Kurt Ritter interview: Turnover and takeovers

Hotel CEO on the Arab Spring, takeovers, new markets and clashes with military dictators

Qatar presence Ritter plans to convert the existing 583-room Ramada Plaza Doha to the Radisson Blu brand.

Qatar presence Ritter plans to convert the existing 583-room Ramada Plaza Doha to the Radisson Blu brand.

Having spent over three decades in the industry, hotel CEO Kurt Ritter is used to tackling the big issues, whether it’s the Arab Spring, takeovers, entering new markets or even clashes with military dictators

“Size matters,” says Kurt Ritter, the ever jovial CEO of Belgian hotelier the Rezidor Group. As we sit in the Royal Radisson Hotel in Dubai ahead of the start of a lavish party to celebrate the opening of his latest property, his words seem even more ironic as the Burj Khalifa — the world’s tallest building — hovers in the horizon over his shoulder.

Having just celebrated 35 years in the hotel business, he is, of course, taking about his career and developing Rezidor into one of the most respected hotel groups in the world. While many people have asked him why he has done the same job for so long, he corrects then that by saying the scale of the company has changed so dramatically since he became CEO of the Brussels-based firm 22 years ago that it is no longer the same job.

“The biggest single difference is size,” he says. “It is the most difficult part of the change.” When Ritter first took over the reins of the group he inherited eighteen properties, while now he is responsible for 319 hotels and the rolling out another 100 in development.

“In the old days if they wanted to paint the kitchen I knew about it and I signed the purchase order for the bucket of paint. You can do that if you have eighteen hotels.”

Looking out over the Dubai skyline, Ritter is one of the few hoteliers in the city who does not believe the sector is oversaturated and he envisions Rezidor opening even more hotels in the emirate.

“I don’t think it has reached saturation point. Dubai started as a holiday destination in the 70s where people thought they were crazy to have a resort in the desert, but people came. Today, with the banking, education and medical, there are more reasons why people come here. If they are creative then the sky’s the limit,” he says.

The back story to the opening to the Royal Radisson Hotel, located just off Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, is quite dramatic and once which Ritter believes will become increasingly common as the Dubai market matures.

The Brussels-based hotel group announced last July it had taken over the management of the 471-room JAL Tower and the 257-room Hotel JAL Fujairah Resort & Spa and both would be rebranded as Radisson properties.

It was never fully disclosed why JAL were relieved of duties by the owners but Ritter says the Dubai market was likely to see the takeovers becoming a bigger factor of life in the Dubai hotel sector in the years to come, especially as the market matures and contracts come up for renewal.

He believes this will mean competition among operators will increase and hotels will change brands a lot quicker, a trend he says is already commonplace in the US market.

“If you look at the States it has become crazy. Every time I go there are new names on the buildings; they change brands like you change shirts.”

High profit expectations among owners are also likely to prompt changes in management, as the city’s rising number of hotels squeezes average room rates.

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