Starting in the company as a fresh graduate, Michael Wale has had a long and illustrious career with Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide. He is currently the President for Europe, Africa & Middle East, directly overseeing the operations for almost 250 hotels and resorts in 60 countries. eniGma’s Editor-in-Chief Yasmine Shihata met with Wale to discuss the future of the hospitality industry in Egypt and the Middle East. And as she discovers, the challenges that have faced our region, haven’t dampened Wale’s belief in the potential for tourism in the Arab world…

How did Starwood Hotels & Resorts get their start in the Middle East?    
The Sheraton Cairo in Dokki, which opened in 1971, was our very first hotel in the Middle East and on the African continent. In fact we’re just in the process now of renovating it and we will reopen it in the middle of next year, which will be great.

You have a pretty large network of hotels and employees in the region to manage, how do you handle that?
Now it’s 245 hotels, 46,000 employees or associates, and it’s a pretty varied business of course, because we have nine different brands; so it’s a fantastic job, a job that I always wanted. And I do a lot of work with college students and young people to try and develop talent for the organisation. It’s been 37 years since I joined the company, but I remember what it’s like being that student and I enjoy watching young people develop and grow.

How have the terrorist threats and instability affected the business?
If you look at Egypt, the country has been suffering since the revolution and the country’s tourism business has been going through a very difficult time. Maybe this time around it’s taking a little longer because there were structural issues that needed taking care of. It’s been about three years, that’s probably longer than normal. But our view is long term. We’re actually already seeing business beginning to recover. Inevitably when you run a global business, there will be moments when certain parts of your business go through more challenging times, but it bounces back well. The issue with these challenges is having to think about timing. People are telling me that it’s getting better, so that’s positive.  The infrastructure still needs work though.  We have a pretty big business in Egypt, with eleven operating hotels and another three or four in the pipeline. The Westin in Cairo, which will open next year, is going to be an amazing hotel. It will be in Kattameya Dunes.

Are all your big Middle Eastern developments going to be in the Gulf area?
If you look at the gulf region clearly Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are all very good destinations. They are both leisure and business destinations and that why it’s a successful region for us. We have 14 operating hotels in Dubai. After New York, it is the city with the greatest number of our hotels. Eight of our brands are there and soon our ninth will be there too. Dubai is truly a phenomenon that’s been driven by a vision. The ruler had a very clear vision for Dubai for many years and basically they’re following through. They created great infrastructure, and they’ve given people lots of reasons to go there. I think Qatar is a great story as well. For us, those areas are clearly a success. We have 47 operating hotels in the Middle East, predominantly in the Gulf. We’re going to grow with another 37 or 38 projects in the next three years, so we’re going to have 75-80 hotels in the Middle East.

It seems like Starwood still has a very healthy appetite for the Middle East!
Sure. We were the first movers in the Middle East and the Gulf and we were in Africa early on with both the Sheraton and Méridien brands. We opened Sheraton Dubai Creek in 1984, so it’s been 40 years now.  Sheraton and Méridien hotels are very good ‘first mover’ brands. We like to go in with Sheraton, because that is the hotel with the highest brand recognition amongst business travellers around the world.  People go knowing what they’re going to get, that it’s safe and secure, so that’s a great brand to start with.

For people travelling from the Middle East to foreign countries, what are the must-see destinations?
That’s interesting. The Arab clients are a fabulous and a very important audience for all of us. You’re fantastic spenders. There are, of course, the traditional destinations of London, Paris, and Rome; they are always high on the list. We’re also seeing a lot of people from the region being more creative with their travel destinations. It creates a more diverse and exciting traveller. The great thing about Starwood is that we have 1,200 hotels in 100 countries, so we can probably find a destination that’s suitable for everyone from the Middle East who travels to international destinations.

Which is your favourite out of the Starwood Hotels?
I love all my ‘children’ equally, but for me the W Hotel in Bali is just amazing. And the W Hotel in the Maldives is also fantastic.