10TH ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: Hotelier highs and lows

Long-standing MidEast hoteliers review the last decade in the industry

Noblet recalls launching the region's first alcohol-free hotel chain.
Noblet recalls launching the region's first alcohol-free hotel chain.
Cristal's Peter Blackburn hopes to be on a golf course in Cyprus by the end of the next decade.
Cristal's Peter Blackburn hopes to be on a golf course in Cyprus by the end of the next decade.
Greif says working in Dubai during the period following the 9/11 attacks in the US was unusual.
Greif says working in Dubai during the period following the 9/11 attacks in the US was unusual.
Nasralla's memorable moments were in UAE.
Nasralla's memorable moments were in UAE.
Thomson names the Arab Spring and Dubai?s resiliance as a memorable moment in the past decade.
Thomson names the Arab Spring and Dubai?s resiliance as a memorable moment in the past decade.
Patrick Antaki dreams of island beach-hut life spent scuba diving with guests in 10 years' time.
Patrick Antaki dreams of island beach-hut life spent scuba diving with guests in 10 years' time.

Michel Noblet, President & CEO, HMH – Hospitality Management Holdings

What brought you to the Middle East, and why have you stayed/returned?
I first came to the Middle East in 1992 while working for Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts. I left the region in 1996 only to return the very next year.

In 2003, I founded HMH – Hospitality Management Holdings in partnership with H.E. Sheikh Faisal bin Sultan Al Qassimi and H.E. Sheikh Mohammed bin Faisal Al Qassimi.

Can you share three personal career highlights of the past 10 years?
This year (2013) we celebrate the 10th anniversary of HMH – Hospitality Management Holdings.

I think the formation of this group and its expansion in the region is definitely the biggest highlight of my career. We were the first to have an alcohol-free chain in the Middle East with Coral Hotels & Resorts offering a safe and family-friendly environment.

Our choice to be alcohol-free at first surprised the market but I must say that it has been our biggest selling point as well as a trend-setter.

The launch of ECOS Hotels, the Middle East’s first eco-friendly budget hotel brand, was another step in this direction. For us hospitality and sustainability are inseparable.

What’s unique about working in the Middle East hospitality industry?
What’s very special is the culture and the people of the Middle East. The region is at times unpredictable owing to its many political differences. However, it is a vibrant hub with a massive potential for growth and development of our industry making it extremely lucrative.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I see myself pretty much on the ground still sniffing for great hotels.

Peter Blackburn, president and CEO, Cristal Hotels & Resorts

Can you share three personal career highlights of the past 10 years?
Firstly, opening 23 Rotana Hotels. Going on to co-found the birth of Cristal Hotels & Resorts Management Company. And thirdly, being ranked number 34 out of 50 in the Hotelier Middle East Power 50 2012.

What issues do you think will dominate Hotelier’s editorial coverage of the industry over the next decade?
In terms of trends, online travel agents will begin to level the playing field between independent and chain hotels, while the advancement of technology will have a continued impact on the development of the hospitality industry’s strategic plans.

However, I expect challenges will centre around recruitment and retention — finding qualified employees and identifying how their performance affects the growth of the organisation, then also keeping them focused and committed to the company’s goals.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
On a golf course in Paphos Cyprus!

Doris Greif, general manager, Jumeirah at Etihad Towers

What brought you to the Middle East, and why have you stayed/returned?
I first came to the Middle East as a Hilton transfer from Munich to Dubai in 1990.

Since then there were a couple of short stints outside of the UAE, but I have predominately remained based here and always returned, as the UAE is a country that I love, enjoy and where I feel very much at home.

Can you share three personal career highlights of the past 10 years?
It’s just a little more than 10 years ago now, but becoming the general manager of the Jumeirah Beach Club in 2000 was certainly an important career turning point.

Then becoming the GM of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers in 2004, and the opening of the Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in November 2011 have been very special career and personal highlights.

