Katara Hospitality: The next big step

Newly rebranded Katara Hospitality is using its deep pockets to compete on AN equal footing with some of the world’s biggest hotel firms. CEO Hamad Al Mulla explains why.
Katara Hospitality: The next big step
The Lusail Marina property is set to become the hospitality landmark in Qatar.
By Courtney Trenwith
Mon 15 Jul 2013 02:42 PM

A year after Katara Hospitality announced its new name and declared it would more than double its portfolio to 60 hotels and resorts worldwide by 2030, the Qatar-based company has made some significant inroads towards its goal.

In twelve months it has signed memoranda of understanding to develop resorts in prime locations in Gambia and the Maldives, launched refurbishment of three historic properties in France, Italy and Switzerland and acquired the first of three accommodation offerings it will take over from Barwa Real Estate in Doha.

Ground will soon break on what is set to become the company’s most prized asset, Lusail Marina Iconic Development, an architectural attraction epitomising Katara Hospitality’s mantra of staying true to its Qatari history while setting the standard for the future of hospitality.

Katara hopes the crossed swords design of the five-star hotel will become the fast-maturing capital’s version of the landmark Burj Al Arab in Dubai. It is expected to open in 2016, with a goal to serve as the city’s most prestigious hotel during the FIFA 2022 World Cup, which Qatar has won the rights to host.

“Already we’re now in the first [round of inviting] contractors to bid [for construction],” Katara Hospitality CEO Hamad Abdulla Al Mulla tells CEO Middle East during the celebration of the rebranding.

“Within maximum three months you’ll see the site different from now; you’ll find a lot of construction will be there. I hope we’re going to finish the hotel in four years, maximum.”

Formerly known as Qatar National Hotels Company, Katara is the ancient name given to the land now called Qatar, by cartographer Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. The company is the largest hotel investor, developer and manager in the Gulf state and has proclaimed its ambition to become one of the most recognised hospitality organisations in the world.

Backed by sovereign wealth fund Qatar Holding, it already owns some of the most renowned hotels across Europe and Asia, including Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the Royal Savoy Lausanne, the Gallia Hotel Milan, Le Royal Monceau — Raffles Paris, and The Peninsula Hotel Paris.

It also has partnerships with leading brands such as Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton, Marriott International and The Burgenstock Selection.

This year it is expected to open the Royal Savoy Lausanne, the Gallia Hotel Milan, The Peninsula Hotel Paris and The Buddha Bar Paris, which the company says will be a niche entertainment spot.

There are also plans for next year: the opening of Burgenstock Resort Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, completion of a multi-million dollar refurbishment of Tangier’s Tazi Palace and the all-new Comoros Beach Resort.

On top of that, Katara has land in Gambia and the Maldives it is planning to use for more luxury accommodation. The company is presently analysing feasibility studies that have been completed.

“We signed an MOU in the Maldives, we signed a MOU in Gambia, and in Morocco,” Al Mulla says.

“We have the land, but we don’t have the right project [yet]. We have a plan to build a five-star hotel.”

The company has already made a $200m promise to the Gambian government that it will co-develop a resort on eighteen hectares of land within Bijilo Forest Park, near the capital Banjul.

Announcing the development last October, Katara chairman Sheikh Nawaf Bin Jassim Bin Jabor Al Thani said there would likely be many projects in the West African country, which is undergoing a significant amount of economic development.

Al Mulla also reveals to CEO Middle East that he was awaiting the outcome of a bid to purchase a premium hotel in London being operated by an international management company and due to open in September.

It would be the company’s first property in the UK capital, where Katara is keen to make an impression.

“We have an opportunity we’ve initiated in London,” Al Mulla says. “We have to put our mark on London, we have to put our flags in London, that’s why we need to be in London.”

Katara also has enough land in Doha to develop at least another three hotels or resorts.

The company is likely to come under pressure to develop the prime locations in time for the 2022 World Cup to help Doha fill the 50,000-60,000 new hotel rooms it is estimated the city will need to accommodate fans, players and officials.

