Middle East: Meetings central to Rotana’s growth
If any company exemplifies the UAE’s buoyant hospitality sector, it is Rotana. The Abu Dhabi-based hotel group is currently in the middle of an expansion programme that will see the chain operate 100 hotels around the world by 2020, kicking off 2014 by opening the Salalah Rotana Resort, its first property in Oman. In November, it will also unveil its first properties in Amman in Jordan and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
Importantly, the company announced in May, immediately prior to Arabian Travel Market 2014 (ATM), that it will begin operating properties beyond its original Arab world home. The company is set to unveil hotels in Turkey, Iran, Tanzania and Afghanistan before the end of 2017, with other destinations in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa very much in its sights.
However, according to Omer Kaddouri, Rotana’s President and CEO, the development of the brand isn’t simply a matter of geography. Continuing to deliver outstanding service in the existing hotels is the real key to ongoing success. This is especially true in the provision of meetings services, which is an important part of any hotel’s offering, but which are also subject to fierce competition in the Gulf – especially in the four- and five-star sector.
Kaddouri believes that meetings must remain a key priority for Rotana, both as a supplier of rooms on the doorstep of Dubai’s World Trade Centre and the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre, but also with a range of impressive spaces in the main cities in the MENA region. Innovating, going the extra mile and delivering an exceptional and memorable experience must, he insists, underpin Rotana’s meetings facilities.
It has been an exciting year for Rotana so far, opening its 50th property – Salalah Rotana Resort. What are the next targets?
Omer Kaddouri: Hotel number 50 in Salalah, Oman, was a significant figure for us to reach and was a great start to the year for us. The stated aim, though, is to have 100 hotels open by 2020 – and that’s been our target for the past year. It should take us to around 22,000 rooms and includes the countries where we are now and where we’re going to be.
We are starting to move out of our traditional region. We are trying to sign two hotels in India, plus we’ve just signed up two locations in Iran and also in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. We’re talking to many people around the world for more Rotanas, so we know we already have that additional figure of 50 in the pipeline. We’ll add another six or seven this year alone.
So, the 100 hotels wasn’t just a ‘shoot for the moon’ figure. This is actually a confirmed pipeline of hotels that will be operational by 2020?
OK: Exactly. This is all confirmed. Moving forward, our strategy is all about signing new hotels in our immediate region and also now beyond our immediate region. We are trying to move into areas our customers want to travel to. We want to create that comfort for them when they go to new places such as Tanzania or Turkey, or even London and Paris, in the future.
So we’re growing, but not too quickly. We have to make sure the 50 hotels that are open today are properly supervised and taken care of and that they continue to deliver as they have been. Then, we can look at the next 50. So it’s all about making sure we’re reaching out to new global platforms.
How does a hospitality brand stay true to itself and its core principles as it moves into new territories? Does Rotana’s message translate everywhere?
OK: I don’t see any difficulty in taking this brand outside the Arab world while continuing to be true to who we are. Our success isn’t down to Rotana being a Middle Eastern company. It’s about being responsive, being available to our customers and offering great value.
This business, as we’ve said before, is about dealing with people. As we grow into new regions, we’re developing the infrastructure of the company in order to be able to handle it. We’re not trying to add 50 hotels on the same staffing levels as now. Our plan is to constantly reinvest in the infrastructure to deal with 60, 70 and 80 hotels in the way we’re dealing with 10, 20 and 30 and this is how I intend to move the company forward.
So, you feel that the brand is flexible enough to allow hotels in Australia, America, Japan and Europe in the near future?
OK: I asked someone recently whether they would, if they came across the word ‘Rotana’ in New York, immediately make a connection to the Middle East? Would they have any idea it related to the name of a certain type of date palm found in the UAE? Of course, they answered that they would not. Someone passing by a Rotana logo on Park Avenue won’t instantly ask why there’s an Arab brand here. We’re very proud of our name and brand and we feel we can be anywhere.
