Smooth, suave and sophisticated, Sami Zoghbi’s success is matched only by his popularity. As the region’s hottest hotelier he oversaw hundreds of premier properties across the Middle East and Africa, launched countless resorts, revolutionised the Egyptian tourism industry and threw some seriously cool parties along the way. Managing Editor Amy Mowafi talks passion and pioneering with this haute hotelier…
Sami Zoghbi does not do lunch. Well, at least not businesses lunches. He doesn’t see the point. “Waste of time,” he says. “Why spend two hours saying what you can say in half an hour?” No, if he’s going to sit down for lunch he’s going to do it properly. Good food, good wine and great friends. Dinner is even better. Come twilight the famously suave and dangerously charming Zohgbi really comes into his own; holding court atop his throne at the Cairo Sheraton hotel, the bold and the beautiful flocking through his revolving doors. Well actually, he’s no longer at the Cairo Sheraton; he hasn’t been for over two decades. But good memories die hard, and for an entire generation of Egyptians, that’s how he will forever be remembered: the man who managed the Sheraton, the hotelier with the mostest. The guy-about-town who showed Egyptians what a five-star rating should really do: glitz, glamour and unbeatable at-your-beck-and-call service.
As Egypt’s tourism industry bumbled aimlessly along, the half-Swiss, half-Lebanese Zoghbi parachuted into Cairo in 1974 and pulled the industry up by its platformed-boot straps. He’d spent the previous decade globetrotting, notching up big name hotels: the Excelsior in Hong Kong and London, the Hotel Dublin Intercontinental in Ireland, the Hotel Phoenicia Intercontinental in Beirut. So when he came to Cairo he was ready to face the red-taped apathy of the Egyptian tourism industry.
A smooth operator with silver screen looks, Cairo quickly fell under Zoghbi’s spell. He expertly worked the strings of his fledgling Egyptian empire as the full might of his steely determination focused on creating world-class service the country had never seen before. And suddenly the Sheraton was the place to see and be seen; an unparalleled haven of luxury, sophistication… and fun. If nothing else, people still remember the fun of it all; those heady days when Zoghbi was the man who managed the Sheraton. And that is perhaps the greatest compliment you can give him, because as any service-industry professional will tell you, fun is a serious business. Of course it didn’t last long. It couldn’t. Zoghbi was too good for our own good, and it was swiftly onwards and upwards. He soon became the Sheraton’s Area Manager for Egypt, and then the Executive Vice President of the Sheraton Management Corporation. He was then promoted to Regional Director of Operations for the Middle East, and before you could say, “Connect me to the concierge please” he’d become the President of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide for Africa and the Middle East, with an empire that boasted 46 hotels in 20 countries.
Then in 2001, at the peak of his powers, he received a phone call from an industry friend with an “interesting offer” to jump ship and head to Dubai to become the Managing Director of the newly independent Le Méridien Luxury Hotel Group for Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. Zoghbi didn’t hesitate, despite insider gossip that the move seemed oddly lateral. But you know what? He’d been there, done that and got the accolades, so why not take the helm of a company in transition and see what he could make of it? And then disaster struck in the form of the 9/11 attacks. While the rest of the hospitality industry succumbed to panic, Zoghbi remained unperturbed. Indeed over the next few years he doubled Le Méridien’s regional portfolio, positioning it as a premier luxury hotel. It was that Zoghbi magic at work again. Finally, just over two years ago, Zoghbi got deservedly selfish and struck it out alone. In conjunction with Dubai’s Abraaj Capital investment bank, he created Seraii Hospitality; a hotel group with a difference.
When we meet in the exotic surrounds of his plush Zamalek apartment, the father of four (and grandfather of two) is in high spirits. While others would be contemplating retirement, Zoghbi is set to get industry tongues wagging once more with the upcoming launch of a Dubai-based 70 room boutique hotel. The new concept will amalgamate the best in cutting-edge luxury with the enchantment of the Middle East. Catering to the slew of high-flying globetrotters who demand privacy and pampering in equal measure, the hotel (the first among many) is set to do for Arab design what Zen did for the Far East. “Remember when you used to walk into a Chinese restaurant and it was all garish colours and trite cultural references? Then designers came up with Zen design, it was sleek, sophisticated yet incorporated a certain Chinese flair. I want to create something similar for the Middle East. I want to place the richness of our art, culture and architecture in a modern context. Right now, when you walk into a luxury hotel in the Middle East, you could be anywhere in the world. I want to create hotels with a distinctly Arabian touch; a feel of authenticity.”
