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Mon 2 Jun 2008 04:00 AM

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Brand new game for Starwood

Starwood Hotels president Europe, Middle East and Africa Roeland Vos explains the power of the company's brands in the region and the continued strong performance of the Middle East.

Starwood Hotels president Europe, Middle East and Africa Roeland Vos explains the power of the company's brands in the region and the continued strong performance of the Middle East.

What are the key regional developments for Starwood?

We have a lot going on. It doesn't come as a surprise that we are bringing new brands to the region. We are excited to be bringing the Westin to Dubai, which is newly opened - it's a spectacular product, it's really something we are very proud of and the location is amazing, even for Dubai.

I think people should focus on what they are good at, and i think that is why we are doing so well.

The product that has come out is a very good representation of the Westin brand and everything that it stands for.

We are going to have two Four Point by Sheraton properties [in Dubai], one of which opened in October and the other set to open this month. They are a great product, and I think they will do very well in this market.

They're in a great location, and the services that Four Points stand for - which are very uncomplicated - I think will appeal to a lot of the local business travellers.

There is also the W in Doha, which is on the brink of opening, which is going to be the coolest place in town. That's spectacular.

Then we have some new things going on in Mecca, where the Meridien Towers are coming to life over the coming months.

We have also just signed the Westin in Abu Dhabi, which is overlooking the golf course and once again is a spectacular project. The timeframe for that is to open end of 2009 or the start of 2010.

And we are also working on a St Regis on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi as well.

Obviously we have already been very well represented in all of these markets for a long time with Meridien and Sheraton, but it is great to see we are bringing new brands here as well.

Looking further afield than the Middle East markets in which you are already established, what other destinations are on your radar?

I think we have been represented for 40 years in this part of the world, and we have covered - together with Meridien and Sheraton - most of the mature markets in one way or another.

For us I think our area of biggest growth is to bring other brands to these markets where we see the openings. This is the advantage of having nine brands, it allows us to compete more easily.

But there are also new markets that come along here. We have 19 hotels in our development pipeline, and a lot of those are in what I would call ‘new' destinations, such as Aqaba in Jordan.

If we think about Libya, for us it is a new destination where we have signed two new deals in Tripoli - a Sheraton and a Four Points. It is a first step into Tripoli, which we think will be very successful, and there will be more to come in that part of the world now that it is opening up.

Comparing the Middle East to other regions internationally, how does its performance measure up?

If I look at 2007 and the last few years, this region has been outperforming other regions both in terms of the RevPAR and bottom line performance of the existing hotels.

Also in terms of development and new projects and new deals being signed, this region is clearly ahead of the rest of the world.

I think that if you compare it to Europe and Africa it goes without saying. Africa has been bouncing back this year, whereas Europe is a much more stable place from a performance point of view.

We continue to see steady growth, which given the global circumstances is very good news, but in the meantime these guys [the Middle East properties] are doing anywhere between 15% and 20% growth each year. We are astounded by it.

Everyone seems to be talking up India and China. What's your opinion of those markets?

For us, India is still a step or two behind from a development point of view. A lot of what we are doing there will take a little bit longer to get operational. But China, if you look at the growth in China, it is at the same pace or even bigger than the Middle East from a growth point of view.

From a travel market point of view, some of those things remain to be seen, but the number of hotels being signed up in China is incredible.

They talk about signing up a hotel in a secondary city in China, and a secondary city may have nine million inhabitants. There are names in there that in all my ignorance I have never heard of before I saw them on the map. So China is very interesting, and I think you will see a lot of growth there.

It is not a matter of looking years ahead, it is happening right now. It is like the Middle East.

The brands you are bringing to the region are geared towards the top end of the market. Why have you taken this strategy?

It might have something to do with the fact that it is our specialty, which helps. I think people should focus on what they are good at, and I think that is why we are doing so well: people are recognising us for our expertise in the five-star and above arena.

It doesn't mean that we don't see huge opportunities [for lower level brands], which is why we are bringing in aloft and Elements, to support our existing brand Four Points, which is catering to a level slightly below what you would expect from a five-star product.

With aloft, it is a different kind of product. It is for people who are willing to do a number of different things themselves, they don't expect full room service, they are happy to walk into the lobby and pick up different things and pay as they go.

There is a nice pool table in the lobby, people hang out there, there is internet access, and it feels much more like a homely communal atmosphere. It is a very nice product that we believe in strongly, and it will do very well.

The Element brand, which we will hopefully bring to the Middle East soon as well, is basically a long-stay product. Where aloft is a derivative of our W brand, the Element is a derivative of the Westin brand with the same look and feel, but catering to the different needs of the long-stay customer.

I hope to be able to announce that soon. There will be a serviced apartment product.

We have a name that is very well known here, and owners are looking for the expertise of a company like Starwood to run serviced apartments and add value to those destinations.

Where are you seeing the demand from owners and investors in terms of approaching you with opportunities?

I think you can say it is right across the brand spectrum. Our advantage is that we don't have to force owners towards a particular brand. Having the availability of choice and styles with different products for different markets gives us the luxury to pick a brand that suits a particular opportunity.

Together with the owner we will decide the best brand and move forward from there.

That's why it is important for us to bring a brand like Westin to Dubai. Westin is a very well known brand and has a very affluent group of followers in the upper-upscale luxury travel market.

In the Middle East that hasn't been known at all, except by those travellers who have been travelling abroad, so it is good for people to see that back home in order for us to export the Westin brand to other Middle Eastern countries.

People who experience it in Dubai will think 'why can't we do this in Doha?' or 'we should do this in Saudi Arabia', and it is very important that they get to experience it in their own markets.

What do you see as the biggest issue facing the wider hotel industry?

That's very easy - it's people. I think that it is really without a doubt the biggest issue: finding the right talent, retaining the right talent, importing the right talent, supporting the talent in each region, that is what makes the difference.

I am confident that our company, not just in this part of the world but also globally, will be making inroads into providing the right people for the right locations.

That is the advantage that large companies like ours have over other companies, in that the smaller companies would not be able to plug into that.

With the large number of operators and management companies, what makes Starwood better than the others for owners and investors?

We have a track record of success, and we have been in this business for a long time - so our business is lined up with the needs of owners. I think for us being owners ourselves, because we have a number of hotels in our own portfolio, is also important to investors.

But at the end of the day I think the main overriding reason why people come to us is because of our brands. I could talk about our management skills, and that might not set us aside from a lot of our competitors.

What does set us aside is the fact that we have been in the region for 40 years, and the fact that people understand what our brands are all about, and that is extremely attractive to investors.

That is why they want us, and that is why they ask us to run their hotels for them.

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