We have been researching certain countries to ascertain what the appetite is for developers and we’re seeing that it’s there. There is great opportunity in sub-Saharan Africa for instance, in particularly Ghana, Congo, Nigeria and even down to Mozambique and Angola, where there is a lot of potential. We have a controlled growth strategy, which means that we are moving from our core region to neighbouring ones first. We’re not trying to open everywhere at the same time.
How important would you say meetings are to Rotana’s brand development and growth strategy?
OK: Very important. This area of the business always has been and always will be. We are always looking to build on it, whether that’s establishing new sales teams in area offices or by travelling to all the major exhibitions around the world. We very much hope to have a stand at IMEX 2015, for instance, to show MICE bookers that Rotana is a player and that it’s here to stay.
Which properties in your portfolio would you say are the ones that cater best to the meetings sector?
OK: Al Murooj, Al Bustan and Al Ghurair in Dubai and the Beach Rotana in Abu Dhabi would be the ones we focus on in terms of attracting major meetings business to the UAE, but we also have beach hotels and properties next to malls that demonstrate we can cater to the full range of MICE customers. Importantly, our BurJurman, Towers Rotana and Jumeirah properties are also within easy reach of the main meetings hubs in Dubai, such as the World Trade Centre and Sheikh Zayed Road.
How does MICE factor into, say, the cyclical renovation of a property? Have you found the need to add more meetings space?
OK: If the footprint allows it, then yes. When we refurbished Al Bustan’s lower level, we removed the restaurants down there and added a meetings venue and it has been busy ever since. We had the same experience in Lebanon, where a modern meetings space replaced two restaurants and has consistently outperformed them.
It does work the other way, too. We’re just about to renovate the Jumeirah Rotana and we’re actually taking away meetings spaces because guest rooms to cater to business travellers – including those attending events at the World Trade Centre – are more important for us. However, in general, meetings is one of the ways we can provide what we think our customers want.
How have you seen the evolution of the hospitality sector’s approach in the UAE to meetings and incentives in the last two decades?
OK: If I was to look back over my own career – and I started off as a banquet head waiter after leaving hotel school – I would say MICE has always been important. It’s a fundamental part of what hotels provide: a place where people can meet, eat and drink and use the various facilities of the hotel. It’s becoming a lot more competitive though, so you have to be innovative in how you put a package together and add value.
To get groups to stay in our hotels, I’m always telling our guys to go the extra mile. It’s what we need to do to make sure we’re chosen over the three other properties we might be up against. It could be complimentary reception on the beach, but whatever it might be, we have to make sure we can beat the others. Maybe if guests are going to a convention centre, we can provide the transportation. You have to be on top of the game to secure business.
In a city such as Dubai – and also Abu Dhabi and other cities – you are competing against other very well-appointed, well-maintained and well-serviced properties. How can you differentiate?
OK: Last year, we held our annual congress at a newly opened hotel in Dubai. We do this quite often in order to assess what is out there on the market and to see what’s new. There were very nice facilities, but the service was ordinary. There was no warmth or feeling. If the human element isn’t playing a very important role and making a difference, then you’re in trouble – not only in the hospitality industry, but anywhere there’s human interaction.
It can be the biggest ballroom, the plushest carpets, the biggest chandeliers, but if there isn’t anybody there to take care of the guests, to make sure their needs are met, what’s the point? We like to think we have a good reputation in terms of being flexible with event organisers and being there for them and I think it has made a difference.
Dubai Expo 2020 is on the horizon, which is not only a huge ‘meeting’ in its own right but a key catalyst for the hospitality sector. Do you regard this as an opportunity to seize or mere confirmation that your growth plans were sound?
OK: We have a lot of faith in what Dubai Expo 2020 and also the Government of Dubai’s 2020 Vision will do for us in this industry.
We have already seen a lot interest from potential partners about developing new hotels across the city and it’s underlining what is so special about the UAE. Anything is possible here. That’s what is so beautiful about being here.
Also, I think that Dubai Expo 2020 changes a lot of things in terms of how people see the expo model. Looking at what is being built, the hotels that will be added, what is happening at the airports and the convention centres, in many places around the world you would wonder what on earth is going to happen when the expo finishes. Not in Dubai. The expo will create a much longer-term success than just the usual six months.