Hilton CMO departs as hospitality giant cuts 22% of corporate workforce

Dive Brief:

  • Hilton CMO Kellyn Smith Kenny is leaving the hospitality giant after two years, the executive announced in a LinkedIn post reported in Adweek.
  • Joining the hotel chain from Uber in January 2018, Smith Kenny was known for her work expanding Hilton’s loyalty program, which grew to 100 million members under her purview. Her departure follows Hilton’s announcement Tuesday that it would lay off 2,100 employees, or roughly 22% of its corporate staff.
  • Hilton is making steeper cuts and extending prior furloughs as its business continues to be rocked by the coronavirus pandemic, which has decimated the travel and hospitality industry. In a press statement, Hilton CEO and president Christopher Nassetta said that “never in Hilton’s 101-year history has our industry faced a global crisis that brings travel to a virtual standstill,” per Adweek.

Dive Insight:

Hilton losing its top marketer adds to other pressures that this week led the company to slash nearly a quarter of its corporate workforce. Smith Kenny’s departure offers another gloomy signal for CMOs operating in categories hardest-hit by the pandemic, including travel and hospitality and restaurants.

Smith Kenny’s prior work building up Uber’s marketing department and her success in recent years growing Hilton’s loyalty offerings speak to an executive with a tight focus on digital and mobile transformation. Chief rival Marriott has also prioritized loyalty in recent years through a Bonvoy platform that unifies its various brands. As noted in Adweek, Marriott has been without a CMO since September, and is going through similar cost-cutting measures as Hilton due to the pandemic.

In terms of consumer-facing messaging, Smith Kenny also oversaw several popular ad campaigns, many of which were centered on celebrity ambassadors. An effort developed with TBWA/Chiat Day and starring “Pitch Perfect” actress Anna Kendrick proved particularly resonant with millennials — an audience traditional hotel marketers have fought hard to win over in the Airbnb era. But even digital disruptors like Airbnb have seen their business upended by the novel coronavirus, and will likely remain on precarious footing for the foreseeable future.

While some states are easing lockdown restrictions, many people may remain wary of checking into hotels, as the coronavirus is known to spread quickly in shared indoor spaces. Hospitality brands have taken steps to address hygiene concerns as things start to open back up. In late April, Hilton partnered with Lysol parent RB and the Mayo Clinic to develop new processes and staff training around keeping hotels clean, but even those measures might not offset broader consumer anxieties, especially as case loads continue to climb in some hot spot areas.

Smith Kenny’s announcement adds to a recent stream of marketing leadership churn across several verticals. Buffalo Wild Wings this week confirmed that it parted ways with CMO Seth Freeman earlier in June. Freeman oversaw a creative revival for the chain following its acquisition by restaurant group Inspire Brands, and, like Smith Kenny, only held his position for about two years. AT&T brand chief Fiona Carter, decorated for her work addressing topics like gender inequality and women in sports, will split with the telecom giant at the end of the month, Axios reported Tuesday.

CMOs again saw their average tenure slide last year, according to consultancy Spencer Stuart, and it’s possible that the pandemic will create further volatility for an appointment that was under pressure even before the coronavirus hit the U.S. Whether signs of progress for the role will be offset is unclear. Forty-three percent of CMOs at the 100 most-advertised brands were women in 2019, Spencer Stuart found.

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