GM interview: Harry Fernandes

Assila Hotel Jeddah's general manager talks about the Rocco Forte hospitality ethos and managing people

Executive interviews, Management

Assila Hotel in Jeddah, Rocco Forte’s first property in the Middle East, opened in March 2017. Initially, Frank Heller, the general manager of The Charles Hotel in Munich was the interim general manager for the Saudi property. However, Harry Fernandes took over the reins in his first stint as general manager in April this year.

Fernandes has been with the British luxury hospitality group for 13 years and says that the philosophy of the company is about maintaining individuality, authenticity, and incorporating the Rocco Forte family values. “We are a very small group, but hospitality has been in the company for four generations.”

Prior to launching Rocco Forte Hotels in 1996, Sir Rocco Forte, the founder of the hotel group, was responsible for more than 800 hotels at his father’s firm Forte Plc. And Fernandes tells us that after 20 years of operations, the group is  continuing to focus on quality over quantity when launching hotels.

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The Assila Hotel general manager came into this role with years of experience and qualifications behind him.

After completing his education in Bhopal University, India, Fernandes began his career in the hospitality industry as a night manager at London Hilton on Park Lane in 1999. He then moved to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in London, following which he joined Rocco Forte’s The Balmoral in 2004 as the rooms’ division manager and has been with the operator since.

He tells Hotelier Middle East that the hospitality firm chose Saudi Arabia as its first Middle Eastern destination as the brand was very popular with the Kingdom’s tourists to Europe. He says: “We are a very Europe-centric hotel company, we do some things really well and it’s those that we brought things into the region.”

One of these elements include staff. He says: “Whenever we open a hotel we bring our own people who are immersed in the Rocco Forte way and we focus on the individuality of our staff. We don’t wear name badges, we wear a Rocco Forte pin — Rocco Forte is a person and since he cannot be at every hotel opening the door and serving guests, I am that person. We make more of an effort to bring ourselves and our culture to guests while communicating with them.”

Fernandes explains that the group shares its founder’s legacy and values in each of its hotels. Across each hotel, there are links to similar design patterns and cultural references, training of staff, and the way business is conducted. He emphasises: “What we have brought to Jeddah with Assila Hotel is European design with a blend of Arab culture and architecture.”

Although the hotel is based in Jeddah and is close to Makkah, most of its guests are business travellers rather than religious tourists. “The hotel has a resort feel, so most of our guests love spend time in the hotel,” he notes. He proudly states that the hotel has the largest offering of restaurants in the city (four), with the largest room sizes and suites.

Fernandes, who was in London and Sicily prior to moving to Jeddah, says that the global perception of Saudi Arabia needs to change and also adds that the Kingdom is relaxing some of its policies related to tourism, visas, and entertainment. The country’s first cinema recently opened and a series of women-only gyms are set to be launched later this year. At the time of going to print, the country agreed to allow women to drive, with this set to come into effect from  June 2018.

“I think Saudi Arabia is a very different country and you need to adjust, because the whole thing about being in the country is you need to respect the culture. Relationships is a big part, and business works because of relationships,” he says.

The Assila Hotel is leading the way when it comes to employment for women with more than 40 Saudi females employed. “We are the first hotel in Saudi to have a guest relations department in the lobby that is entirely handled by women, all the hostesses in the restaurants are women, and also we have 12 female chefs that also handle the food counters,” he says with much pride.

He continues: “The Forte family culture we speak about, we try to bring it in through the staff. We try to be a little bit more fun and not stiff so staff are encouraged to share their ideas and suggestions.” Sharing his experience as a first-time general manager, he says that he has always operated as one in all his roles, “because this is how I am, always been in front of house and focused on people”.

With more than 420 employees, Fernandes knows each personnel by their name and believes in interacting with his team in order to achieve results. He adds: “I feel I’m working for Rocco Forte directly rather than a company. I run the business as if it’s my own. I never have an out-of-office message on my email and I get calls at any time of the day.”

Speaking of challenges, Fernandes says it’s all about being patient. “I think the key to success is about not losing patience; you need to retain your smile, and second best is not an option. You need to be critical constantly. Even if it’s my staff canteen, I need to treat it as if it’s my guest area, because the team member who serves guests should have the same experience. And some of the staff we work with have never worked in such luxurious settings, so how are they going to maintain such high standards if they have not been looked after? It’s about bringing these staff on par with what your guest is expecting.”

In the six months since the hotel has opened, Fernandes points out that there has been a steady increase of guests to the hotel as well as to the restaurants. He adds that as the economic conditions in the country are changing and with the country diversifying its revenue streams, the hotel is positive that tourism will further its position in the market.

“Saudi Arabia is going through some big changes, there will a lot of consultants coming in to help the country with the tourism element that has been announced by the government. The country is clearly going away from oil-based revenue to other sources. I see this as a key point in additional business to the destination and our work is to make sure we get a good share of that,” Fernandes concludes.

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