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Tue 17 May 2011 03:07 PM

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We've only just begun

Hospitality giant Wyndham Hotel Group thinks the Middle East is a place where there’s room to grow

We've only just begun
Wyndham Hotel Group CEO and president Eric Danziger says countries may benefit from unrest

Hotelier Middle East has been fortunate enough to interview CEO and president of Wyndham Hotel Group Eric Danziger on a number of occasions.

His love of the Middle East and his position as the head of “the world’s largest hotel company” always suggested the hospitality giant could do a great deal in terms of expansion in the region.

But up until recently, the amount of properties in the Middle East for a company of its size was in all fairness modest.

That is all changing, and the promise of a focus on the Middle East that Danziger emphasised in previous years is coming into fruition with a raft of new properties.

Two months ago, the company announced the first Wyndham Grand and the first Planet Hollywood Hotel for the region - both in Doha - while some of the company’s 15 brands will also be making debuts in the near future.

Yet as unrest in pockets of the Middle East refuses to settle and keeps the region in the spotlight of the world’s travellers for all the wrong reasons, does Danziger feel his focus was ill placed?

“Not at all,” he enthuses, “the United States had a revolution 200 years ago and some countries are born from change.”

And while Danziger stresses he doesn’t have a political view on the unrest, he maintains that “some countries like Egypt may end up being greater, better business opportunities over the long term because of what’s gone on”.

He adds that it is also important to get across the message to consumers that the Middle East is a “big place” and not one state with a lot of cities in it.

“I come [to the Middle East] three or four times a year, it’s that important by the way - each time I come I get more enthusiastic about what’s next and how we can continue to add to that,” he explains.

You certainly get the sense that Danziger is still incredibly excited by the opportunities he sees for Wyndham in the region and is pleased to be focusing on announcements of done deals, rather than discussing potential partnerships.

“I said two years ago that we were deeply committed to the area and you know it takes a while to get inertia going and activity - we’re particularly excited about the whole Gulf,” he says.

There is an acknowledgment that due to the unrest there are “opportunities today, which make us less excited about a couple of places currently”, although he feels in the long term these countries will be fine.

“But in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and some of the other Emirates there are opportunities. In Doha we have a Ramada Encore, we are converting a fabulous hotel to a Wyndham Grand, we announced a Planet Hollywood - so we have a great and growing interest in bringing our brands out here. The company has a couple of Howard Johnsons coming to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. We have 15 brands so we’ve only just begun our expansion into the Middle East really.”

Regional opportunities

Wyndham Hotel Group International vice president, development Middle East and Africa Bani Haddad is responsible for making this focus on the Middle East turn into new signings and hotel openings.

It’s no easy task with more operators fighting for fewer opportunities. So where does he feel the opportunities for Wyndham exist?

“Doha is obviously one of the opportunities, the UAE remains high on the list and clearly Saudi Arabia,” Haddad explains.

“The size of the country, religious tourism and domestic business tourism, makes it significant and there is a lot of our company to bring there. We have the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham, Super 8, we are bringing Wyndham, so there are still a lot of our products that we can bring over there.”

Haddad also feels there is room in the Saudi Arabian market for the branded, extended-stay product, a sector that he believes “is absent at the moment”.

“These are our big markets that we think will be the future in the next year or two,” he adds.

Danziger confirms “Bani has a target!”, but the company doesn’t want to claim ‘x’ amount of hotels by a certain date. “I don’t believe in that,” Danziger says.

“If you do a good job people want to be part of it, so why set a target that you could hopefully do better than? When you do such a good job people will say ‘I want to be Wyndham, I want to be Planet Hollywood, or Ramada, or Super 8, or can I have a Days Inn?’.

“There are 2000 Days Inns in the world, the Gulf states could have a 1000 - I don’t know, but the opportunity is huge, the market is ready for our kinds of brands, not just the top tier, although we have them in Wyndham Grand and Wyndham, and so it’s to our mutual benefit for owners, consumers and me to bring them here.”

The future

Danziger is clearly in no doubt that there are opportunities for some of the company’s current portfolio of 15 brands in the Middle East.

And with such a range of different hotel types to keep an eye on, he would be forgiven for taking his eye off the takeover market, but this will not be the case.

“We are in the business of acquiring brands that are complementary and helpful,” asserts Danziger.

“If we have every type of product that they (consumers/owners) might want or need and it’s within our company then we are there. If you think about the brands we added in the last six months. TRYP by Wyndham, which is a mid-serviced Mediterranean brand in Spain, Dream and Night, Planet Hollywood, they are all very complementary to the ones which existed before.”

While the acquisition of TRYP raised a number of eyebrows in the hotel community, Danziger says because Wyndham is “a global company, we think global and TRYP was a global opportunity”.

And there are certainly no plans to cap any further acquisitions. “Could there be others [acquisitions]? Of course, because we are in that business,” he says.

“Some we will acquire in our future, although I’m not reporting anything, some will convert into the existing 15 brands, some might be complementary and be an additional product. That’s our business, acquiring brands and making sure that they fit in the portfolio.”

The other side of the business is finding hotels that will fit into the existing brand portfolio and this brings up Danziger’s move to make a major shift in the company’s development outlook.

“I don’t want our guys who are in the business of growing hotels to spend a lot of time in a remote destination that our consumer generally isn’t going to, because it’s not value to anyone to have one hotel,” he says.

While not wanting to name a specific country, Danziger divulges the company has pulled back developers from destinations where the group could have acquired a hotel.

But the plan is to get multiple properties in destinations rather than piecemeal properties scattered across the globe.

“I would rather go deep in the Middle East for example, than to say ‘let’s add five new countries that aren’t even around here’, so it’s very focused,” he asserts.

“I think you will see more depth in the markets in areas like here with continued resources - maybe more of a regional office presence as an example - those are the sorts of things that show our commitment to the area.”

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