed its first test in January, nearly a month before it officially opened when it hosted hundreds of the most influential people in hospitality for the James Beard Foundation gathering.
“We were still wrapping up construction, but they couldn’t have been nicer,” Reynolds said. “It was all hands on deck for those three days, we got everything in perfect shape. When they left, there were no complaints, no criticisms. We all breathed a big sigh of relief.”
A Prosperous Partnership
Since its founding by hotel icon Conrad N. Hilton in 1969, Hilton College has graduated more than 10,000 students who work in hospitality leadership positions globally. It is the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel – about 70% of hotel staff members are students. As a full franchisee of Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Reynolds and his team worked closely with designers at Hilton’s corporate office to ensure everything in the new tower and renovated space met the company’s high standards.
“The hotel’s extensive expansion and renovations pay homage to our founder Conrad Hilton’s vision of delivering the light and warmth of hospitality, while evolving one of our flagship brand’s legacy properties to serve today’s travelers,” said Leonard Gooz, global brand head, Hilton Hotels & Resorts. “We are excited for the next chapter of our long-time partnership with the University of Houston and have no doubt that the freshly designed public spaces, elevated new accommodations and exceptional service that the students provide will continue to deliver the best in hospitality.”
Investing in Students
The expansion is the culmination of an exciting and evolutionary period for Hilton College, which last year added “Global Hospitality Leadership” to its name to better reflect its mission and impact on hospitality education around the world. The new and improved student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened last fall in a much larger space. And next door is the Eric’s Club Center for Student Success, a one-stop shop for recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services and career development.
“With this expansion and renovation, we are ideally positioned for the future,” Reynolds said. “It will keep us on the leading edge of hospitality research and innovation and will allow our students to see what the industry will be like years from now when they’re running places like this.”
The new tower is getting rave reviews from students, many of whom got an early, up-close look at it while working at the James Beard event. And some of them wrote about their experiences on cards that were placed into a time capsule at the hotel entrance, along with memorabilia from the hotel’s first 50 years, that will be opened in 2069 on Hilton College’s 100th anniversary.
“I love the aesthetic appeal of the new tower with its beautiful aqua-blue glass paneled windows. It’s gorgeous and luxurious,” said Rozy Abbassi, a sophomore from Tomball, Texas. “It reflects Hilton College’s reputation as the best hospitality program on the planet.”
“Not many hospitality students can say they’ve experienced an expansion like this firsthand,” said Marcus Gray, a junior from Cypress, Texas. “Because we are able to see this kind of organizational change up close, we’ll have that skill to use professionally in the future.”
“The new tower's symbolic meaning as an investment in our future is my favorite part of the project,” said Ximena Medina Villareal, a senior. “This development indicates to me that our school is growing and expanding and getting the recognition it deserves.”
The approval of the expansion and renovation project four years ago coincided with the 50th anniversary of Hilton College. With the project now complete, students, faculty and staff can look forward to the college’s next 50 years, and beyond, as a global leader in hospitality education, research and innovation.
- Story published on March 3, 2023