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Wed 13 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Wyndham on a roll

As Wyndham Hotel Group ramps up its presence in the Middle East, president and CEO Eric Danziger speaks exclusively to Hotelier Middle East about his bullish and aggressive approach to further development in the region.

Wyndham on a roll
Eric Danziger.
Wyndham on a roll
Martin Armistead.
Wyndham on a roll
Michael Poynter.
Wyndham on a roll
Bani Haddad.

As Wyndham Hotel Group ramps up its presence in the Middle East, president and CEO Eric Danziger speaks exclusively to Hotelier Middle East about his bullish and aggressive approach to further development in the region.

Eric Danziger is one of the leaders in the global hotel industry. As president and CEO of the Wyndham Hotel Group - a role that follows similar leadership positions at the likes of Carlson Hotels and Starwood - he is responsible for a massive 7000 hotels across 11 brands.

But instead of sitting in a swanky corporate office overseeing his empire from afar, Danziger is the man on the ground, travelling the globe in search of new opportunities and meeting personally with hotel owners to discuss their needs.

He paid his second visit to Dubai at the end of last of year - following an appearance as a key panelist at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference in May - and, in between signing deals and meeting partners, took time out to meet with Hotelier Middle East to outline his "aggressive, bullish" Middle East campaign.

Sat in a penthouse at the new Ramada Downtown Burj Dubai - which Danziger was to cut the ribbon later that day - and accompanied by senior members of the Wyndham management team for the region, Danziger's passion for the company's potential in the region came across loud and clear.

"We're out here in force for lots of reasons. When you saw me in May, I think I told you how excited and bullish I was about the future here and all that has happened has been doubled," says Danziger.

"I have made the number one strategic initiative of the Wyndham Hotel Group international growth and within that, a specific focus on Middle East and Asia as the principal growth markets.

"Now when I say principal, keep in mind we are a global hotel company with 11 brands and 7000 hotels so we're in 100 countries, so there's growth all over the world but in a prioritisation manner, it's Middle East and Asia," he explains.

"We have spent a lot of time during the week on a lot of new opportunities, so I only say that to reinforce our sincere and very thoughtful aggressive, bullish campaign against the Middle East growth. And that's why I'm here twice a year myself and will be more," asserts Danziger.

Achievements so far

To say that Danziger's December visit to Dubai and the wider GCC was productive would be an understatement, with several Wyndham stories making the headlines following the trip.

The group celebrated breaking ground on its first five-star hotel in the Middle East, the Wyndham-branded hotel located in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This will join the Ramada portfolio steadily being built up in the region - there are now three in Dubai, one in Ajman, 10 operational in Saudi Arabia, two in Bahrain, one in each of Doha, Jordan and Beirut and two under construction in Abu Dhabi.

Danziger also signed for the introduction of one of the Ramada tiers in Doha, the Ramada Encore, and has another sub brand, the Ramada Plaza, underway in Kuwait.

Adding the Wyndham brand to this collection is obviously a major scoop for Danziger, but by no means will the growth of the company be limited to these two brands.

"One of the exciting features of having 11 brands is we believe that many of those brands have a place of great importance in the Middle East," he says. "Dubai as an example has had many years of luxury growth; well what about the mid-market? There's always a market for people who might want the comfort or the cost of a mid-market.

"Well, we happen to have many of those brands so we're going through a process and a study of which of those brands should be introduced. Is it a Howard Johnson, Days Inn, Wingate, Hawthorn Suites, a Super 8 etc?"

The Super 8 concept might work, continues Danziger, in Saudi Arabia, which has a latent demand for roadside motel-type properties. The country is a strong market for the company - a nearly 1000-room Ramada in Mecca was another signing during Danziger's visit - and there is scope to increase the Wyndham Hotel Group presence there.

"The reason there are so many new Wyndhams and Ramadas in the process now is that we've a little bit of a head start on those, we've been doing those for a couple of years around here. But if you think about Super 8 for instance - now I'm not announcing a Super 8 programme, I'm just discussing the logic - on the roadways in all of Saudi Arabia, there's no roadside properties so people have nowhere to stop at safe, secure comfortable accommodation.

