Hotels & hospitality

Reel in the talent

With the majority of operators outlining hugely ambitious growth strategies for the Middle East, the competition for recruiting and retaining talent has never been fiercer. How can a hotel company best position itself as an employer of choice in the region? Ben Bengougam, vice president, Human Resources, EMEA for Hilton Worldwide, and his corporate counterpart at Rotana, Joseph Abu Yaghi, discuss. 

The next few years are poised to see major growth in the hotel industry across the Middle East. Virtually every international operator has earmarked the region as a key area for development, leading to a record number of properties in the pipeline and a palpable sense of anticipation.

Starwood has said it will ‘aggressively expand’ within the region, doubling its Middle Eastern hotel portfolio by 2019. As well as opening 50 luxury properties, it recently signed five new hotels under the mid-market Aloft and Element brands.

IHG currently has 75 properties in the Middle East, and will open another 25 over the next three to five years, while Accor Group is targeting 30,000 rooms by 2020. Both Hilton and Marriott plan to add around 80 properties to their MEA porfolios, Carlson-Rezidor will continue its present rates of expansion, and we are scheduled to see nine new Hyatt-branded hotels by 2017.

This is not just about jumping on a bandwagon. While mature markets typically offer 10 or more hotel rooms per 1,000 inhabitants, the Middle East averages only two, and for savvy operators the region represents a little-tapped source of potential. As Qatar gears up for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and Dubai takes steps towards its Tourism Vision 2020, the Middle East is attracting more visitors than ever before and demand for hotel rooms is surging.

Stop the poaching

That said, the battle to attract guests is only one piece of the puzzle. Before this can happen, operators have another fight on their hands: recruiting and retaining the best hospitality talent, without seeing this talent poached by their equally ambitious rivals. Because hundreds of new hotels means thousands of new jobs, the competition for skilled hoteliers has never been fiercer.

“There are very aggressive expansion plans among the different hotel chains, and that’s creating a war of talent,” says Joseph Abu Yaghi, corporate vice president of human resources at Rotana. “That’s not a secret – most HR leaders within the region know this is a challenge moving forward, because obviously we’re all recruiting from the same pool of applicants. That’s putting us under pressure to do things differently.”

Rotana, like its international adversaries, is growing fast, with new hotels due to open in Amman, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Al Khobar, Jeddah and Doha to name a few. However, this Abu Dhabi-based operator has an edge: having started life in the Middle East, it knows exactly what it takes to capitalise on this market. From modest beginnings in 1993, Rotana is now the largest hospitality management company in the region, and plans to reach 100 hotels by 2020.

“We tend to forget that Rotana is a relatively young company, and that we are competing with main international hotel chains that have been in the industry for a much longer time,” says Abu Yaghi. “What differentiates us is that, because we’re young and relatively small, our decision making process is much faster. We open five or six hotels per year, and we look internally within the organisation to make sure the right people are given the opportunity to grow with Rotana.”

From a hiring perspective, Rotana’s deep involvement with the Middle East creates certain strategic advantages. In a region with a sizeable expat community, international operators have thrived (in fact, it is difficult to allude to their staffing practices without mentioning the phrase ‘melting pot’). Although Rotana, which plays host to over 80 nationalities, is really no different in this regard, it holds a special lure for the homegrown workforce.

Over the last few years, its proportion of local workers has notably increased. When its Sudanese hotel, Al Salam Rotana, opened in 2007, the workforce was 20% local, 80% expat; today the ratio is reversed. A similar situation applies in Turkey, where the company is working hard to attract more Turkish applicants.

Home-grown talent

Within the Middle East itself, Rotana runs a nationalisation programme aimed at nurturing local talent. This not only opens the door to many skilled workers, who may not come from a traditional hotel background; it also allows the company to position its services as authentic Emirati hospitality.

“We do as much as we can to become part of the society we’re operating in,” explains Abu Yaghi. “Our Duroob programme targets nationals in countries like Saudi, or Oman, or the UAE, or Qatar, or Bahrain – we want to give them opportunities to get on board, to develop them and to make them future leaders within the organisation.’

“We’ve been advising our HR leaders not to follow the traditional recruitment approach and eliminate applicants just because they have not worked within a hotel; we want to give a chance to people who are ambitious, who have the right attitude and personality to work in the service industry, regardless of what experience they have.”

Rotana is not the only company that thinks this way. Hilton Worldwide, which has 50 hotels in the Middle East and some 65 in the pipeline, is adamant that a lack of formal experience should pose no impediment to success.

“Across the Middle East, we run different training and management programmes targeting both expatriate and local populations,” says Ben Bengougam, vice president of human resources EMEA. “We want to be innovative, provide the best training programmes in the business, and in turn unearth the best talent. In Saudi Arabia we run a host of Saudiazation programmes where we are very proud to have increased our number of female team members by 50% year on year, while our Mudeer Al Mustaqbal (Manager of the Future) programme aims to develop Saudi nationals in front office roles.”

All this said, attracting and developing talent is only half the battle. Across all industries in the Middle East, one well-documented HR challenge is retention. For many expat workers, the region is somewhere to stop over, rather than to forge a long-term career.

While Bengougam and Abu Yaghi agree this does occur, they are keen not to frame it as a problem. Bengougam points out that Hilton has always placed a strong focus on mobility within its hotels and brands.

“Our team members know that there are great opportunities for long-term development and career growth within the company,” he says. “By way of example, a front office clerk who joins a Double Tree in Dubai, might well be the general manager of a Hilton or a Conrad hotel in London, New York or Cairo in 10 or 15 years. We recently placed a general manager at our Conrad hotel in South Africa, who joined Hilton Worldwide in 2001 in one of our management training programmes, and there are countless of examples like this where we recruit train, develop and retain talent.”

“The Middle East is a great place to be, at least for a while,” adds Abu Yaghi. “Any hotelier would be anxious to have the experience on their resume, not to mention the fact that dealing with colleagues from so many different backgrounds is an enriching experience. Actually we see a number of expats who intend to stay.”

Security equals loyalty

The concern, then, is not so much whether or not a recruit will remain in the region, as whether they retain a loyalty to the brand. Abu Yaghi says that for many of Rotana’s employees, the big draw is job security – unlike most of its competitors, the company made no staffing cuts during the financial crisis, and has gained a reputation for judicious hiring and firing. During periods of political and economic instability, the knowledge a person’s job will still be there for them may count for more than higher pay.

Bengougam, meanwhile, believes Hilton’s employees are primarily looking for career progression.

“As an HR organisation we have established a laser focus on providing a great environment, great rewards and great careers for our team members,” he says. “It is clear from our internal survey results that our team members want to believe their efforts are more than just a ‘job’, and the opportunity to be able to create career paths for people joining this dynamic business is critical to our success.”

As more hotels open, and international brands bed deeper into the Middle East, it is clear these issues will become ever more salient. Only the most targeted approach to talent management will suffice.

As Bengougam puts it: “Delivering a great product is important, but engaging the hearts and minds of talented employees is what differentiates the great companies from the good ones, and makes it possible for the great ones to withstand the test of time.”

This article appears in the Autumn 2015 edition of Hotel Management Middle East

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