Can you recall three momentous hotel industry moments over the past decade?
The period following 9/11 in Dubai was particularly unusual.Immediately following the incident hotels in Dubai were empty as both business and leisure travellers cancelled their visits to the region en masse.

Both the industry and world was in a state of uncertainty as to what would happen next. And then, after a few weeks, the hotel and tourism industry in Dubai was once again booming.

It was a clear example of the industry’s inner strength and ability to rebound from the most extraordinary of circumstances.

The opening of the Chopard Ladies’ Floor in May of 2005 at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers was also monumental and a project I am very proud to be associated with.

For the first time women were to have their own dedicated floor at a major city hotel, with amenities and hospitality services that were completely focused on the needs and sensibilities of female travellers.

Not only was this new form of luxury hospitality service culturally appealing to the women of this region, but the concept, acceptance and indeed demand for such services resonated far beyond the Middle East, so that today, ladies’ floors are no longer the enigma that they were less than 10 years ago.

Another monumental trend for hoteliers in the region continuing to this day is the significant change from analogue GDS reservations to online booking.

What's unique about working in the Middle East hospitality industry?
The multi-cultural and international mix of the Middle East hospitality industry, both in terms of the nationality mix of colleagues, as well as guests, is quite astounding, providing unique experiences, joy and challenges unlike any other region.

Working with more than 60 different nationalities in a single property changes you. It’s an education that can’t be taught in a class room or from a text book, and one which ideally everyone should experience.

What issues do you think will dominate Hotelier's editorial coverage of the industry over the next decade?
A topic of continued discussion will no doubt be whether demand can continue to keep up with an increasing regional room inventory. Additionally, discussions regarding what attractions and services are required to entice new emerging geographical markets to the Middle East will also prove interesting.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
Hopefully still enjoying myself and having fun in the UAE, insha’Allah.

Abdin Nasralla, vice president, Meydan Hotels & Hospitality

Can you share three personal career highlights of the past 10 years?
Joining Jumeirah International and forming the hospitality division was certainly a time to remember for me. Secondly, the opportunity to be transferred and lead Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa as general manager; it was a fantastic time to see this new resort open and position itself as a leading leisure hotel.

The third would certainly be my current role as vice president of Meydan Hotels and Hospitality, overseeing the formation, development and opening of The Meydan Hotel and Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa.

Can you recall three momentous hotel industry moments over the past decade?
I believe you need to look no further than the UAE to see three outstanding moments. What Dubai has provided and created in the hotel industry is quite amazing.

We have hotels located on a man-made Palm island leading out into the sea, we have a hotel that is located in the tallest building in the world, and our own Meydan Hotel and Grandstand is the longest single building construction in the world at more than 1.5km.

What’s unique about working in the Middle East hospitality industry?
It is the business mix, the opportunity it provides to work with different nationalities, cultures and the family atmosphere it provides for all. All of this combines to provide a vibrant and challenging communication environment.

What do you think is the perception of the Middle East hospitality industry on a global scale?
I believe with the continued expansion of airline routes to Dubai from around the world, the region is certainly becoming known as a global player. The UAE also has positioned itself well as a key sports destination and this also helps tremendously to raise the region’s profile as a key destination.

What issues do you think will dominate Hotelier’s editorial coverage of the industry over the next decade?
Without a doubt, this will be the continued development of the hospitality sector, including hotels, apartments, multi-use complexes, theme parks, along with the 2020 Expo bid by Dubai to host this global recognised event.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
I hope to have my series of books launched and published, which will feature some of my most memorable, interesting, enlightening and strange happenings of my 44-year career in the hotel and hospitality industry.

David Thomson, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, JA RESORTS & HOTELS

What brought you to the Middle East, and why have you stayed/returned?
I have to say I did the normal expat two-year stints in both Bahrain and Qatar and expected to do the same here in Dubai, but like so many others I ended up making this my home.

Why? Because it is an easy place to live, I love the multi-cultural environment, the high level of services that are available and the great recreation facilities.