"We certainly believe and are in discussions with people who absolutely believe it more than we do about the need for a Super 8 type product on the roadways in Saudi Arabia. In our mind, smart hotel people should listen to what customers want so they don't put in a product that they want but one that the customer appreciates, values and says that is what I want," asserts Danziger."I absolutely feel like our Mid-East strategy for Ramada and Wyndham is set and its clear, we know who we are, what we are and how big we want to be and then the question is as we begin to introduce our other brands in what way do we do those.

"All of these countries and more have opportunities. There are needs, the question is which brand addresses that need. I'd hate to ever say these are the only ones we are introducing, the Ramada is already well introduced to the area and therefore has a great platform to be able to grow in all the places we aren't.

"Listen, as many places as we said we are which we are very proud of, there are as many places that we aren't, so as long as there are places that we aren't that should have one, that's a target potential.

"In the case of Ramada there's still huge opportunities, in the case of Wyndham, there's massive opportunities because of the places that we aren't," adds Danziger.

Crisis circles

And in terms of pursuing such an aggressive development plan during a economic downturn, Danziger has no qualms.

"I'm really bullish and optimistic about the growth of our businesses in the Middle East. Here's the reality. Dubai is like New York. It's a place in the world that is renowned, [a place] that people want to be in.

The fact that it's in a slump now, so what, it too shall pass. It's a cyclical business. So the fact that Dubai has been over- built the past year or whatever, so what, in two three years it's positioned back again. That's why we're still aggressive about the growth opportunities of our brands in Dubai and we're deeply committed to them," he says.

For Wyndham Hotel Group, the crisis is an opportunity to "separate from the mass", says Danziger.

"The mass has in many cases chosen to reduce operating expenses and cut things out of the hotel. At the end of the day it's the hospitality business so you better be sure that we have hospitality. To the consumer, that's service, that's quality and the value of what you're paying for.

"We've added in most of our hotels all around the world free wireless internet access. And in all the midscale and budget brands it's free breakfast. So we've chosen to add value at a time to communicate to customers the importance with which this company understands their wants and needs."

And for the same reasons, instead of reducing the development team when he took over the company in December 2008 - at the peak of the crisis - Danziger tripled it "because any experience I have had in growing companies was in downtimes".

"From a development perspective, it's all opportunity. It's the best time to tell your story and offer a point of difference that the other companies don't have. We have the attitude that this too shall pass, so there's an opportunity to create immense loyalty with consumers and ownership groups to our company."

And with recent signings to go by, it seems this is an opportunity Danziger is certainly not going to pass up.

Meet the team

Danziger undertook his Middle East tour at the end of last year accompanied by a team of "talented hotel experienced people" focused on this region, carefully built up since he took up the role at the helm of the company just over a year ago.

"You can't say you're a global company and have people for instance just sitting in London, saying that you're running the Middle East. So we have a Dubai office, you have to be dedicated and committed to the areas you want to grow," says Danziger.

Martin Armistead

Senior vice president, development, EMEA, Wyndham Hotel Group

Martin Armistead has 36 years experience in the industry, the vast majority of it in development. Having only been with the company for 100 days during Hotelier's meeting, Armistead says he has "joined Wyndham at what I think is the most exciting time".

"It's a company that I've had enormous respect for before I joined and have even more respect for now. It reminds me of a sleeping bear that's waking up and it's hungry and we are the best untold story in the hotel industry. With 11 brands and 7000 hotels internationally, it's just tremendously exciting for us."

Previously, Armistead worked with Trust House Forte, Millennium and Copthorne Hotels, Conrad at Hilton Worldwide and Regent Hotels, and his remit has always been focused on the Middle East and Africa.

Michael Poynter

Managing director and senior vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Wyndham Hotel Group

With six months at Wyndham under his belt, Michael Poynter says it is "terrific" to be working with the company and with Danziger again - the pair worked together when Danziger originally headed up Wyndham 10 years ago. He has previously held roles with Elegant Hotel Group,Crowne Plaza, Marriott and Carlson all over the world, from the UK and US to Moscow and the Caribbean.

Bani Haddad

Vice president, development, Middle East and Africa, Wyndham Hotel Group

Based in Dubai, Bani Haddad has been responsible for looking after the development of Wyndham's brands in the region for the past two years. Previously, he was involved with the development of Express by Holiday Inn in the region and before that was a general manager in France. He has also worked for Disney, Starwood and Accor.

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