‘We’re not interested in mass growth’

Philippe Cassis, Starwood’s senior VP and director of operations, spells out the company’s plans to Keith J FeRNandez
Cassis ... ‘Adding brand value is an essential component of our development strategy’

WITH three new properties being added to their 32-hotel regional portfolio, Philippe Cassis, senior vice-president and director of operations, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, talked to TTN about the group’s history in the region, their ambitious plans for key growth locations in Africa and Middle East and more. Excerpts from an interview:

How many new hotels are you planning in the region?
Our development strategy in the region is to expand the diversity of our brand portfolio in key growth locations. We have just opened the 132-room Four Points Le Verdun, our second property in Beirut and third in Lebanon. By mid 2005, we expect to open the 321-room Sheraton Oran in Algeria, our second property in the country and the first international hotel in Oran, situated on a six-acre cliff-top overlooking the Mediterranean. Late this year will see the opening of our third property in Syria, Sheraton Aleppo Hotel & Towers, with 218 rooms and suites, three restaurants and over 1,000 sq m of meeting space. Construction will also be completed by early 2006 of a new luxury hotel in Egypt next to the Sheraton Heliopolis Hotel with 250 luxury units, an international conference centre with seating capacity for 1,700 people, and a fashionable spa and beauty centre.

What is your strategy in the MENA region?
Starwood’s irrevocable vision and philosophy has always been to expand the diversity of its brand portfolio in key growth locations; ensure presence in prime locations worldwide and grow fast but smart together with its business partners. Westin, Four Points by Sheraton, St Regis, The Luxury Collection, W and the well-known Sheraton are all world-class brands that add value through their individual and well-defined personalities, presence in prime locations worldwide, innovation and commitment to customer satisfaction.
This, with no doubt, will be accompanied by the introduction of new services to meet the ever-changing industry developments and challenges.

What other expansion strategies do you have up your sleeve?
As the first international operator to enter the region, we have the experience; we know the region, and we know the people. We have 32 successful Sheraton hotels around the Middle East. Our portfolio includes a mix of city and resort properties operations. And our management contracts are based on variable operational fees, related to profit and revenues, which is a challenge we undertake. Some chains operate against profit share instead of management fees to ensure their brand presence in target markets. We are the preferred choice for many owners, and we continue to build successful partnerships with the investment community. Many of our hotel owners are also multiple owners of several of our brands internationally, all the way from Africa to Europe and North America.
Although we want to grow fast in the region, we also want to grow smart. Adding brand value and enhancing return on investment are essential components of our development strategy. We’re not interested in mass growth. Our focus is more on product and destination value, which explains why our growth rate is more carefully assessed.

How do you overcome the stiff competition in the region?
As an industry leader, Starwood will continue to focus on expanding the diversity of its brand portfolio, reinforcing its operational excellence in different market segments, penetrating into new emerging markets while enhancing presence in existing markets and providing innovative and creative value-added lodging and leisure solutions. We will also continue investing in state-of-the-art IT technologies and customer loyalty programmes to go the extra mile beyond customers’ expectations and satisfaction.

How is Starwood geared to meet the growth in the MICE business?
We were the first company in the region to launch a digital incentive brochure as well as dedicated collateral, featuring 11 hotels and six destinations in Africa and the Middle East, in addition to a full service portfolio targeting the conferences and meetings market. We identified 11 hotels most suited to cater to this segment, including properties in Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and South Africa. Another well-known initiative of ours is the Starwood Preferred Planner, one of the best reward and recognition programmes for meeting planners worldwide.

What lessons has the group learnt in the region over the past 40 years?
Based on its longstanding experience as the first hotel operator in the region, Starwood has developed a clear knowledge and understanding of the very specific needs of Arab travellers – privacy, cuisine, leisure habits, traditions, family values, etc. So we think globally and operate locally. Our hotels worldwide have always been the Arab travellers’ preferred second home thanks to the very customised services and amenities that cater for their specific needs.