Can you share three personal career highlights of the past 10 years?
Becoming the general manager of Jebel Ali Golf Resort in December 2007 was a huge milestone for me as I switched from sales and marketing to operations and I surprised many people, including myself, with how easily I took to the role and how much I enjoyed it. I was definitely a poacher turned gamekeeper.

Being entrusted with running the whole company two years later was also another huge landmark and then this year, 2012, has been a year of milestones. We have extended Palm Tree Court to include 74 more suites, opened a new hotel, Ocean View on The Walk and rebranded the company to JA Resorts & Hotels.

Can you recall three momentous hotel industry moments over the past decade?
The IMF global gathering was a huge milestone for Dubai, the UAE and the hotel industry, as we demonstrated to the world how well we could handle such events and of course gave potential hotel owners in Dubai the confidence to invest in hotel development.

Jumeirah’s development as a world-class hotel company and the opening of the Atlantis did so much to raise awareness of the service levels and product quality in Dubai and along with Emirates and the DTCM, they have succeeded in putting Dubai firmly on the tourism map.

The Arab Spring was of course a momentous event in the Middle East and had far reaching implications for the hotel industry here in Dubai. Sadly for the countries involved, their tourism industries were badly hit and both European and GCC nationals turned towards Dubai as an alternative holiday destination.

Dubai was able to not just fill the void but over-deliver against the expectations of many first-time visitors and as such will retain much of this new business going forward.

What issues do you expect will dominate Hotelier’s editorial coverage of the industry over the next decade?
We will of course quite rightly hear more about the environment and the need for sustainability.

We will also have new technological innovations which will be the new ‘must have’ for any self-respecting hotel but the key issues that will determine the success of a hotel will always be distribution and speed to market, service delivery and product positioning, suitability and quality.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
After 22 years in Dubai, I think that it wouldn’t be too much of a long shot to say that I may well be here running a new improved JA Resorts & Hotels with a few more operations to keep me out of trouble.

Patrick Antaki,  COMPLEX GENERAL MANAGER, Le mÉridien al aqah and al maha desert resort

Can you share three personal career highlights of the past 10 years?
Three personal career heights in the past decade would have to be firstly, being appointed as the general manager for Le Méridien Al Aqah in the UAE, secondly, continuing as the general manager for Le Méridien Al Aqah for 10 years.

The third career highlight was having to adapt to running a second, extremely special product, 200 kilometres away from Al Aqah, the Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa.

Can you recall any momentous hotel industry moments over the past decade?
One significant occasion for the Middle East hotel industry was when Starwood Hotels bought Le Méridien, another was the inauguration of Le Méridien Al Aqah in Fujairah, which marked the birth of a new destination and the start of a growth period for Fujairah’s tourism industry.

What’s unique about working in the Middle East hospitality industry?
The Arabs are very well known for their great hospitality and this has positively left its mark on the hospitality industry as a whole. Guests come to this part of the world to experience great resorts and services unrivalled throughout the world.
We take our hospitality very seriously and you have to constantly look at ways of improving your services and staying ahead of the game, otherwise you become passé.

What issues do you think will dominate Hotelier’s editorial coverage of the industry over the next decade?
I think the trends that will dominate Hotelier’s editorial coverage of the industry in the upcoming years will be the change in travel patterns of the global citizen to the region since more and more travellers are opting to travel to the region and within the region itself, which has had a positive impact on the regional hotel industry and is changing the way the tourism sector is doing business today. There will be such a major change that those who don’t keep up will suffer.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
In another 10 years I see myself running a beach hut that has a few rooms, a simple restaurant and watering hole, fishing and scuba diving with my guests on an island or a beach, away from the fast paced city life.

Then when I wake up and realise that I still need to put my last kids through university, I would probably be in Dubai enjoying the warmth and friendships that have been formed over the last 10 years, whilst at the same time working in a very different environment to that we have today.

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