By Thomas Shambler
We sit down with Imad Elia, CEO of Roda Hotel Group, to discuss his love of Ferraris, Patek Philippe and the 'Jewels' of Dubai hospitality
The Roda Hotel Group is relatively new. How did you end up running it?
I was COO for Rotana Hotels for 17 years. After I left, I became a consultant for the company, but I also looked after the interests of Dubai International Real Estate. As you know, it's owned by His Highness Sheikh Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. Dubai has three icon projects, the Eye of Dubai, The Frame and the Jewel of the Creek. With my relationship with the owners, I was requested to consult on the design, the infrastructure, conference facilities, food and beverage, everything. I was on my own, and gradually I was ask to establish a hospitality management company to look after these icons. All of these projects are in the range of AED10-billion. Roda is actually the name of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan's wife.
The hotels certainly look impressive.
You know, we're not trying to create hotels. We're trying to create destinations. The Jewel of the Creek for example, will have multiple hotels, from four-star to five-star – and let me tell you, this level of luxury will be like nothing Dubai has seen before. There will be residential units, shopping areas, food and beverage outlets and the Dubai Dome, for meetings and events. It will also have a supersized swimming pool, the lagoon, that is 400-metres long with a beach.
A beach with sand?
Exactly. I put together a small team of experts in architecture, materials or finance, and that is what we are working on. We want to benefit from everyone's experience, including mine. I came to Abu Dhabi in 1973 as a trainee with Hilton Hotels, and I am still here.
What makes Roda so different from your previous companies?
It's the quality and innovation in everything we do. In Dubai, these will be mega-icons. We don't want a hotel on every street. We are looking to build three jewels, and we are going to call them Roda Jewel Jumeirah, Roda Jewel Creek and Roda Jewel Garhoud. There will be no more. Then we will move on to create other successful stories in other major cities around the world. All our projects are geared to be open before 2020. In fact, we are hoping the Jewel of the Creek will be one of the sponsors for 2020, providing facilities to the organizing company.
The company bears the name of His Highness Sheikh Hamdan's wife. Surely that puts you under a lot of pressure to succeed?
There is no doubt the pressure is on. And it will continue for the next two years until we open our first project. But we are planning well, and we are getting the right experts from all around the world to help us. Yes, it feels sometimes like we are flying the plane as we build but, but that's why we work so hard to prove ourselves every day.
Are you worried about the sheer number of hotels coming on line for 2020? Aren't you worried it's going to push down room rates?
I am very optimistic about Dubai. Why? Because its infrastructure has never stopped. It has continued to invest in Emirates Airlines and today it flies to just about everywhere in the world. The government has invested in to other airports, in to transportation and into tourism. It has made it easy for companies to establish themselves, and has doubled exhibition space. You know, once I had a conversation with His Highness Sheikh Hamdan, and he said, "Las Vegas is one strip with 120,000 hotel rooms. Dubai has only 85,000. We should have 150,000 rooms". People now dream of coming to Dubai. No, I'm not afraid about an over-supply as long as we have such a secure status in the world, and great leadership.
Speaking of which, what do you think makes for a great leader?
I believe a leader has to be both the coach and the captain of the football team, at the same time. You have to set the example for the tea, you have to be the person they look up to. I don't think that just being in charge of an office makes you a leader, you need to know everyone in it. You need to know their problems, their family issues. You need to be happy saying if they have done a good job, or what you expect from them in future. Of course, if they do something wrong you also have to be there to tell them that. I used to be a trainee, and I know what it takes to empower an employee. You have got to have team spirit. I'm old school in that way, but I believe it.
If you weren't in hotels today, what would you be doing?
If I was born again, I would do it all over again. When I came to this country there was only one 5-star hotel, the Abu Dhabi Hilton. There was not one green leaf along the Corniche. Sometimes, there was no power, no electricity. I saw the tough times. I used to shave in 7-Up because there was no water being pumped! But I love service. So I would do it all again.
What would you tell someone aspiring to make it big in your industry?
I would say you have got to be passionate about service. You need to be passionate about people. You need to work very hard and you have to be patient. Most importantly, you have to have a goal. When I was the trainee receptionist of the Abu Dhabi Hilton, I said that in ten years I wanted to be the general manager. Fortunately, by the time I was 29, I had become the general manager. I was the youngest manager of any Hilton hotel.
Who do you look up to?
Frankly speaking, but it is His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai. It is incredible to think of what he has achieved in so short a time. He has always been my mentor. I have always applied what he thinks before doing anything. It's the OODE theory. First you observe, then you orientate yourself. Then you make a decision quickly, and then execute that decision. I believe in this theory, and I think it is why I have been successful in my career.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It's different now. Now I get two full days off, something I have never had in my whole career until now. I used to work six and a half days a week! Now, my day starts when I wake up at seven. I always walk for an hour with my dog first thing, I have an American cocker spaniel. Then I wake up the family. I always cook breakfast for everyone in the morning. After that, I read the newspapers – I believe staying up to date with what is happening in the world is very important. Then I come in to work and meet our directors. I have a very close relationship with the team, and I enjoy having lunch with them. It gives me time with them that I would not have during the day. I have meetings every afternoon and then I hope to be home at six. I believe family time is important. I have five brothers, and they all live in America. So right when I get home we communicate every day. I am always in bed by eleven.
What are you doing when you are not at work?
I have two bad habits. One is fancy cars. The other is watches.
You collect both?
Yes. My first toy was a Jaguar XKR. I replaced it with a Mercedes SL55, but in 2007 I fell in love with Ferrari and picked up my first 599. My wife bought it for my 50th birthday. Since then, I have become a member of the Ferrari Club. I enjoy driving. No doubt the best watch in the world is a Patek Philippe, and I love the Nautilus collection. I don't have a son to pass it down to, but when my three daughters get married they will inherit my watches.