RVP Interview: Wyndham's Ignace Bauwens

Wyndham Hotel Group is settling in for a long haul in the Middle East & Africa, and its regional vice president Ignace Bauwens reveals the operator's upcoming strategy

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Wyndham Hotel Group is largely known in the region because of its Ramada brand, and while other large hotel operators have several hundred properties in the Middle East and North Africa region to their name, Wyndham Hotel Group is yet to come into its own. The group is, as its regional vice president Ignace Bauwens describes, a “giant that is about to wake up”.

Bauwens joined Wyndham’s regional office having previously worked as complex general manager of the Al Habtoor City complex of hotels, prior to which he headed operations for Abu Dhabi National Hotels as its CEO. A little less than a year into his current role, he reveals that he has completed “an extensive regional tour during which time I have seen almost all our properties, reaching out to our owners and the teams”.

Bauwens says that as Dubai and other destinations within the GCC continue to mature, the need for its portfolio of brands will become more revelant, adding that Wyndham’s core strength lies in the mid-scale and economy segments.

He tells Hotelier that while there is still growth in the luxury brands, owners have evolved as well, whereby they look at the financial returns of a project much more keenly. Bauwens reveals that the group is actively seeking avenues to bring its full-service, upscale brand Dolce to the region, while simultaneously growing the Wyndham Grand portfolio.

“If you look at the market environment 15 years ago, it was more open, and cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi grew. Cairo developed some iconic new properties as well. But we have to play by what the consumer looks for today, and that is more affordable hotels — not only because they travel differently but also because they travel more than ever today,” he says.

Bauwens believes that new options in the airline travel industry have encouraged travellers to make more than one trip a year, “as was not the norm a few decades ago”. He adds: “Today people travel more, short trips with short flight times. The three-four hour flight time radius is where the evolution has taken place.”

“Emirates, Fly Dubai, Qatar Airways or Air Arabia for that matter have connected this part of the world with more affordable airlines, while airfares have also come down. Fly Dubai has been a big success, Asian low cost carriers have played a large role. So now billions of people are connected to this part of the world within a four-hour flight time radius,” he says, adding that travel patterns determine the sort of accommodation today’s travellers expect.

“Wyndham is the largest hotel operator in terms of number of hotels operated in the world, over 8,000 now. We have a fantastic future for our brands in the Middle East and Africa region. Maybe people only know of us from the Ramada brand, but over the course of the next few years we will bring a few more of our brands in the region. On top of our Wyndham and Dolce brands — that play in the upper segment — we have a vast portfolio that will be developed for sure,” Bauwens says.

He gives a quick snapshot of the new brands that are set to make their Middle East and North Africa debut: “The 650-room Tryp by Wyndham in Dubai is opening this summer. We are introducing the mid-scale Wyndham Garden brand which is opening in Manama during the summer as well, with 450 new rooms. Another Wyndham Garden will open in Dammam, and early next year the Wyndham Garden Inn Ajman will be going live.” Added to this are Wyndham’s Super 8 and Days Inn economy brands, with the former already in KSA.

Up until recently, Wyndham was known for its franchising model; UAE-based hospitality company R Hotels for example, has franchised four out of its five hotels from Wyndham, with another in the pipeline. But the group is looking to diversify and add to its managed set. Bauwens says: “Wyndham’s presence regionally grew exponentially in the last 24 months, with a regional vice president being appointed and based in Dubai. And we are looking at growing our company with managed properties, without neglecting our franchise business. But, seven to eight deals [out of 10] we sign today are for managed properties and the remaining are franchised. This means that owners understand that our power and our experience in managing [is growing].”

This transformation kicked into high gear with the appointments of Geoff Balotti as president and CEO of the Wyndham Hotel Group, and Daniel Ruff as the president and managing director for Europe Middle East and Africa and Eurasia — both appointed in 2014. Bauwens, who reports directly to Ruff, adds: “The efforts are now on to bring our management expertise to the table.”

Part of this expertise is the company’s strategy on the tech front; it has restructured its technology to benefit both the owners and consumers. “If you look at technology, Wyndham is the first international operator that has merged the CRS [central reservation system] into a cloud-based solution, this means every property in the world will have its CRS on the cloud. We have taken a step in the right direction, before any other large operator has done.

“So now you have a two-way system for booking channels to communicate with each other. The process is happening in phases, and by the end of December all the Ramadas were online, all the Wyndhams were already done. In our part of the world, most of it is already done. But a large chunk of Super 8s in the US are yet to take on the new system. In H2 2016, we moved most of our hotels in the Middle East and Africa [to the new system]. And by May, the Howard Johnson brand and a few others [will make the switch], but it has been done for most,” he says.

Apart from the benefits to the owner from an infrastructural standpoint — with cloud-based solutions owners wouldn’t need to factor in complex IT systems that would otherwise need to get installed — Bauwens reveals an important reason for the digital overhaul. “As part of the technological advancement we promise a rate parity to our guests. This means all booking channels have a similar rate wherever a guest wants to book from. For example, a guest checks the price for a hotel in Dubai on an OTA, while another goes directly to our website, and we now ensure the rates are same across all channels.

“And the biggest advantage for a guest with a uniform rate across every channel including our own is the fact that they earn Wyndham Rewards points when they book through us. We revamped the programme last year, which also won awards over our competitors in the USA. The beauty of the programme is that it’s straightforward and easy to earn and redeem points. There are no black-out dates — 15,000 rewards points per night through the Wyndham Hotel Group,” Bauwens states.

He explains further: “The general perception is that OTAs offer a better price than what has been listed on a brand’s website. But, when you have a rate parity across the board, including our own website, it’s slightly different.

“Consider an OTA that’s offering a room for US$180 a night, while the brand website is offering it for $200. The price is lower on the OTA because the purchase might be an advanced one, which is non-refundable — while with us it is not so. If the booking is non-refundable across both Wyndham and the OTA, there will be no difference. Consumers then understand this difference, when there is a rates parity, and they also understand that they will need to book directly to earn rewards points when they stay at a hotel that participates in our programme. Booking on an OTA does not make you eligible to earn points.”

Bauwens clarifies the level playing field has not been created to “control others”. He adds: “It’s about transparency to the guests whether they book through us or our business partners such as the OTAs.”

“The biggest mistake that we can make is to think consumers don’t know. And when you offer transparency it’s up to us to us to make the loyalty programme work. One of the things I learnt through my career in the Middle East, which in fact was something that was told to me by my mentor, is there will always be someone who sells cheaper than you. And that holds true for any industry, not just in hospitality. And consumers look for safety, consistency and quality; and if you are transparent, guests appreciate those attributes all the more,” he says passionately.

Bauwens’ early days in the region saw him open the Ibis and Novotel WTC in Dubai at the turn of the century. “Dubai is a very different place now as compared to what it was 20 years ago. Reality does not reflect what the market needs today. Dubai has over a 100,000 rooms, and our visitor numbers are still growing year after year. When I opened the first mid-scale in Dubai 15 years ago, the dialogue that we had with HE Helal AlMarri was that Dubai would need more mid-scale hotels.”

Saying that the market has seen a lot more mid-scale and economy properties open, Bauwens does not disregard a future of luxury, but indicates the golden years of its development may have taken a back seat. “I believe in the future of defined brands with limited but good service because guests can choose where they want to stay,” he concludes.

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