While any new hotel would be gratefully received and well filled during the summer competition, Al Mulla leaves the impression that Katara will look beyond the short-term guarantees when deciding if and when it will develop new hotels in Doha.

“We have a plan to do something in Doha but it’s not yet confirmed,” he says. “We have three or four lands in prime locations but we still haven’t decided what the plan is, what kind of hotels will be there.

“The first four hotels [in Doha] will be ready by 2016-17, after that we have another two years to think of the right idea to build on the four lands.

“We’re going to try to get them ready for the World Cup.”

While the timing may be under question, the type of property is not. Al Mulla uses no subtlety when he says: “We always deal with a five-star”.

He is also honest when it comes to talking about money. With so many prestigious properties on the go and a desire to double that in fifteen years compared to the 40 years it took to acquire the present portfolio, the obvious question is how such an ambition will be funded.

Cash is the simple answer.

“Don’t forget we own almost fifteen operating hotels, that means the cash is there, we own the cash,” Al Mulla explains.

When asked to reflect on the company’s rebranding, which actually took place two years ago but was only publicly launched in May 2012, and progress towards its mission for 60 hotels in 2030, Al Mulla is positive that it was the right move.

“We are on the right track,” he says.

“Today is the second year for us as Katara. Last year few people knew us as Katara Hospitality. Now 90 percent of the hoteliers and 90 percent of the hospitality sector know us as Katara Hospitality.

“Within a year, it’s a very short time, especially when you think that it took us a year-and-a-half to think [of the name], to prepare the branding.

“Within a year from last year to today we achieved a lot.”

Building partnerships

The Ascott Limited, the world’s largest international serviced residence owner-operator, has been awarded a contract by Katara Hospitality to manage the 200-unit Somerset West Bay Doha.

The management contract follows Katara Hospitality’s acquisition of the serviced residence from Barwa Real Estate. Vincent Wee, Ascott’s managing director for India and Gulf Co-operation Council, said: “There is an increasing demand for serviced residences from expatriates and travellers on extended stay as Qatar’s travel and hospitality segment continues to expand in tandem with its growing economy.

“Katara Hospitality is a leading company with a keen eye for fine quality properties around the world. This partnership will enable us to continue to leverage on Ascott’s global expertise to enhance our guest experience at Somerset West Bay Doha and provide our guests with Ascott’s signature warm hospitality,” he added.

Hamad Al Mulla, CEO of Katara Hospitality, added: “Somerset West Bay Doha has established its reputation as one of Qatar’s most popular serviced residences for relocating expatriates and their families.

“Given Ascott’s strong track record and marketing network worldwide, we look forward to working with Ascott to build upon Somerset West Bay Doha’s repute as an international-class serviced residence.”

Set in the heart of Doha’s business and diplomatic district, Somerset West Bay Doha offers two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Katara hires new COO

Katara Hospitality has announced the appointment of a former Four Seasons executive as its new chief operating officer as it embarks on a period of rapid growth.

US national Christopher RJ Knable previously managed a portfolio of hotels for Kingdom Hotel Investments and has also worked for well known brands including Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts and The Peninsula Hotels.

In his new role, he will work with the CEO to build on the growing success of Katara Hospitality which aims to own or manage over 30 hotels and resorts by 2016 and a further 30 more over the following decade.

“I am delighted to join Katara Hospitality at this moment in time. We are focused on creating and rejuvenating iconic assets around the world in line with Qatar’s renowned tradition of hospitality and I look forward to working with our CEO and management team to build on the success to date as we continue with our programmed growth,” said Knable.

Hamad Abdulla Al Mulla, CEO, added: “Christopher joins Katara Hospitality in the midst of a rapid expansion. His blend of international leadership experience along with his proven ability to bridge the disciplines of investment, development, branding and operations is valuable as we pursue our vision going forward.”

Katara Hospitality currently owns six internationally branded hotels in Qatar.

Its international portfolio includes the Raffles Hotel Singapore and Le Royal Monceau — Raffles Paris.

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