By Staff writer
“This gives us an opportunity to recruit more of Saudi’s talent”
The Hilton hotel that just opened in Makkah is looking to put its own stamp on the city.
“What we’re trying to do is change the image of Makkah,” Allaf says. “Makkah has always been known as a religious destination. Now, we’re trying to introduce the concept of combining both the performance of umrah and hajj, and specifically umrah, with a business event. Guests are now able to enjoy the comprehensive meeting and business facilities and perform their religious duties with a visit to the great mosque.”
The five-star Hilton Makkah Convention Hotel, which had a soft opening on April 1, is one of Saudi’s largest hospitality properties, boasting 764 rooms and suits, the majority of which have spectacular views of the Great Mosque of Makkah that surrounds Kaaba.
The hotel’s General Manager believes that while its spectacular design and location is its greatest attraction for religious tourists, those looking to conduct their business in the city will find it is the ideal home as well.
“The property has something new that nobody else has in Saudi Arabia, and probably the Middle East,” says Mark Allaf. “This is the first Hilton property that has a convention centre. This is why we’re calling it the Hilton Makkah Convention Hotel, with the largest pillar-less convention centre in the region, with a capacity of around 1,600 guests under one ballroom.”
The hotel has eight additional multi-purpose meeting and board rooms as well as the all day-dining Al Mustafa restaurant, which can seat 1,000 guests; Sahtein, a Lebanese fine dining restaurant; and the Malaysian Indian restaurant, Azure, taking the total food and beverage capacity to 2,000.
Allaf, who has worked with Hilton for more than two decades, has been aggressively promoting the new property across the region and beyond as the preferred venue for governmental and Islamic organisations wishing to conduct business in the holy city.
The hotel’s launch could not have arrived at a more ideal time, with Ramadan set to start this month, and both Eid al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha to come in the summer.
“Ramadan and hajj will create an opportunity from a volume perspective to accommodate the largest number of visitors during that month,” Allaf says. “We’re gearing up to hosting and welcoming all our guests, whether they’re coming to do their umrah during Ramadan, or the last 10 days of Ramadan, which is of course the busiest time of the year for people to be here.”
Special iftar and suhoor meals will be on offer during Ramadan, and the hotel will also be reaching out to the larger visiting Islamic community.
“We will be offering iftar to guests who are fasting around the haram area,” Allaf says. “We will do this as a courtesy to engage with the community, to make sure we can partner with them during the holy month.”
One of the most significant partnerships for Hilton Makkah has been with the Saudi government, both in terms of hiring the hotel’s facility, and in promoting the city.
“For the government, this is very exciting and new because now we’re able to reposition Makkah, to give it a different perspective,” he says. “There’s an opportunity to drive more business to Makkah, commercially this is the idea. At the same time this gives us an opportunity to recruit more of Saudi’s talent. What we pride ourselves on as a property is that we’re aiming at a minimum of 40 percent Saudisation ratio at our hotel.”
Hilton has sought to recruit the finest Saudi talent from hospitality schools and trading schools. Significantly, Allaf is keen to increase the female employee ratio at the hotel.
“Roughly 25 percent of our workforce are female,” he says. “I’m very proud to say that whether they are gentlemen or females we have a very highly educated and intelligent staff. So what we’re working on today is grooming this talent, on creating opportunities for Saudis to become the future leaders in the hospitality industry as part of the Hilton plans to expand our portfolio in the KSA and the Middle East.”
With Saudi Arabia and Makkah looking to transform their images, the sight of females thriving in the hospitality industry is no longer rare. Allaf believes this will become a regular sight across Saudi Arabia in the coming years.
“It’s moving in the direction, things are happening for female talent,” he says. “That shows how eager our female colleagues are to work in a professional industry like hospitality. This is evidence that these opportunities are becoming reality, that now female talent are able to work freely here. I have talent from Jeddah, they come for the day, work and go back. Because they want to work, they want to grow and they want to do something. This is absolutely the time where this environment is creating these opportunities for them.”
The Hilton Makkah’s guests have come from the US and UK, the GCC, Africa and the Levant. Diversity among the staff is vital for the hotel, with many of the employees from the millennial generation, Allaf says.
“We have almost 13 different nationalities of workers at the hotel,” Allaf says. “And because we have a very diverse business mix from different countries around the world, seeing a female at the work place is a normal thing. In fact, it would be strange not to see a female for many of these guests. So I believe we are doing the right thing, the timing is absolutely fantastic.”
A recent study by Al Jazira Capital that was reported in the Saudi press has predicted that religious tourism in Saudi Arabia is set to increase from last year’s total of 17.5 million, to about 30 million by 2025. It also stated that could lead to investments in the city’s infrastructure projects, such as the expansion of Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz Airport and Makkah Metro. Naturally, the number of hotels is set to spike.
“If I may focus on Hilton, we’re still expanding, we’re probably the company that has the largest number of hotels coming to the Middle East and specifically to KSA,” Allaf says. “In Makkah, Hilton Makkah was the latest addition, but we still have several more properties coming to the market. So we’re looking at anything from 4,000 to 6,000 rooms coming only from Hilton, over the next three to four years.”
Among the major properties will be a Hilton Double Tree and Hampton by Hilton.
“We need prime accommodation that is situated right in the heart of the city, overseeing the Haram area, giving the guests the option of commuting and walking directly to the Haram,” Allaf says. “We’re the leading company right now, not only in the Middle East but also in Makkah specifically because we have the largest number of hotels and room/nights arriving to the KSA market soon.”
Though his hotel has been in operation for less than two months, Allaf is ecstatic with the start that Hilton Makkah has enjoyed in the market.
“The feedback has been amazing,” he says. “Our travel partners and agents had so many requests so we opened two months early. We filled all the rooms from day one. We’re running very high occupancy at the moment, at 75 to 85 percent sometimes. Guest satisfaction has been overwhelming. They love the product quality, the service, food and beverage, the rooms and the décor. This hotel is different.”
Makkah has always had a history of trade and commerce. So, in my humble opinion and I might be wrong (Allah knows best), it is OK that this tradition is continued. Also with the participation of hotels.
However I must admit, as a Muslim, that what has happened around the Kaaba is disturbing. Kaaba is the house of Allah and a place of worship, inner reflection and contemplation. Seeing this place being turned into a stronghold of materialism really makes my heart weep. Of course people coming to stay at the Kaaba should have good accommodations and facilities, but the main purpose should be worship.
This will boost jobs and tourism to Makkah and conventions. Congrats to Hilton International and Makkah. I just suggest visitors who come to Makkah should respect their culture and non Muslims should dress modestly and understand Islam a peaceful religions in the world.