By James Bennett
The hotel industry may be one of the most lucrative and fastest growing in the Gulf, but it also has its own unique challenges. James Bennett meets Bahram Sepahi, regional vice president of Four Seasons in the Middle East, to talk trends, timing and terrorism.
Running a hotel is all about timing. Get that right and you have thousands of not only satisfied, but also repeat customers who will willingly self-market your property, spreading the word about the greatest experience of their lives. Unfortunately, timing can also have a way of surprising you, both positively and negatively.
And Bahram Sepahi has had first-hand experience. Having spent the majority of his career in the US luxury hospitality industry first as guest services manager at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Chicago; then director of rooms at the Four Seasons Resort and Club in Dallas, Texas for nine years; followed by hotel manager of its Washington branch in 1996, he decided that he had done his time in the US and that he and his family needed a radical change.
We always had heightened security alerts but the night of the compound attacks was probably the beginning of the most stressful time we ever had at the hotel.
The shift, however, was a bigger one than he or his family could ever have expected. In June 2001 the Sepahi clan relocated 6000km to Riyadh where Bahram secured the position of general manager at the Four Seasons hotel - one whose iconic arch-like tower offers one of the most dramatic views of the sprawling city.
If it was a change he wanted, that was exactly what he got. Sadly the timing was all wrong. Three months later a band of highly trained Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked several planes only to fly them into the heart of America's financial district, sending shockwaves of panic and outrage across the world. But the timing of the move was only to get worse. Two years after taking his Saudi post Riyadh experienced its own 9/11. On May 12, 2003 the Kingdom witnessed its worst ever suicide attack.Once again attributed to Al Qaeda, it was the first in a wave of deadly attacks to hit Saudi's expat community and the deadliest strike on Americans that year, killing 35 people and wounding a further 160. Sepahi remembers that day vividly. "We always had heightened security alerts but the night of the compound attacks was probably the beginning of the most stressful time we ever had at the hotel," he says, staring into the distance.
"We had a ballroom full of people including royalty and top businessmen and we had staff in the compounds, some that were injured, so we had to take immediate crisis management action." The now-regional vice president of Four Seasons in the Middle East, that includes properties in Amman in Jordan; four hotels in Egypt including the recently opened Alexandria property; Doha in Qatar; Damascus in Syria; and the Dubai Golf Club and a future hotel to be opened in the emirate in 2010; has built up a reputation for strong leadership, and you can see where he got his experience - at first hand.
"You do what you have to do at the time," he says modestly. "It was a matter of responding to the information we had and protecting the guests and employees first and foremost, and then the property. You have to take immediate action and ensure to the best of your ability that everybody is informed and has a chance to be given our best attention. Not that we can protect everyone, but you do what's reasonable and get through it."
While much of Riyadh was asleep and Sepahi's guests were enjoying a meal in the ‘Seasons' restaurant, five vehicles drove through the city; two carried heavily armed assault teams, while three were packed with explosives. Their targets were three compounds: The Dorrat Al Jadawel, owned by the London-based MBI International and Partners subsidiary Jadawel International, the Al Hamra Oasis Village, and the Vinnell Corporation Compound, owned by a Virginia-based defence contractor that was ironically training the Saudi National Guard. All housed large numbers of Westerners.
"It was a difficult task but we got through it. We worked through the night to get all the guests home, getting guests into the hotel who had to seek safe haven. Many of our employees and business clientele had lost their homes so we put them up at the hotel."
At 6am, exhausted but unbowed Sepahi visited his staff and the families that were injured, then organised and took part in the clean-up operation, as part of the first crew to enter the compound with an initial group of 22. "This was nowhere near enough," he explains. "We ended up with 45 people with yellow T-shirts in the middle of a disaster zone, and I can assure you no one knew what to do, including the local authorities.
"They were all stunned as to what had happened and the level of devastation. We went in to secure our people's belongings and recover what was recoverable from their homes. It took a staff of 42 from 9am till 2pm the next day to do that. But you end up dealing with these things."
Interestingly, however, neither 9/11 or the horrific compound bombings caused the biggest downturns in the Gulf hospitality industry, says Sepahi. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic between November 2002 and July 2003 saw the largest slide in occupancy figures ever witnessed by him and the company.
"People don't realise that SARS had a much bigger impact on our business than terrorism at the time. September 11 had an immediate knockout punch on the business, but once people came out of their stunned state, and asked themselves ‘what are we going to do?', they decided to move on and get on with things as normal," he says. "With SARS there was no manoeuvrability, it just killed the business. We were running hotels in the single-digit occupancies. At least with terrorism it doesn't avoid anybody. You today have to decide how you are going to live certain parts of your life and judging when and how you will be safer or just say ‘what the heck, you know what, I could die in a car crash someday or a plane, so I'm going to do what I do, it's my life'."
The SARS outbreak, which infected over 8000 people globally, killing close to 800 individuals, caused a global restriction on movement, preventing millions from travelling to and from hotels in the Gulf and "seriously impacted our business in Asia right the way through to Canada," adds Sepahi.
But despite witnessing and feeling the aftershock of some of the world's most traumatic events, Sepahi is philosophical about his time in Saudi Arabia and the future.
"We had a great life in Saudi, the timing was very bad, but you move on. Being from this part of the world things evolve. Our world, in a global sense, continues to be a melting pot.
"What we try and bring to our various hotels is how to consider someone else's way of life and traditions. Each location is different from the next and that's the beauty of variety."
The regional chief certainly left his mark on the Riyadh property. It is now the best performing hotel in the country and one of Four Seasons' flagship hotels, chaired by the charismatic HRH Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud, who earlier this year acquired the group with Microsoft founder Bill Gates for US$4.5bn.
"Setting up a world-class operation in the middle of all that mess was a learning, but also a very fulfilling experience," says Sepahi. "If you look at the performance of that property today it is the leading hotel in Saudi, not just in terms of what it offers to people but also financially."
Although all the Riyadh property's staff are all male, he adds that many people are surprised as to the mix of the market that the hotel enjoys. "Naturally, we have business people who come to us, as is the case in most of our hotels in the region. On a significant basis you have a foundation of business travellers but you also have leisure travellers and Saudis from all walks of life.
"You'd be amazed, we had countless honeymooners who'd come to the hotel for the weekend.
"There wasn't a single bad room in the hotel. All of them are between the 30th and 48th floor of this magnificent tower overlooking the city."
Since 2003 the 46 year-old business has gone from strength to strength with 76 locations in 34 countries worldwide, and Sepahi expects this to grow at an even faster rate in the future. It has 20 hotels under development with a large portfolio of those in the Middle East, says Sepahi. "That's a three to five-year perspective, but when you look beyond that for the next five to 10 years, you probably have an equal amount of project potential.
"On a routine basis we're solicited for interest to participate in projects around the world. Over the next 10 years this company could easily double in size to be the biggest of its kind in the world.
"Within the world-class, deluxe operator segment, we operate the most amount of properties worldwide. That will only continue to be the case, and we will undoubtedly lead that category. In the Middle East alone we operate in nine locations today, with the Dubai Four Seasons to be completed in 2010. This will be a staggering property beside the Creek, with boats taking guests to the planned opera house."
If timing is everything in hospitality, Sepahi has ridden the rough times and emerged the wiser for it. Today, his and his company's time has surely come.