Building a business from a thermal spring in the Italian town of San Pellegrino Terme, what was once a single bottling plant is now a market leader in the mineral water industry, available in more than 115 countries.
Owned by Nestlé — which represents 77 brands of water internationally — San Pellegrino is the group’s flagship Italian brand in the Middle East region, with a significant market presence in Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
However, San Pellegrino’s strongest markets are currently Dubai, Malta for the Mediterranean, and Egypt, which pulls in huge sales for Africa’s distribution zone.
Flowing from a mineral spring at the foot of the Dolomites, the mineral water is produced and bottled in the town of San Pellegrino, located to the North East of Milan.
Mineralised through contact with the rocks underground, the water, which took the name San Pellegrino S.p.A in 1970, is heated by a geothermal gradient until reaching the spring. The Nestlé Group then bought out the company in 1998.
But despite selling 550 million bottles internationally every year in both PET and glass, boosting the popularity of sparkling water in a new region has proved testing for San Pellegrino’s Middle East and Africa area manager, Sandra Husseini. Yet the group is now reaping the dividends.
“The Middle East region is where our sales of the product are increasing greatly. We are witnessing a growth of up to 150% per year,” comments Husseini.
Present in the UAE since 2001, Husseini attributes the boost in the brand’s sales to the relationship with its supplier, Horeca Trade in Dubai, with the brand now distributed to several hotel groups including The Four Seasons, Kempinski, and Sheraton.
“Our previous distributor didn’t share our vision to become a key product in the hospitality sector. Every day a new hotel or cafe is opening, many of which we need to target,” comments Husseini.
“The UAE is a big part of the cake, as its hospitality industry is really booming,” she adds.
Available in 250ml, 500ml and 1ltr glass bottles, Husseini is now hoping to target pool bars with San Pellegrino’s PET range, having already received a positive response from properties like Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah.
Husseini is resolute in her determination, however, to focus on premium outlets — particularly five-star hotels, trendy bars and coffee shops — in order to boost the brand’s image.
“We cannot go below a certain line or we would be considered a mass product. We are quite expensive compared to other waters, as it comes from Italy,” she says.
To promote the beverage fine dining partnerships have been the chief entry route for San Pellegrino in the Saudi Arabian market. But despite high sales, the group has faced a series of challenges in new markets in the region due to strong competition, particularly in Turkey.
Political instability has also placed pressure on the brand’s sales in the Middle East market, especially in Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon.
“Take what happened in Lebanon this summer for example, the hotels were empty and the restaurants were closed, so we had to wait and see what would happen,” she says.
“The Middle East is a challenging market, but it’s interesting as we are still in the launching phase,” she adds.
In order to promote San Pellegrino further, the company is now hoping to develop partnerships with the hospitality industry. Working with sommeliers and restaurant managers, Husseini stresses the significance of serving water correctly, and she advises the positioning of quality water products on restaurant wine lists.
“San Pellegrino cleans the palate and offers the perfect combination with red wine and meat and pasta dishes, so it should be promoted in this way,” explains Husseini.
San Pellegrino is also offering staff training when the product enters a new outlet, in a bid to educate and motivate them about the product. The training session advises waiting staff on how the water should be presented, serving it without ice or lemon.
“It’s easier for waiters to sell local water, but we have to train restaurant staff about San Pellegrino,” she adds.
She also reiterates that San Pellegrino should be served at 8°–10°C, with the bottle kept in a bucket of ice. Additionally, as part of its efforts to maintain relationships on a micro-level with food and beverage managers, San Pellegrino also conducts wine tasting sessions with staff at outlets, incorporating white, red and rose wine together with sparkling, still and tap water. Husseini says this is done in order to taste the difference between the water, and to accentuate the union of water with other beverages.
“Alcohol, liquor, coffee and tea can all be harmonised with water. For example, the stronger the coffee, the stronger the water. It’s something people don’t think about,” she comments.
In addition to running training sessions, Husseini is also busy pushing the San Pellegrino brand into new markets, including Sudan, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Husseini’s wider agenda also encompasses promoting the flavoured varieties of San Pellegrino. Made with 12% fresh fruit, which is mixed with the carbonated mineral water, the products were introduced in the UAE last year, with plans to gradually expand into other countries in the region.
In order to promote the orange, lemonade, red orange, mandarin and citrus varieties further, Husseini is also hoping to highlight that these beverages are ideal mixers for cocktails, therefore pushing the brand to have a presence in cocktail bars across the region.
“We’re still penetrating the market, but we have to be at the top. We still have a long way to go,” Husseini adds.
"We cannot go below a certain line or we would be considered a mass product"
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