Mövenpick Resort and Spa Dead Sea general manager Bruno Huber took a break from hosting HOTEC Middle East to discuss the challenges of operating in Jordan and the country's future.
What challenges do you encounter operating in Jordan?
It's not just Jordan, it's the [whole] Middle East. The main challenge we have in the Middle East is finding qualified labour. In Dubai, The Palm alone needs 60,000 people; human resources in the Middle East is issue number one.
Some countries are faster and others are a bit slower involving local labour. In Jordan we have been able to include them in the hotel and give them some work. Other destinations have these markets of imported labour and the countries they are importing from are drying out, and now they have to try and get local labour, and it's a lot harder.
It's an industry that is already more advanced and you don't have the skill base there. That's the number one issue in the whole area.
The second issue in many countries is the bureaucracy of government: getting equipment in, restricting imports and so on, and because many of the markets are not huge - Jordan for example has only 35 internationally branded hotels - it's not on the top of the pile for any international producers [to supply Jordanian hotels].
They have a limited number of importers here in Jordan, and they ensure a monopoly amongst themselves: ‘I do glassware, you do this, and we don't touch each other'.
That brings them into a monopoly position, so service, and after sales, and delivery on time is not on the top of their list of priorities. I thought it was a problem only here, but I just heard it is the same thing in Dubai.
How does that issue of suppliers affect you?
It affects us with the choice, because we can't get what we would like or it is very hard to get it. It affects us in delivery, and in consistency, because you might have a product one day and not be able to get it.
I had a situation where, in Egypt, there were no Pringles for three months. I had a situation here [in Jordan] where I could not get Nescafe coffee for the in-room coffee sets for three months, we had nothing. Even the big guys are not able to get things through.
It creates delays and shortages, so it affects what you offer the guests. If you make a menu you have to be very careful with what you have on the permanent orders.
Are there different expectations placed on you by local, compared with international, guests?
What is quite interesting is that the Middle Eastern guest is more demanding than the European or Western guests. They have been to London, Paris, New York, and the best hotels, and when someone calls a hotel over here a five-star hotel they want at least the same or better service and products. They ask for things knowing that they can't even get them for their own households.
It's a very demanding market. A western guest makes concessions, they realise they are not in Europe, and they like the atmosphere.
What is also apparent in terms of service is that the Middle Eastern guest does not expect an efficient service, but they are looking for the relationship. The Western guest is more concerned with efficient service, and the friendliness of the waiter isn't as important as making sure the food is good.
This area is all about personal contact. You don't talk to corporations, you talk to people. Here everyone needs to be in touch with the ‘big boss', they want to talk to you and you have to talk to them - the hierarchical levels of communication don't really work. They think ‘if I want a room at the Mövenpick I will call Bruno'. It's very personal.
Building up relationships is everything, if you can't do that you are lost. And they even forgive you for mistakes, because the relationship is more important.
It's a genuine sort of relationship, they want to involve you in their life. Sometimes a customer has a function at the hotel and the next day you get an invitation to dinner at their house. And its flattering, but you are not only doing this with one or two guests, but with hundreds - you have to keep a balance.
Where in the Middle East is Mövenpick looking to expand?
We will look at Oman; and we are having a further expansion in Saudi Arabia also. It's a place not many people know, but the business there is unbelievable. We have quite tremendous growth in Saudi Arabia, not necessarily just with our partners there, Kingdom Group, but also with others who are looking for us to build properties.
It's a virgin market, nobody else is there.
Then there are the two properties everyone is talking about that are a little bit delayed because of the politics, which are the one in Gaza and the one in Ramullah.
The hotel in Gaza is more or less finished, but we are just waiting to move in when the area is considered safe, and with Ramullah it's the same thing. As soon as it is quieting down we will be the first people in the area with international hotels.
In Jordan, Amman is something we are still looking at, but we want to have the right project and the right property that fits into what we have right now. In Dubai we have enough, but in Abu Dhabi we are also looking for more hotels.
In your presentation at HOTEC Middle East 07, you said that Mövenpick was looking to expand to around 100 hotels. Any reason for that figure?
I think there is an important remark on the figure: we want to remain a boutique niche operator.
We have no intention of becoming a 500-unit hotel group. We see ourselves as about 100 hotels - we want to keep the family type atmosphere where it remains a people company and does not become a ‘figure' company. Many people ask us why we are growing so fast, and we say ‘yes, because we need the critical mass of 100 hotels'. There are many things when you have only 50 hotels that you can't do, in terms of distribution, sales centres, toll free numbers - you need to have the critical mass to do that.