How Hilton’s CEO moved the company forward by focusing on the past

June 3, 2021, 9:30 PM UTC

Though the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to result in more deaths globally in 2021 than in 2020, summer travel bookings are on the rise. Many people around the world—and nearly 52% of American adults—are fully vaccinated, and polls show that people are excited to get back out into the world.

The resurgence of travel couldn’t have come soon enough for the hospitality industry. “It has been a difficult year, as you would guess, in our industry, but we definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Chris Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton.

Nassetta joins Fortune’s Alan Murray on this week’s episode of Leadership Next, a podcast about the changing rules of business leadership. Cohost Ellen McGirt has the day off.

In addition to how Hilton weathered the pandemic and is working to welcome travelers back to the company’s properties, Nassetta discusses the company’s culture. As CEO of Hilton since 2007, Nassetta’s leadership has helped keep Hilton ranking high on Fortune and Great Place to Work’s annual list of Best Companies to Work For, clocking in at No. 3 for 2021.

Nassetta says that when he came on board, Hilton no longer had the strong company culture that Conrad Hilton instilled at its founding 102 years ago. To drive Hilton toward a stronger future, Nassetta knew he had to rebuild it.

“You can’t have a great strategy without a great culture,” he adds.

When Hilton was founded, “Conrad Hilton said, ‘I want to make the world a better place, and the way I’m going to do that is to allow people to travel to far-flung destinations,’” Nassetta says. “I’m going to give them safe places to stay, so that they can enjoy other cultures, have exchanges with other cultures, and ultimately, have greater understanding that will lead to more peace in the world.”

Nassetta tapped into that idea, which he calls “a really noble premise.” He helped the management team and staff understand that the DNA was still there and “what we need to do is reattach to it. I got people to think about the contributions we’ve made to many tens of millions of lives in thousands of communities, in a way that they could feel inspired that they were part of something bigger.”

He adds, “The big picture is as simple as saying, ‘Everybody wants to be part of something bigger than themselves.’”

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