We’ve read you have very exciting plans and aggressive goals to reach.
When I joined Marriott, it became very clear to me that, with its presence and financial strength, Marriott could leapfrog the competition. So two years after joining, I convinced the board to acquire Protea, the largest hotel chain in Africa with some hundred hotels. This catapulted us into the number one position in Africa. With Starwood, our newest acquisition, we have doubled our size again, going from 25,000 to 50,000 rooms, and we have 30,000 rooms under constructions in the pipe line for the Middle East and Africa.
Where does the merger with Starwood place you among hotel groups in the world?
We are now by far the biggest hotel group in the world. Before this merger, we had 750,000 rooms in 4700 hotels. With Starwood, we have gone to 1.1 million rooms in 5700 hotels. So we are now by far the biggest operator in the world, with about 30 brands across the product spectrum, ranging from super luxury to budget hotels.
We tend to find that in Egypt, the quality that you would expect from a Ritz-Carlton is not up to the same standard as in the rest of the world, why do you think that is?
I think the Nile Ritz Carlton here is really changing the game in the Egyptian market. We always seek to improve, and we improve through feedback. We have received such tremendous accolades and feedback from our guests. I think it’s key that we appreciate the process put into ticking every box to be a Ritz Carlton. It is a journey; and an enormous amount of effort is put into continuous training and development. We aim to ensure that we fulfill our promise to meet the expectations of our guests. Are we there yet? No, we have barely been open for a year. Realistically, it requires from two to three years to get to maturity, which is to where you want to be in every respect including service. There isn’t a plethora of super luxury hotels in Egypt or indigenous teams of trained associates that you can draw from and develop further. We really are the training ground for the super luxury segment in Egypt.
How would you say you’re positioned with the top hotels considered the go to properties for luxury clients in Cairo?
I would like to believe that when this Ritz Carlton hits maturity, it will be the place to be in Cairo. A lot of our Gulf VIP’s have left the competition to come and stay here.
I am sure you’re aware that there was a Ritz Carlton opened in Sharm el Sheikh before, which many considered a disaster. How will the new one be any different?
I closed it. It was, quite frankly, awful, and when the opportunity came, we did not renew the contract. It was detracting the Ritz Carlton brand, which is very special to us. It was a good decision because it opened the way for an entirely new property built by Nasser Abdellatif, which is proceeding on schedule. Sea Gate and Rixos in Sharm el Sheikh are evidence of the exceptional quality that Nasser Abdellatif can deliver. We have the needed confidence to put our very special brand in Sharm El Sheikh, especially given the history.
How come the Ritz Carlton has decided to put so much investment in Sharm El Sheikh?
We think that Sharm El Sheikh has a lot to offer as a destination. I would rate the quality of the sea in the city among the best in the world. We also believe that when you go to a market such as Sharm El Sheikh, with challenges like the recent terrorists attacks, you have to say ‘ok what can we all do to bring the market up?’ The Four Seasons was the only game in town. But now, the Ritz Carlton has announced; the Fairmont has announced, and I have no doubt others will announce too. When that happens and you go from one to several luxury global brand hotels, you absolutely begin to elevate the destination.
Whilst choosing Sharm El Sheikh as a destination for a Ritz Carlton, how do you take into account the general deterioration in the quality of Naama Bay?
There is a vision for Sharm El Sheikh that a lot of people, including the mayor, have. They are really developing resorts and hotels with multiple F&B, entertainment and leisure facilities. When you go into a market, you have to look at it today; but you also have to look at where that market is headed, and there is a lot of development being planned. For example, we are looking at one development of 1,200 rooms together with Nasser Abdellatif that will have 35 F&B outlets, entertainment outlets and a promenade for people to enjoy. I think the market will evolve in the meantime. I can assure you that we have done a lot of work with our marketing and sales team. We are confident that a Ritz Carlton is going to work beautifully in Sharm
El Sheikh and it will have a great occupancy and a very good rate. It’s good that we attract the Egyptian market; but it’s great for Egypt that we attract the international market.
Can we say that there will be a rebranding of Sharm El Sheikh in the next 10 years?
I would say it will take between five to seven years. The collective efforts of the global luxury brands, coupled with those of local investors who are really serious about developing a luxury product will have the desired effect and will lift the market up. We are very confident in our partner in Sharm El Sheikh and in how seriously the government is looking at tourism and in reviving the city. I was very comfortable with my meeting with the Prime Minister. It was refreshing for me to meet a Prime Minister who has his feet on the ground and is appreciative of the challenges facing the country, while being absolutely committed to making it work.
We know the Marriot will be taking over the Mena House Hotel. Can you tell us more about that?
I used to be a member at the club when I was young, and I have such fond memories of that hotel. It was hugely exciting for me to see it join the family. There will be two phases. Phase one will be complete at the end of this year with the launch of the garden wing and the golf club as Marriot. Then, the palace will be part of a two year serious investment proposition by the government. They are putting in serious money to restore it to its former glory and it will be a JW Marriott.
Could you tell us about the challenges and the highlights of this big roll out in the Middle East.
Generating opportunities for people, not only for employment, but also for development and promotion has always been the exciting part of my career for me. It’s very much the best part of my morning to figure out how much faster we can grow so that our people can grow with us. And that’s the thing that really gets me out of bed every day. In terms of challenges, I call our region the CNN region, because if you flick on CNN, chances are you will see the Middle East or Africa somewhere, and that’s really the challenge. How do you respond to the geo-political environment; how do you respond to the terrorism threat; and how do you respond to the currency roller coaster ride against the dollar? These are events outside our hands, but you have to work with them and the challenge is how to work through it all. I’m very blessed to have a team that I think is the best in the industry; they are so committed and so hard working that it makes my life a lot easier.
Are you positive about meeting this challenge?
Absolutely, because you begin to look at what’s happening in the rest of the world, and you see we are not unique. The rest of the world has its fair share of issues as well. It’s no longer a Middle East and Africa issue; it’s become a global one, and how the world responds is going to be the key. I think we are going to gravitate from what I used to call the loyal traveler to the safe traveler, and that’s really the shift that we are going to see. Whether its biometrics or other things, that’s ultimately the direction that we are headed.