Operators overcome security issues in Iraq

Safir Hotels put the onus on owners to fund the hospitality training

Safir Hoda Al Wali in Iraq.
Safir Hoda Al Wali in Iraq.
Helmut H Meckelburg: The key issue is security here.
Helmut H Meckelburg: The key issue is security here.

Safir Hotels puts the onus on owners to fund the extensive hospitality training of Iraqi locals

Safir Hotels & Resorts has announced a strong focus on expanding in Iraq and associated training and security measures to enable it to manage its properties successfully.

“We want to increase our presence aggressively in Iraq,” Safir Hotels CEO Helmut H Meckelburg told Hotelier Middle East at Arabian Travel Market.

The Kuwait-based management company already operates one hotel in Iraq, Safir Hoda Al Wali – Karbala’a, which attracts business and pilgrimage visitors.

According to Meckelburg, the company’s focus on security was a key factor in Safir Hoda Al Wali being the only hotel in the country to win a World Travel Award this year.

“The key issue in Iraq is really the security concern. And while we’re seeing that Iraq as a country is stabilising every day, you still have serious security issues. So we are working with an international security company and this is one of the reasons why our hotel won the Leading Hotel in Iraq, because the security in the location we are in is very, very strong,” said Meckelburg.

With Iraq one of the emerging markets under discussion at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference, Meckelburg’s advice to hoteliers looking to enter Iraq was to have a “certain level of flexibility”.

“You cannot insist on having your standards implemented 100%, you have to show a certain level of flexibility,” he said.

“I think that we as an Arabic hospitality company understand the culture and language better than many of the international companies. We are also in a more secure position; I bring the security aspect up again and again. For us to go into Iraq it is probably less sensitive than for a foreign company going into Iraq,” Meckelburg added.

Another challenge, he added, was recruitment because there are no trained hotel personnel in Iraq.
“One of the things we have discussed in the past few months with Iraqi owners is how do we prepare employees for a property in Iraq,” said Meckelburg.

“You have to start your recruitment process much earlier and you have to provide a platform where you can train these people long in advance instead of bringing foreigners in down the line, which is expensive and has a certain security aspect.

“The management company will provide the training but the cost of it really has to be borne by the owner,” he emphasised.

Safir Hoda Al Wali – Karbala’a has 385 staff, 360 of which are Iraqi.

Meckelburg said that Safir had moved a taskforce of regional management and its head of risk management into Iraq prior to opening, as well as some staff from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Rotana is also expanding into Iraq, with the five-star Erbil Rotana scheduled to open this year.

Rotana president and CEO Selim El Zyr said he faced exactly the same challenges as Safir Hotels.

“That’s going to be a big challenge because first of all the human resources issue, and number two, safety and security,” said El Zyr.

He said the plan was to train “a lot” of Iraqis, but that this had not started yet because the hotel was not ready.

“Unfortunately we have to have the product to train them. We brought a few here to train in the Emirates but very few, because also if they have the experience here they don’t want to go back. We have to train them in situ in the hotel, the dining room, in their place of work,” said El Zyr.

“Initially we are going to bring in a big task force and this task force’s job would be to train and develop local resources and at the end we will keep a skeleton management team, department heads and maybe the first layer will be foreigners until we develop, because it is very expensive to bring in labour,” he added.

Meanwhile, Emirates will launch flights to Baghdad from July 1, to capitalise on the “high proportion of traffic heading both in and out of Iraq”.

“We are in the right position to capitalise on this demand,” said HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, chairman and chief executive, Emirates Airline and Group.

Emirates expects passengers travelling in and out of Iraq to come from a variety of sources, with a significant skew towards industry and government personnel. The construction, telecommunications and oil sectors are expected to make up three of the largest industry segments.

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