And if he’s said it, you can pretty much consider it done. He’s yet to ‘release’ a single flop, and the reason, he says, is simple. “It’s about training, training and training. And then more training. Everyone thinks of hotels as a business, but in reality it’s a pure service industry. People go to be looked after, and our number one asset is our staff. Ensure they’re up to scratch and the rest follows. You can build the most beautiful resort in the world, but if a customer gets a cold cup of coffee it’s essentially over. So it starts from the moment you recruit. I never hire someone who is just looking for a job; I hire people who love the industry. In this field you have to be able to deal with all kinds of personalities and do it well; irrespective of how you feel. If you hate the customer’s guts, if you’ve had a fight with your girlfriend, you still have to deliver with a smile. It really is about passion.”
And passion is something Zoghbi has in spades. He’s a hands-on leader willing to work up a sweat. “Managers today have become too obsessed with their e-mails and their spreadsheets. They’ve become slaves to the bottom line and often don’t have a feel for what’s happening on the ground. But that’s what’s going to make or break your business.” And Zoghbi should know. He started out on the ground floor and worked his way up. Fresh from his studies at the Ecole Hôtelières de la Société Suisse des Hôteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland, he worked as a waiter, a cook, a receptionist and all the other get-your-hands-dirty jobs in between. So when Zoghbi corrects a waiter mid-serve, he’s unlikely to receive the standard “what does he know?” roll of the eyes. “Being a pioneer means innovating. And to innovate you have to have knowledge,” he says. “You have to know your business inside out; you have to be very close to your customer. That’s the secret.”
Widely credited with rejuvenating the Egyptian tourism industry, Zoghbi was also the first to unleash the potential of the Red Sea town of Hurghada. With Sheraton, he built a sumptuous flagship resort along it’s shimmering blue waters; the very first in the area. Ecologically driven long before green became cool, Zoghbi harboured high hopes for the area. Unfortunately his ideas and ideals fell upon deaf ears. “Hurghada had a lot of potential, but wasn’t developed in the right way,” he says. “Buildings popped up ad hoc, companies built into the sea to circumvent land regulations and the area’s natural beauty was destroyed. And without that beauty, you’re left with nothing. I tried to explain to the authorities how things ought to be done, but sometimes you just can’t get through all that red tape. You just have to say, ‘quelle domage.’ It really is a big shame. One day our grandchildren are going to look at the mess we’ve made and think, ‘They must have been mad!’ Of course, I’m all for developing these areas and exploiting our natural resources, but it has to be carefully planned. Instead of building something in five years, take 10 years and do it gradually but properly. Unfortunately capitalism is too greedy. But now we’re suffering from an economic recession. That’s what greed will do to you!”
But enough business talk… after all, Zoghbi is a man renowned for playing as hard as he works. His evenings are a whirlwind of friends and family, dinners and dancing, all fuelled by that social spark for which he’s long been famed. “I love to surround myself with intellectual, cultured and witty people who are passionate about life,” he says. “In this day and age, rife with hypocrisy, good friends are hard to find. Half the time you’re worried if you shake someone’s hand, they’re going to run off with it. Life is beautiful, so we need to relax and enjoy it!”
A history buff, Zoghbi spends his rare moments of quiet delving into Arabia’s rich past with the weighty leather-bound tomes lining his shelves and piled high amidst intricate oriental rugs. “A lot of the secret documents from the early days of the Arab/Israeli conflict were recently released, so I’m currently reading books based on those. It’s incredible how the public was being duped. And yet, as a global society, we just keep repeating the mistakes of the past. Look at the Iraq war, a billion dollars a day being thrown at a pointless war and yet it’s business as usual. We supposedly live in an information age, but when it comes to our American friends, ignorance is rampant. I also read a lot about consumer and tourism trends. 30 years ago, who would have thought you’d have sushi bars all across Cairo? It goes to show, you never know!”
Above all, Zoghbi is a man of art. His home is a treasure trove of Orientalist works that would leave any curator green with envy. Countless original paintings from across the centuries battle it out for space on the soaring walls of his opulent Zamalek apartment. Amongst his favourites is a sprawling scene of a belly dancer, centre stage in a harem. The breath-taking piece – which once took pride of place in the suite of Queen Farida of Egypt when she was engaged to King Farouk – was commissioned during the Suez Canal celebrations of 1869. “I love to just sit here and think about all the things these paintings have seen and all the stories they might tell if they could. It’s awe-inspiring. I’ve only ever bought pieces I love. That’s my only rule. A very famous collector once told me, ‘If you like it, you’re not wrong.’”
It’s an edict he’s long lived by. In his art, his work, his life and his loves, Zoghbi has always been a man driven by instincts; and he’s rarely been proven wrong. That alone, may be his most enduring legacy. “If I could give my children one piece of advice, it would be: love what you do and whatever you chose to do in life, be passionate about it. The rest will follow.”