Fairmont's regional VP Philip Barnes shares his insight into the hospitality industry with Edward Poultney.
Philip Barnes is in a good mood and no wonder.
As VP of The Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Middle East VP he is at the helm of one of the region's most successful hospitality groups.
People are not as reluctant to go further and stay longer, while seeking something beyond the bland sun and sand combination.
And he is adamant that the tourism industry is growing at such a rate that it is more than capable of overcoming any recent upheavals.
"Governments have recognised the value of tourism far more than they used to; they've realised that the value of the trade is huge. Traditional destinations are actually losing market share because other countries have realised the value of attracting this business. Look at Dubai and look at the huge volume of income that it's worth to the hotels, shops, parks..."
The tourism trade is indeed big business, annual revenues from consumer trade amounted to over US$2 trillion in 2007 alone. The Fairmont's expansion is the perfect indicator to how the development has shot up in the region in the last five years.
Barnes sums it up: "There's an awful lot happening when you consider that in 2002 we had the Fairmont Dubai and that was about it.
"Our biggest expansion in the region at the moment is on The Palm [Jumeirah]; it encompasses over 1,300 unbranded apartments plus two hotels. So that's obviously a huge project along with everything that goes with it in terms of staff housing, laundry and just all the logistical challenges of working somewhere like The Palm."
In addition to the Palm developments, which are scheduled to come online gradually over the next two years, the group is also undertaking a project in Abu Dhabi and another in Fujeirah in conjunction with Sheikh Sultan, the owner of the Fairmont Dubai. Two more UAE developments are also yet to be announced in the capital and in Al Ain.
Outside of the UAE the Fairmont is involved in launches in Oman, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as well as three signature hotels in Cairo, all opening their doors to the public this year. There are further developments planned for India, Africa and the Seychelles.
"The Middle East went through a huge spurt of growth in the 1970s, when there was a huge amount of investment in tourism and facilities. Then, other than in Dubai, there was really a bit of a lull," explains Barnes. "A lot of properties out there are a bit dated and don't really meet the needs of today's travellers so there's a huge amount of opportunity."
That opportunity coincides with a sharp rise in the amount of travel undertaken by the general public. With relatively in-expensive air fares, people are not as reluctant to go further and stay longer, while seeking something beyond the bland sun and sand combination.
"Travelling used to be a privilege, but now it's a right," says Barnes.
"People are looking for new destinations, and ones that are indicative of that region and culture. The general public is now much better informed, all you have to do to find out about a destination is go to Google and it's all there. I took my kids to Kenya just before Christmas. You go to see something authentic, you're not going to see lions in the wild at Disneyland, or get a feel for the history of Egypt anywhere else."
Kenya is a perfect case study for the political uncertainty that always hovers on the edges of some of the more exotic destinations. The violence that swept the country following contested elections swept away in a week the image of peaceful stability that had prevailed for the last half century. The hospitality sector in particular felt the brunt as bookings for the quintessential African safari destination bottomed out overnight.
"It came out of nowhere for our guys who are operating out there," admits Barnes. "In the world in which we live, people realise that there is risk everywhere. While the troubles were going on there, inbound tourism ground to a halt; the question is - how long will it take to get going again?"The engagingly happy Brit remains optimistic for the long term, however: "If something happens and continues, then you see a decline in traffic, but if it's seen to be resolved then things pick up again within three to six months."
The speed at which events can be relayed around the world is indicative of new expectations in the levels of luxury that guests expect.
In his 35 years in the industry, Barnes has seen quite a few changes, the most all-encompassing of which is the attention to time: "The perception of time has changed: technology plays a huge role now. You have to have secure high speed internet; you have to have things like power points above desks; you have to have 24 hour in-room dining options. It used to be that you would arrive at 7 am and everybody was just waking up from going to bed at 11, now a hotel is a 24 hour operation. I'm still stunned at people in the tourism industry, not just hotels, who don't understand this and work around their customers."
The traditional aspects of making the trade a success remain the same; great food and beverage outlets, fast check-ins and check-outs and, above all, great service.
Barnes is adamant that the 'people factor' is what can make, or break, a destination. "You can have the best product under the sun but if you don't have the people it just won't work. That's not just for the hotel - it's airlines, restaurants, even taxi drivers can make a huge difference to how people perceive a destination. The best advertising is still definitely word of mouth."
To make sure that the group attracts and retains the best people amid an increasingly large competition base the Fairmont has set up a range of procedures to ensure employee satisfaction.
"Well, for a start we don't call them employees," Barnes reprimands me with a grin. "They're colleagues. Our staff housing is the best in the city for quality of rooms, lounges, there's free high speed wireless internet throughout. It's all about thinking how you would like to be treated if you were there."
"Every year we ask them to fill in a comprehensive form to engage them and see how we can improve. We look to develop the managers of the future from our existing colleagues. They're committed to us because they know that we are committed to them."
Seeing my slightly doubtful look Barnes is quick to respond: "I know a lot of companies talk about this, but I just shake my head because I know that it's lip service. I hear it from their colleagues, they tell me. If you're going to go out and talk about these things then you'd better do them."
Another key differentiator by which Barnes sets the Fairmont apart from its competition is in having a local presence.
He emphasises the need for hotels to make themselves a part of the local community to which end the staff at the Fairmont Dubai recently undertook an "environmental day" helping to clean up one of the local beaches.
This attitude typifies the brand throughout the world. "We want to be part of the community, not just take money out but actively play a role. The hotel in Vancouver [where Barnes was based until last summer] has been hosting every single charitable event in the city since it opened in 1939. And some aren't lucrative, but that's just what we do."
This community engagement, staff excellence and a touch of local difference to each project is what Barnes believes sets the Fairmont brand apart from the other luxury hotels in the region.
"We see ourselves in the luxury set," he explains, "we aren't competing with the Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, who we see as the ‘super' luxury set - although in some markets we do compete directly - but we are above the ‘pack' hotels, that I won't name as there'll be contracts out on my life!" he laughs.
From his base in Dubai Barnes goes out to oversee the various projects springing up under his supervision across the region, averaging roughly half of his working week travelling to one development or another from one end of the region to the other.
While it is not a lifestyle that suits everyone, it is one which seems to suit the jovial executive. "I'm blessed, I'm doing something I love. I don't know where it's going to take me next but it's allowed me to go all around the world, to work on four continents. I'm having a whale of a time, I'm just fearful that someone's going to take me off it one day!"
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