Hotel News Middle East catches up with Harry Fernandes, general manager Assila Hotel Rocco Forte, about his plans to help transform the hospitality industry in Saudi Arabia
The Assila Hotel Rocco Forte, in Jeddah, is the luxury hotel brand’s first property to open in the Middle East and its positioning in Saudi Arabia was no coincidence, says general manager Harry Fernandes.
“Assila is our first hotel in the region and people ask, why didn’t you open in Dubai?” he says.
“We feel the Saudi market is so important for us and it is an important place to make our brand known, a lot of the other hotels in the group are known by their individual names rather than being known as Rocco Forte.”
He describes the process of opening a Rocco Forte hotel in Jeddah as very much a step-change.
“We are very much owner-led, unlike other brands where you don’t know who owns the company,” he says, referring to owner Rocco Forte.
The Saudi Vision 2030 is very much something that Fernandes is eager to tap into.
“It is still a new market, a lot of the business into Jeddah and Saudi Arabia is very much GCC-led,” he says.
“Jeddah itself is very much a religious travel destination, a lot of the economy is moving away from the oil-based revenue to a more tourism-based revenue stream.”
Echoing one of the key pillars of the Saudi Vision – to increase the number of Saudi people in the workforce – 40% of the 460 staff members at The Assila Hotel Rocco Forte hail from the kingdom.
Fernandes is keen to point out that his commitment to the Saudi Vision 2030 doesn’t stop at staffing, however.
“We also have a lot of women working here, unlike a lot of hotels in the region, we have front of house and we have chefs who are all ladies,” he says.
“We are contributing in own way. Saudi Vision 2030 is not just about Saudisation, it is about becoming self-sufficient and getting away from oil. The local staff want to work in hospitality and the greatest thing is that we can contribute to the Saudi Vision 2030 by helping the country to be self-sufficient with their own needs.”
Fernandes says that many popular perceptions about Saudi Arabia are incorrect and that the people of Jeddah are warm and friendly – and he intends for his hotel to reflect this.
“I try to be more front of house with the team, I write personalised cards to all the guests which I think is the essence of hospitality,” he says.
“I am very much involved with the training of the team to direct them and give them the right tools. I try to ensure that I am involved just as much with the social element and in the course of my day, I spend 40- 50% of my time on the floor greeting visitors. That’s where I drive the team forward.”
The social aspect is vital to the success of the hotel, says Fernandes, which is why he organises a number of sporting events to help the multi-cultural staff bond together.
Another area that Fernandes feels is vital for the future success of the property is adapting to the ever-increasing hunger for social media.
“Saudi is the largest user of YouTube all over the world,” says Fernandes, referring to a recent report by Reuters.
“As a company, we are not that used to doing so much social media as we are very much a Euro-centric brand.
“What has changed is that a lot of people are attached to their mobile phones, email is not the norm when it comes to communication. We have had to adapt very quickly to the use of Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram and many others that are emerging every day
He says there is no choice but to respond to what the market needs.
“We have an in-house team and a PR company that is locally based to help us constantly put out content to keep ahead of what everyone else is doing,” he says.
Fernandes freely admits that corporate social responsibility is not something that people immediately associate with Saudi Arabia – however he is determined to play his role in changing those perceptions.
“Saudi is not always used to recycling as it doesn’t always appear highly on the agenda,” he says.
“What we have done from the beginning is work with a food-based company for waste management. We also have sorting of waste on each floor and we are working with companies locally who can help with that.”
He is adamant that the standards that Rocco Forte sets for itself will place the hotel in good stead for future success.
“We are bringing a different brand of hospitality to the region; sometimes we take hospitality for granted,” he says.
“What we have from our founder Rocco Forte, is that he is highly critical of everything; second best is not an option. I believe if something is good I say it’s good… but I want great.”