Riyadh’s Al Faisaliah, one of the few independent hotels in the region. Riyadh’s Al Faisaliah, one of the few independent hotels in the region.

The Leading Hotels of the World (LHW) is a consortium of hotels located all over the globe that have etched their mark on the luxury travel space. In the GCC, LHW has its presence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the UAE — totalling eight properties through these four countries.

Hatem Chatter, regional director of the Middle East, Leading Hotels of the World, says: “We have 370 to 380 hotels worldwide which are all five-star deluxe properties. All these hotels have passed a set of leading quality checks and assurance points.”

LHW’s regional office is based in Dubai, a city it has three affiliate hotels in, and has witnessed double digit growth for the past 11 years. But the company is not chasing to add to its roster of hotels.

Chatter explains: “I said at the start we have about 370-odd hotels, but had we done this interview last year the number would have been a lot higher. So, this number fluctuates, because inspections are going on all the time.

“Don’t get me wrong, our job is not terminating hotels; we are not playing the police officer trying to find mistakes. But we are coaching and reviewing, and if we find a weakness in one of the leading standards — which can be housekeeping or operations — we can then focus and train (the hotels).”

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He adds: “My job is to serve our members by educating them about the market — but the core business will be to deliver revenue from the Middle East. It’s important to remember the Middle East, for many years, was in a comfort zone. Now the Middle Eastern client wants to travel more and discover independent properties, that are offering a lot more.”

LHW does not operate or asset manages any of the hotels; for that matter, neither does the group own any hotels. But given its legacy, coupled with its 128-year history, the group has become associated with defining luxury travel, Chatter tells Hotelier Middle East.

One of the most important services, however, that LHW offers, is its one-to-one concierge facility. “Their job is to take calls from all over the region and help guests with any detail of any hotel they need. So if you want a hotel in Paris [of which there are seven] — our team will then have a one-to-one conversation to get to know what you want to do there. So this personalised booking is completely different from an online or email [reservation],” Chatter explains.

LHW operates in a niche of its own, and when it comes to the Middle Eastern traveller Chatter says the company’s new strategy resonates with guests associated with royalty, or those who expect five-star luxury. “Our company is strategically going after the curious traveller, a concept that I can mirror in the Middle East market. About 12-15 years ago, I remember having to call a Sheikh or a prince knowing exactly what his travel plans would be. He would be likely to travel on the second day of Eid and he would take the corner suite with a couple of junior suites with two twin rooms in Geneva, Paris or Rome, staying there for a month.

“There are royal families who have suites with us that are tailored just for them, their wallpaper or furniture. These are their suites and nobody else can take those, but they do not own them. These are guests who will extend their stay for a much longer period of time, if the service is good.”

Chatter adds that a Middle Eastern traveller translates into extended business for a hotel. “One of our hotels in Zürich had an average stay of three-four days. Hotels want to keep the big royal families and VIP delegations for as long as possible, because they are amazing spenders at the spa and restaurants. So we decided to make them more comfortable by hiring a Lebanese chef and cooking Arabic food. This resulted in dramatic stay extensions. Don’t get me wrong: they still remain curious travellers and want to try out soufflés and fondues, but if you want them to stay for longer you have to make them feel at home.”

Chatter compares this outlook to a European tourist who often “has a set budget, and will not spend more or less than that — there is no negotiation”.

He also says that luxury travel is well and truly alive, in spite of the rise of the mid-market, and predicts the rise of independent hotels in the region in the near future. Chatter says: “If you notice we have a lot of properties in Europe, and I am often asked how come we do not have many in Dubai even though it’s booming? That is because LHW mainly focuses on independent hotels, which are fewer in this part of the world.”

Chatter adds: “There are wealthy owners who build luxurious hotels, but they are not hoteliers, they are investors. So for them it doesn’t make sense to build a hotel and then manage it — which is a perfect match for a Leading (LHW) property. The easiest way [for the investor] is to give it to a chain of hotels — a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton.”

He once again stresses on the role of a curious traveller stating “many owners travel a lot more than they used to before”. He says: “As these owners stay more in our properties — and I’m sure they are loving it — in a few years we will have more independent hotels. This does not necessarily mean they will become hoteliers.”

He states how one of the two hotels in Riyadh shed its brand name in favour of being an independent property, and says: “The Al Faisaliah Hotel in Riyadh was a Rosewood property for many years, then it was a Four Seasons. The owners had a chat with LHW and said ‘we really want to keep the name Al Faisaliah and manage the hotel ourselves’. Sometimes a hotel can use the chain to get experience, and fly on from there.”

Another trend that Chatter has spotted is how luxury hotels are evolving, as he thinks hotels are becoming “smaller but bigger”. “Luxury hotels are reducing the number of rooms and suites in favour of having bigger rooms. Clients today like these walk-in closets and bigger seating areas so as to feel comfortable. Luxury hotels with 300 or 400 rooms are refurbing their interiors to have 200-250 rooms now in order to accommodate this trend.”

The future of luxury and upper-upscale is not under any sort of threat. “You get bags that are stronger and cheaper than a Louis Vuitton but people still pay the extra premium for an LV. It’s the same principle in travel. Guests like the fact that when they walk into a hotel everybody knows their name. Even the concierge and front office know your favourite beverage or food. That’s all part of luxury service, and it’s not a passing trend,” Chatter concludes.