‘We have reached the hearts of our customers’

With a stated target of 67 Rotana and Centro hotels, Imad Elias, executive vice-president and COO, Rotana Hotels, tells TTN the group’s key markets are Saudi Arabia and Cairo
The Penthouse at the BurJuman Rotana Suites

I understand Rotana as a healthy develop-ment pipeline. Could you share with us how many hotels you expect to have across the region by 2010? And 2015?
Rotana’s strategic aim is to have a property in every key city in the Middle East, a goal being steadily achieved through careful long-term planning and timely action.

Our vision is to be the leading and preferred hospitality management company operating hotels, suites and resorts, within the Middle East. We currently have a portfolio of 42 properties in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, 21 already in operation, with the rest to open over the next two years, of which four are scheduled to open within the coming few months in Dubai, Fujairah, Kuwait and Sudan. As long as we are able to manage our growth efficiently, we will take further properties. In addition, we have committed to have 25 Centro properties within the coming five years.
We are currently negotiating several other projects but are keen on taking the ones that would guarantee a healthy return to the owners and which would add value to our brand. We are extremely cautious on expanding strategically and efficiently.   

What new markets are you seeking to expand in? Bahrain, Jordan and Sudan have already been announced, what next?
Our main priority is to have a property in the main cities in Saudi Arabia and in Cairo. But we welcome any other appropriate opportunity in the remaining Arab states.
What is this expansion valued at?
The cost of any expansion plan is the responsibility of the various owners that have entrusted us with their properties since we are a management company and not developers. Current plans are estimated to be close to Dh1 billion ($272.2 million).

As a brand, what keywords define the Rotana experience?
Development of the brand is rigorously planned and meticulously managed across all operations – simultaneously evoking confidence and trust among property owners, and creating satisfying experiences for corporate and leisure travellers alike.

Does being an Arab/ Middle Eastern brand bring in the customers? Particularly with those who seek a reflection of traditional values?
Certainly so although it was challenging at the beginning. We have gradually reached the hearts of our customers and the desired market recognition and our repeat guests are a major proof of that. Guests know what to expect when staying at any of our properties and this is very important for us to maintain: international quality standards complemented with traditional Arabic hospitality. We worked hard to gain the trust of our customers in such a competitive region where most international chains were here two or three decades before us.

But is that brand recognition strong enough to carry into new markets such as North Africa, and be positioned among international competitors? Can we expect a brand-building campaign? How then, would you seek to manage the brand?
It’s always a challenge getting into a market where we don’t exist but we just get down to finding the best way to deal with it. Normally this is through extensive sales visits coupled with localised advertising campaigns. Obviously before getting into any markets, we conduct major research and studies in preparation of our entrance. This is why we have a clear focus on local, regional and international sales and marketing set-ups.

What is your analysis of the Dubai market? Once the Bawadi hotels come up, is the market likely to even out?
Actually we currently have eight properties in operation with five additional ones to open before the end of 2008. Dubai’s growth and development is definitely unprecedented. For the last 15 years, hoteliers have experienced continuous growth and the government has been exceptionally aggressive in planning and developing the emirate. There are countless projects in the pipeline and under execution. Whether the market is open to that need is the key question. So far, our current and projected average occupancies are positive but it will be interesting to watch and see.

How well are your hotels prepared for the predicted 2007 shake-out in Dubai?
I am not sure whether I would call it a shake-up or an adjustment in the business level. We are very pragmatic and because we are very close to our team on the ground, everyone in the company in getting ready for the challenges ahead. I would like to believe that none of our hotels was arrogant with its pricing strategy in the last three or four years. We have remained close to our existing clients whilst expanding our client base too. Customers will ultimately remember who took full advantage of the situation by over-pricing properties and who applied a rational strategy that would benefit the property not only in the short term but in the long term too.

How is the Lebanon scene shaping up? Are you likely to announce new hotels in Lebanon?
It is a little difficult to predict what will happen in the short term, but the country will undoubtedly re-bounce. The infrastructure will have to be rebuilt again and global confidence needs to be re-established. Projects under development will go ahead and ultimately the situation will improve in the long term. Projects that were only on the drawing board may get delayed, depending, obviously, on the financial situation of individual owners and how the conflict affected them. We will go ahead with the opening of the Raouché Rotana Suites, which should be be ready before next summer. We were in the final stages of construction and our owners are eager to move ahead.