Selim El Zyr, president and CEO of Rotana Hotels, plans to have at least one Rotana-managed property in every Arab capital with business potential.
And given, his steely resolve and determination, El Zyr is most likely to achieve that happen sooner rather than later.
Right now, Rotana Hotels manages 17 properties and projects throughout the Middle East but it has 13 new properties in the pipeline which will be ready by 2007. “The upcoming properties will add 2,500 rooms to our portfolio and by 2007 Rotana Hotels will reach 6,000 rooms with a turn over of $400 million per annum, thereby approximately doubling the existing revenues,” says El Zyr.
Rotana Hotels has signed 13 new management agreements for major properties in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Beirut, Damascus, Doha and Kuwait, Egypt and Khartoum all to open before the end of 2007. The latest additions to Rotana’s growing family will not only increase its portfolio in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt and Lebanon but will also launch the company into new countries including Kuwait, Qatar, Syria and Sudan. Following the successful opening of the Hazmieh Rotana Hotel in Beirut, Rotana will be opening further properties in Lebanon, introducing its renowned Rotana Suites brand at a prime seafront location in the heart of Lebanese capital.
With the continued growth in business and tourism, Rotana will be entering the Doha market during the second half of 2006 while, in the UAE, it will strengthen its leadership position with six additional properties in Dubai.
The first, due to open this year, will be the Al Murooj Rotana Hotel & Suites on Sheikh Zayed Road adjacent to the Dubai International Financial City and close to the Dubai International Convention Centre.
More properties are currently under development in Dubai with Rose Rotana Suites, the world’s tallest 72 storey, all-suites property, due to be opened in 2006.
To support these major developments, Rotana Hotels opened another sales and marketing office in Europe. The Frankfurt office, with a team of 40 executives, will cover all German-speaking countries. In addition Rotana launched its new interactive website with instant online booking facilities. What’s more, Rotana Hotels has further expanded its corporate head office facilities in the Middle East, with the recent opening of their corporate sales and marketing offices in Abu Dhabi.
“The continuous and steady growth of Rotana is reflected in its revenues,” says El Zyr. “Rotana Hotels achieved in 2003 an increase of 31.5 per cent of revenue comparing to 2002.”
El Zyr added: “With the addition of 13 properties expected to be completed before the end of 2007, the annual revenue of Rotana Hotels will jump, which will enable us to maintain our competitive edge in a challenging environment. We are committed to introduce Rotana’s spirit and way of life in every major city within the Middle East.”
And El Zyr, a lifetime hotelier, should know what it takes to push the Rotana brand to greater heights. After completing his formal education – El Zyr studied management at L’Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, Switzerland, before going on to do his post-graduate qualifications in hotel administration from the Ivy League Cornell University at Ithaca, New York – he landed his first job at the Waldorf restaurant in New York as assistant chief steward in charge of dishwashers in 1970. “Today, when I look back, I think it was a great beginning,” he says. “I was young; I had to deal with people who were rough and difficult to motivate being in the lowest grade in the hotel industry. But I told myself I would take any job regardless of the position. I was not after titles; I just wanted to prove to myself that I could handle any job. If I could communicate with the most lowly-paid staff and motivate them, that was the biggest challenge for me personally.”
With such steely determination and a never-say-die attitude, it was hardly surprising that his talent came in for early recognition. He started climbing the ladder at Hilton International Properties and travelled extensively, working in their properties in Germany, Spain, Egypt, Canada, Kuwait and the UAE. When El Zyr left the international hotel chain in 1982, he held the position of regional director. He went on to set up a leading fast food chain in Lebanon before returning to the UAE to join the Abu Dhabi National Hotels Company, where he managed their portfolio of properties located both in the UAE as well as overseas and, additionally, was vice-president of the Palmarvia and Diar Hotels groups.
With years of experience behind him, he moved on to take up the challenge of co-founding Rotana Hotels – the first regional Arab hotel chain – in September, 1992. “This was the biggest breakthrough in my career,” he recalls. “Before becoming co-founder of Rotana I was always working for other people. It was very different being a shareholder. There was a change in feeling… It was an amazing experience.”
Clearly, it was a risk worth taking. Over the last 13 years, El Zyr has taken Rotana from a start-up company to the current-day management of 17 properties with a further 13 properties under development in the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Sudan. Due to several new and successful initiatives, El Zyr has significantly consolidated the group’s reputation as the Middle East region’s fastest-growing hotel chain and established itself as a household brand name.
Thanks to his humble beginning, it has been easy for El Zyr to understand the difficulty and concerns of the most lowly-paid staff. “Besides,” he adds, “I can understand the importance of their job and appreciate the fact that the man in lowest-paid job is often the most important for the success of the hotel.” He couldn’t be more right. You can go to the best hotel in the world but if the glass is not clean or if your plate is not polished properly, then you may not exactly want to head there again.
“The guest is not in touch with the top management unfortunately; he sees them accidentally,” adds El Zyr. “The guest is in touch with young people who relay the image of the management to the guest. They deliver the message of the hotel, not us. After all, a small thing like a hair left in the bathtub can spoil the whole guest experience and ruin the image of a five-star hotel.”
Not surprising then, that it is firmly entrenched in the culture of Rotana to look after the junior staff members or junior family members.
“The secret of the Rotana’s success,” adds El Zyr, “is that we hire the right people – people who are proud to be of service.” And with someone like El Zyr at the helm of affairs, people in all departments are not only trusted but they are given the freedom to take decisions.
What’s more, Rotana has been able to introduce a unique blend of tried-and-tested Western concepts and traditional Middle East hospitality. It is the chain’s unique knowledge of local culture that has taken it from strength to strength.
“People respect us because we stick to our word, we don’t play dirty tricks and we don’t undercut,” he explains. “And we have proven we are to be taken seriously. Initially, it was difficult to convince people that we could deliver but now that we have so many well-managed properties in our portfolio, they speak for themselves. We are also more economical than international chains. And most importantly, being a small company, we are always in touch with the owners of properties that we manage and share a one-to-one rapport with them. This is something they can’t expect from international companies which manage hundreds of properties around the world.”
The Rotana chain is known for its wide range of food and beverage outlets. To his credit, El Zyr has some of the best international franchises like Benihana, Trader Vic’s, and Blue Elephant. “Many of my hotelier friends, who manage their own restaurants, asked why I was importing a concept,” he says. “My answer was simple: they are people who know more than us or are more focused in their work.” No wonder, then, that the company’s restaurants have always come in for praise from all quarters.
So what’s the secret of his success? “Hard work, hard work and more hard work,” says El Zyr, who won the Horeca Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Hospitality Industry in 2003, shared the honours for the Middle East CEO of the Year Award in the Business Sector with the then director-general of the Dubai World Trade Centre Mubarak bin Fahad last year and awarded the ”National Cedar Decoration” by the Lebanese President as appreciation of his efforts and contribution to both the Tourism and Economical fields in Lebanon and the Arab World. “Besides, people find it easy to trust me because I am straightforward and honest.”
Small wonder then that El Zyr is steering Rotana Hotels, which is managed by people who are able to understand and convey not only what the region has to offer but are also able to create ‘packages’ that reflect this, from strength to strength.