‘We are focusing on quality’

KARMENU VELLA, chairman of Corinthia Hotels International, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about the evolution of the brand and where he wants to take the company
Vella … ‘We are waiting for the right opportunity in the ME’

Corinthia Hotels International’s (CHI) four decades of experience in the hospitality industry began with the acquisition of an art nouveau villa in Malta and today extends to upscale four- and five-star city and resort hotels in Belgium, Czech Republic, Hungary, Libya, Malta, Portugal, Russia, Gambia, Togo, Tunisia and Turkey.

Billed as one of the fastest growing hotel chains in the world, the group includes the world-famous Corinthia Grand Hotel Royal in Budapest, the Corinthia Nevskij Palace Hotel in St Petersburg, the Corinthia Alfa Hotel, Lisbon’s largest hotel with 517 rooms, and the majestic Corinthia Bab Africa, the first hotel of its kind in Tripoli and North Africa, in its portfolio.
An architect and civil engineer by trade, its chairman Karmenu Vella has also been a member of Maltese Parliament for 30 years, having also held the offices of minister for public works, industry and tourism. Aiming to strengthen the brand, Vella is now looking at further spreading the Malta-based hotel group’s wings around the world. He spoke to TTN about what lies ahead. Excerpts from an interview.

TTN: How difficult has it been for a brand with headquarters in Malta to grow and become one of the fastest growing hotel chains in the world?
Karmenu Vella: Things were difficult initially because Corinthia started out from an island with a very small market. As you know, Malta is a very small island and we were the first five-star hotel (the 156-room Corinthia Palace Hotel) on the island 48 years ago. This was the birth of Corinthia.
Due to the size of the island, when we reached our fifth hotel, we realised we could not grow any further within the country. In some ways, that presented us with a challenge, as well as an opportunity. We then started looking beyond Malta’s shores for further expansion. In fact, Corinthia was the first pioneering Maltese group to embark on tourism investment outside of Malta. The result is that, when it comes to size today, our Malta operation is one of the smallest operations that we have.

Did the challenge before the company seem daunting when you took over the job?
It was a big challenge then considering that in every destination where we are operating today, we found ourselves up against some of the biggest and best hotel chains in the world. The major difference between our competitors and us, as we see it, is that while they are going for quantity, we are focusing on quality. It is not our intention to grow bigger at the expense of getting better. Our priority was to become better before growing bigger.

As Corinthia spreads its wings, has there been a change in business strategy?
Yes. Initially, the drive was for resort hotels but the onus has now shifted more and more onto city centre and business hotels, and this is where we would like to expand our business. The chain now operates and owns over 20 four- and five-star hotels in North Africa, West Africa and Europe. At first, the hotels were in the 150-200 room bracket whereas now we have hotels that surpass the 500-room mark, such as in Lisbon and in Prague.
However, what we really wanted to do was to make sure was that Corinthia did not go into city centre properties with a resort mentality. We want to retain the same Corinthia hospitality in both resort and city centre locations and have managed to develop a superb meetings product called Events@Corinthia for our city centre properties. 
Furthermore, as much as we would like to grow our portfolio in the future, we would also like to strengthen the brand. To this end, we have taken seven of the best properties within our portfolio and branded them as Corinthia’s ‘premier collection’. We see our future growth in this area.

So how do you take on competition?
Wherever we go – whether it is Budapest, St Petersburg or Prague – we take a close look at all the other properties. We then select the top five competitor hotels and pitch ourselves against them and go all out to compete with these brands.

And how do you score over them?
We score very well, especially in terms of service and quality.

So what do you say you are bringing to the table when you are up against top international brands?
The uniqueness of our hospitality and our attitude. The fact that we are a Maltese company, having had a history of cultures and a great tradition of hospitality, has put us in a strong competitive position in introducing into new countries our ‘warmth, colour and vitality’. Also, what is important is the fact that we do not impose our Corinthia culture in each of our new destinations but we try to blend Corinthia standards with the local culture because ultimately this is what our clients want. This is very much our focus.
Many competitor multinational companies end up being unicultural and that is something we want to avoid at all costs. We insist that all our hotels, wherever they are located, retain the local culture and traditions, whilst respecting Corinthia’s high standards of service.

Did Corinthia work on building a brand or did it just evolve with time?
When the group started in Malta, I don’t think they ever dreamt that the Corinthia brand would grow to this extent. I don’t think that was their original intention. At that time, the core business of the group was hotel catering, industrial catering, laundry and so on. But, eventually, the hotel business came to be the core business and as the brand started getting recognised, we realised that that we had a unique selling point when it came to attitude and service. Today, we are very proud of our birthplace and of the fact that we come from a very modest and hospitable environment. Malta is the smallest Mediterranean country – and wherever we go, we take this sense of hospitality with us.

Modesty then is the key…
Yes, I would like to add that we make sure every single guest who comes to our hotel is treated like a VIP. We don’t distinguish between our guests.
People realise the difference between a house and a home and we want the future traveller to know the difference between a hotel and a Corinthia experience. When you come to one of our hotels, you must feel that you are coming home.
Also, we distinguish ourselves from other five-star properties because of our superior five-star MICE facilities. We feel that we are ideally placed to take on the ever-growing MICE market in a serious fashion. The Events@Corinthia programme has been specifically designed with this in mind.

What plans for the Middle East?
We would very much like to expand our operations in the Middle East. I won’t say it’s a very easy market for us to penetrate but yes, we are very much interested in making our presence felt there. More so since our mentalities are very similar.
We have expanded into some of the most challenging destinations like Russia and likewise we are ready to take up the challenge in the Middle East too. We are just waiting for the right opportunity to come our way.

So what are you looking to make a foray into this market?
I would say what we would be looking for properties that fit our existing Corinthia portfolio. Things like good primary locations, city centre properties with a minimum of 200-250 rooms preferably with meetings facilities because we excel mostly in MICE markets.

Having redefined luxury in Tripoli with the Corinthia Bab Africa, you have set very high standards for the brand…
I wouldn’t hesitate to say that Corinthia Bab Africa is the best hotel in North Africa and definitely one of the best hotels worldwide. There is certainly nothing like it in Libya.

What key destinations will Corinthia be focusing on in the near future?
Our next step would be to expand in these market destinations. We would love to be in Germany, Italy, UK, France and we are working on building brand awareness in these markets.

Having variously held the offices of minister for public works, industry and tourism, how do you view your growth as a hotelier?
The job has been both challenging and rewarding.

Personally, what lesson have you learnt over the years?
To set high goals and persevere in achieving them and to try and keep one’s feet on the ground at all times.