One in a millennium

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A trained engineer, Ali Hamad Lakhraim AlZaabi’s first role in the hotel industry was with Abu Dhabi National Hotels.

A trained engineer, Ali Hamad Lakhraim AlZaabi’s first role in the hotel industry was with Abu Dhabi National Hotels.

Hotel owner and operator Ali Hamad Lakhraim Alzaabi is a formidable character, who needs little introduction. I doubt there’s a single Hotelier Middle East reader who hasn’t heard of this enigmatic owner and operator, the only Emirati hotelier to make it into the Hotelier Middle East Power 50 2013. He’s confident, straight-talking and smart, but despite owning hotel assets worth millions of dollars — not to mention a variety of other business vehicles earning him a tidy sum — Alzaabi is remarkably friendly and down to earth.

He’s a man that values relationships and works hard at them, who understands the power of reputation and genuinely cares that people have a good experience in his hotels. For while he could successfully sit back and live off the returns of his outside ventures, Alzaabi is most committed to his role as president and CEO of Millennium & Copthorne Middle East and Africa. He competes tirelessly to win contracts from international hotel giants and has made no secret of his goal to run one of the most successful hotel management companies in the region. With a strong wind, his ambition, insider knowledge and local roots, this may well be achievable.

Ready for growth

Our interview takes place over lunch at Ritz-Carlton Dubai International Financial Centre, one of Alzaabi’s most high-profile hotel purchases, but the focus is not on his owning company, Emirates Hotel Group, but on his hotel chain, Millennium & Copthorne. Currently, there are 15 hotels operating and around 30 in the confirmed pipeline, with the current focus on expansion in emerging markets such as Iraq and everyone’s favourite, Saudi Arabia. Across the region, 10-12 hotels are expected to open within the next 12-18 months. A hotel has recently opened in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq, with two additional properties due to open this year and more on the cards, while in Saudi Arabia, there are 18 hotels “signed, sealed and under construction”. Not bad considering Alzaabi only made in-roads in the Kingdom three years ago.

“We are actually the fastest [growing hotelier] and probably the biggest in terms of pipeline number of rooms in Saudi Arabia. If you look at IHG or Hilton in Saudi Arabia, or others who have been there for 40/50 years, [considering] we have just entered three years ago, we have more rooms than them,” Alzaabi claims.

The success he says, is “mainly driven by relationships and also driven by us being so focused on bottom lines for the owners”.

However, he admits the numbers are not quite where he would like them to be, acknowledging that the recession of 08/09 put some serious speed bumps in his way. Indeed, back in 2009, Alzaabi told Hotelier Middle East he wanted 100 hotels signed by 2015. Now, he’s pushed this target to 2020.

“Contracts for more than 20 hotels did not materialise because of the recession. They are not cancelled. They have been shelved for now,” Alzaabi tells me.

Still, growth is starting to accelerate again for Millennium & Copthorne, with Millennium the “bread and butter brand” for expansion, followed by Copthorne. There are also new brands to add to the mix; Agarwood, a four-star brand aimed at the Middle East; luxury brand Biltmore; Millennium Executive Apartments; and funky three-star loft-concept, Studio M.

Alzaabi explains the differentiation: “Agarwood will be a new four-star brand for the Middle East, Africa and India that will go hand in hand with Copthorne. So, we’ll have the Copthorne and the Agarwood serving the four-star segment. And then for five-star you have the Millennium, plus you have our deluxe brand, which is the Grand Millennium. And then we are expanding also slowly the luxury brand, Biltmore. We also have Millennium Executive Apartments for long staying guests.”

There are Biltmore hotels signed in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, and Millennium Executive Apartments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai Marina. Experience has taught Alzaabi he has his work cut out in expanding these concepts, however.

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