Eric Michael Hilton, retired vice chairman of Hilton Hotels Corporation, passed away early on Saturday, December 10, 2016 of natural causes at his home in Las Vegas. He was 83.
Born in EI Paso, Texas in 1933, Eric Hilton was raised by his mother, Mary Barron Hilton. During high school, he excelled as a left-handed pitcher and was offered a contract to play for a minor league baseball team in Bisbee-Douglas, Ariz. “I brought the contract home and asked my mother to sign it,” Hilton recently recalled. “She looked at the contract, she looked at me, and she tore it up. That's when my hotel career began!”
“Eric was a gregarious, charismatic leader who represented our family superbly throughout his career, both in the hotel business, and the work of our foundation,” said Barron Hilton, the retired chairman, president and CEO of the lodging enterprise founded by patriarch Conrad N. Hilton in 1919. “Through his charm and tenacity, Eric helped spur our growth through franchising, and guide our return to the international marketplace through Conrad International Hotels. My brother will be missed by everyone who benefitted from his kindness, friendship and philanthropy.”
Eric worked summers at the EI Paso Hilton and, after two years at Texas Western, he was accepted to The School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. But the day after he got his acceptance letter, he received his draft notice. The Korean War was winding down. He joined the Army with a great sense of pride and duty. As a radar specialist, he worked on experimental systems for detecting low-flying aircraft and spent his service in the United States and Japan. After being discharged, Hilton set his sights on the family business.
In 1956, he went to work at the new Dallas Statler Hilton and was soon promoted and named resident manager of the Deshler Hilton in Columbus, Ohio in 1959. The following year, he received his first appointment as general manager of the Hilton in Aurora, Ill. In 1961, he was made general manager of the Shamrock Hilton and became well known and respected throughout the Houston business community.
In 1966, he was promoted to southwest regional sales manager for the company's franchising division, Hilton Inns, Inc. and was named senior vice president in 1969. He helped drive the company's franchise development efforts for the next 14 years.
In 1983, he was named senior vice president of development for the company's new Conrad brand, marking the company's return to the international marketplace after the sale of Hilton International 16 years earlier. He was elected executive vice president of Conrad International in 1986 and spent much of his time based in Hong Kong. It would be another 20 years before the company was able to reacquire Hilton International.
In 1985, Hilton put together a deal for the Shamrock Hilton Hotel to be donated to the Texas Medical Center. He was elected to the board of Hilton Hotels Corporation in 1993 and named vice chairman. A year later, he was elevated to the presidency of Conrad International. Eric Hilton retired in 1997, but continued to serve as a consultant and member of the board until 1998.
Hilton's career was also distinguished by his long service to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston in 1969. He was elected to the board of directors of the Hilton Foundation in 1971, and served as chairman of its affiliate, the Best Foundation. Best's Project ALERT drug resistance curriculum was created by the RAND Corporation with funding from the Hilton Foundation to help reduce drug abuse among youth.
He was also a valued member of the Hilton Foundation's international jury that selects the recipient of the annual $2 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
A longtime resident of Las Vegas, Eric had an idea that created Three Square, a nonprofit organization that collects and distributes food to children and seniors in Southern Nevada.
Hilton received the American Vocational Association Award of Merit and has been honored with the Alumni President's Award and an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Houston, where he has also been inducted into the Hospitality Industry Hall of Honor. He previously served on the board of Future Business Leaders of America-Phi Beta Lambda, and was a trustee for the Little League Foundation for more than 35 years.
In addition, he has been involved with many projects in Las Vegas, including the Smith Center, The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, Opportunity Village and the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at UNLV.
Eric was preceded in death by his father, Conrad, his mother, Mary and his brother, Nick. He is survived by his wife Bitten Bello, his children Eric M. Hilton, Jr., Beverly Hilton-Neapolitan (Robert), Linda Hilton-Buschini (Fabrizio), Joseph Bradley Hilton (Ann), former wife Patricia Hilton, stepsons Gary and Kirk Martin, ten grandchildren, several nieces and nephews, and his older brother Barron.
“My uncle’s passion and commitment to those less fortunate helped shape a number of the foundation’s key program initiatives,” said Steven M. Hilton, chairman of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. “Eric was a dedicated, ‘hands-on’ board member and a heck of a storyteller. He will be greatly missed by the Hilton Family and Foundation.”
For all that Eric has brought to our family, the Houston and Las Vegas Communities and his many friends, his children say “Thank you for all the lives you've touched during your lifetime with us and those you will continue to touch through all your good works. We love you and will all miss you greatly.”
Plans for a memorial service are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family encourages donations in Eric Hilton's name to Three Square through www.threesquare.org.