AMINE Moukarzel likes to call his life in hospitality a journey.
“It’s a journey with several destinations, a never-ending journey of personal growth fuelled by a love for the business,” he says. It’s a journey that’s taken him from Lebanon, his home country, all over the region, from speeding down the career highway as one of youngest general managers (at 27) in the Holiday Inn group to taking the road less travelled as entrepreneur with Flamingo Hotel Management, one of the most specialised companies in the Middle East hospitality industry.
“Flamingo offers total hotel management across the MENA region – from development to land acquisition through feasibility studies to opening and operations. Our expertise in hotel management in the region allows us to represent hotel brands completely in a manner the local community can relate to,” says Moukarzel. Besides managing hotels at the request of owners, the company works across two categories: it manages the franchise for and oversees the regional expansion of the 365-property chain of Golden Tulip hotels, inns and resorts; and, as of last July, is the regional representative for the IndeCorp consortium of independent hotels and resorts regionally. IndeCorp, with its brands Preferred, Summit and Sterling, provides hotel owners and operators a global reach through CRS, marketing and sales, frequent-flyer programmes and so on.
Having started operations in 1999 with the Grand Continental Flamingo Abu Dhabi, the company today manages 11 Flamingo and Golden Tulip properties in the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia and oversees the franchise for 21 four- and five-star Golden Tulip hotels in the Middle East and North Africa. Among these is the Al Jazira Hotel & Resort, the most recent of the Golden Tulip franchisees. The company has just ended a great year, with 2004 witnessing a growth to the bottomline of 15 per cent over last year.
“Occupancy, ADR and RevPar have witnessed a growth at all levels, too, and we expect that to continue in to 2005. We’re expecting maybe a rise of seven to 10 per cent in the bottomline.”
In terms of hotel numbers, Moukarzel signed new hotels across operations, management and franchising in 2004. These include the Flamingo Oasis Suites and Villas in Kuwait, the Golden Tulip Al Jazira Hotel & Resort in Abu Dhabi, Tulip Inn at Knowledge Village in Dubai and Golden Tulip Al Hamra Dammam in Saudi Arabia. The Aden Hotel in Yemen which will be rebranded Golden Tulip, and three properties in Oman: The Golden Tulip Seeb and with the Ministry of Tourism, properties at Dibba and Masirah. “By the end of 2005, we are targeting 15 Flamingo-managed hotels, 25 under the Golden Tulip and Tulip Inn network and 10 IndeCorp properties,” he says.
An ambitious target given that Moukarzel only signed IndeCorp in July 2004? “We’ve been planting the seeds since August, our people have been on the road, we’ve had a great response since many independent hoteliers and management companies need the synergies the IndeCorp network can provide. So it’s a target that’s very achievable. In fact, we’re currently in negotiations for projects, marketing and franchising deals in Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Lebanon and UAE - so expect big news soon.”
In a market that hosts instantly-recognisable international brands as well as well-developed homegrown brands, is it not a challenge to pitch the Golden Tulip offering against these? Nope, says Moukarzel. “The error lies in looking at the others as competition,” he points out. “Each brand has its own offerings with the consequent brand power, perception and relationships. That perception lies only at the human level, whether with the owner, the manager or the customer. On the other hand, the market is only growing and our franchise offering, supplemented by a regional and local presence, offers the company an on-ground management. You cannot manage by remote control anymore. On the numbers front, the Golden Tulip brand is in the top 10 worldwide and with its motto of ‘international standards, local flavours’ delivers a quality world-class experience with traditional values, affordable prices, courteous service and friendly staff.”
Simply put, Moukarzel says there aren’t enough brands to serve the market. For the moment, he says, more brands in the region can only help the industry. “The 21st century is more brand-oriented than ever, but if you know the value of your product, and are true to your core principles, with the right strategies, the customer will come in and keep coming back.”
The problem with that belief, however, is that a franchise isn’t always looked at positively – by customers and industry alike. “The problem is that franchisees often do not use franchisor facilities, they do not use marketing programmes, house styles, facilities offered and so on. Maintaining and following up brand delivery is important for both the franchise owner and the franchisee. Only close regulation will safeguard assets and protect the relationship between franchise owner and franchisees, which is where a regional management company can deliver, in terms of localised knowledge and quality on-ground assurance and support. Branding is a discipline, franchising is a discipline, the hotel business is a discipline.”
Moukarzel attributes the region’s rollercoaster hospitality growth to two factors. “In the 70s, many owners did not know the business. Today, the region has seen the economic and infrastructural growth that has followed in the wake of tourism so even hotel owners are more involved and are bringing their cultural knowledge to the business.” The other reason, he says, is a direct result of Dubai having enhanced the position of the Middle East on the international map. “After the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and now Oman are coming along, tourism is the number one employer in the world and the countries in the Middle East are realising that.”
He would be in a position to make these statements, with experience over three decades in the hospitality industry. A hospitality industry graduate from Beirut with further specialisation in general and financial management from the then Holiday Inn University at Memphis and from Cornell in New York, Moukarzel moved to Saudi Arabia – “Lebanon was too small to contain me,” he says – where he joined the Holiday Inn group. He was then appointed general manager to the Holiday Inn Abu Dhabi, which was rated as one of the top 10 hotels in the group during his tenure and earned him several awards. “That was how I got involved with the Al Fahim Group, which owns the hotel, and based on the vision on Mohammed Al Fahim, I headed the development of the Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi and Dubai between 1989 and 1994. It was the first development property on Sheikh Zayed road and people thought we were crazy to build a hotel there, but it’s still one of the most successful corporate properties. You have to believe in your projects, do your homework, and follow through with passion.”
It’s that passion for the business that brought him back to managing hotels. After years with Al Fahim’s real estate and development arm, he set up Flamingo in 1999. “I was 40 years old and I knew it was decision time for me: either I could stay on as an executive or break out as entrepreneur and open my own company. The marketplace has great need for management companies like us that understand the needs of customers and the value of the owners’ investment and can bridge both.”
Among other achievements along the way, he picked up a PhD at Kennedy Western, lectured at seminars across the region, led the formation of the hotel management Masters programme at the Lebanese management school Kaslik Univesity, was appointed general adviser of the Tourism Establishments Owners Associations in Beirut and has authored a book, and is working on another that will focus on franchising and marketing in the hospitality industry.
Hospitality, he says, is in his blood, and it keeps him coming back to work every day. “To be successful in hotels, you need a passion for the business. My personal life is the hotel business. And that passion has spread to my family.”