As Preferred Hotels and Resorts makes steady headway in the Middle East, Hotel News ME hears from Saurabh Rai, executive vice president for South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australasia on the company’s key growth markets and how the online channel is the missing link between the consumer, key experiences and a hotel.
Charismatic, charming and full of life are all terms that could be used to describe Preferred Hotels and Resorts executive vice president for South Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australasia, Saurabh Rai. But nothing best encapsulates this young leader’s drive for the industry like his passion for the job.
Having begun his career with Preferred Hotels and Resorts in 2008 as director of global sales and development for India and the Middle East, Rai quickly progressed up the career ladder. Becoming director of South Asia and the Middle East just one year after his initial entry into the company, closely followed by a second promotion to area managing director in 2014, which led him into his latest tenure as the company’s executive vice president for the Middle East, Africa and Australasia.
Throughout his time with Preferred Hotels and Resorts, it’s no surprise that Rai has been integral to the brand’s development across the region, growing the portfolio in India from two properties to 29, alongside enhancing its presence across the Middle East and inking partnerships with the likes of Katara Hospitality and Palazzo Versace Dubai.
Tasked with the opening of the company’s new regional headquarters in Dubai at the start of 2016, Rai brings with him over a decade worth of experience, but landing up with a career in hospitality was no accident for the young hotelier. “Getting into the hospitality industry was no coincidence. I did both my graduate and post graduate degrees in hospitality. I always knew this was something I wanted to pursue. Having graduated from Huddesfield University in the UK to then doing my and post-grad with the Oberoi Hotels in India,” Rai explains.
Placing him in good stead for his part in Preferred’s success, following his academic stints, Rai kick-started his career in the operations department with leading brands including the likes of Taj Hotels, Oberoi and The Imperial until opening the office for Preferred hotels and Resorts in south Asia at the start of 2008.
“When I joined in 2008, it was still early days for the brand in the South Asian region where we only had two hotels in our portfolio. I then managed to increase our offering to around 38 up until my departure in 2015.”
Notably, Rai has grown in tandem with the company, but beyond his personal success, credit lies with the company’s partner hotels and team members he says: “It was fantastic to set up set up an office in South Asia and not only grow the portfolio of hotels, but also being able to set up a formidable team which has now been able to take control in the region and stand on its own two feet. Which is why I can now branch out to not only look after South Asia, but the Middle East and Australasia –the region’s we oversee out of the new Dubai office.”
Touching on milestone career events, Rai adds: “Not only growing a team, but building a credible team that lays the sole foundations for a region has to be one of my biggest career achievements and that’s what keeps on propelling me upwards. It is less about what the designation reads on the business card and more about being able to carry bigger responsibilities for you and your team.”
Alongside his quick career progression has come added responsibilities, and Rai insists that, “it’s not just about the job title on your business card, it is about becoming accountable for the people around you, dealing with hotel operators, finances, you become responsible for much of operations and at the same time you have to deliver key financial objectives.” Not one to buckle under pressure, he adds: “I thrive in under developed territories, it gives me great pride to make my mark on the industry and watch the portfolios expand.”
Currently Preferred Hotels and Resorts represents more than 650 hotels, resorts, and residences across 85 countries tapping into a vast portfolio of hotels ranging from business, leisure, properties that speak to foodies, arts and culture lovers, millennials and families, which is why the company deemed it necessary to open a Dubai based office. “The Middle East has a diversified business culture and Dubai is a melting pot for innovation which is why it is a great example of the diverse capabilities that the hospitality industry has to offer,” explains Rai.
Offering insight on how the transition from South Asia to the Middle East will prove beneficial, he adds: “When you work in these diverse climates it lends itself to who you become as a professional, therefore making it easier for you to personally embrace international business cultures.”
Despite the enormity of Asia’s economy and hospitality industry, there are very few similarities to the Middle Eastern markets according to Rai: “In a lot of ways Asia is a super huge-market like the Middle East, but there really is very little that the two regions have in common which in all of its contrast is beneficial to us. A broad spectrum of exposure to different markets has helped us execute our business here in the Middle East.”
The preferred platform
With various online booking platforms globally available, Preferred Hotels and Resorts offers a “strategic advantage to hotel owners, operators and management companies”, according to Rai through brand prestige and unified operating goals. He explains: “As a hotelier, I can tell you that booking platforms are generally one of the same – they all rely on technology based systems and infrastructures. The technical specs may vary, but the functionality is almost identical.”
Insisting that Preferred attracts a select type of customer, Rai adds: “Where Preferred hotels and Resorts becomes a unique space is we are the real campaigners of independent hotels. You can separate travellers into two categories; Firstly, someone who is a brand loyalist but perhaps not as adventurous. Secondly you have the free spirited traveller, someone who is seeking experiences in independent hotels. Preferred Hotels are all about giving a global personality to our independent hotels alongside key experiences for our travellers.”
Matching personalised experiences with the right hotel is also key on Preferred’s agenda – something other booking platforms inadequately provide argues Rai: “A booking engine is just a very small piece of our overall commitment to our consumer and partner hotels. What we stand for is a brand, that in principal is under represented in a key feeder market, it is then our job to bridge the gap between the hotel and the guests looking for that personalised experience. In many ways, we act as an extended, sales, marketing, branding and loyalty distribution technology partner for our independent hotels. A booking engine would just sit in the electronic distribution piece and go no further and that’s how broad the spectrum of our landscape is.”
As an online medium, it is imperative for Preferred Hotels and Resorts continued success to be up to date with the latest technologies available on the market, as the company is dedicated to taking the load off of hotels trying to finding new tech- partners, Rai explains: “We work with some of the world’s leading tech brands such as Sabre Hospitality Solutions and SynXis who is the booking engine platform, and they both call us a ‘super-user of the technology because we are the largest lodgings, hotel partner that they have worldwide.”
Middle Eastern ties
Preferred Hotels and Resorts has significantly enhanced its presence in the Middle East over the past two years with aggressive plans to target new markets to develop its regional footprint further. Having already made significant headway, Rai explains: “Over the past 24 months, we’ve come up from just eight hotels in the Middle East to 22; we’ve expanded or reginal presence and we now cover all key Middle East locations, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman Qatar and Bahrain.”
Revealing the scale of this growth, he adds: “We’ve had almost 1,700% growth in the reservation contribution to our hotels and close to 1,400% in the revenue we’ve booked in our hotels. When we’ve grown our portfolio, the growth percentages are more about additional business being parked in the hotels, bearing in mind that the Middle East wasn’t a mature market for us we’ve done extremely well.”
With the company recently inking a deal with the soon to be open, Dukes Dubai, Rai insists that despite future partnerships, a key focus for 2017 will be enhancing existing relationships, as he explains: “We still have a pipeline for the remainder of 2016 but our biggest commitment is to make sure that the new mass that we have acquired in 22 hotels are all serviced well.”
Discussing other focal points for the coming 12 months, Rai adds: “We are also considering North Africa which is now being serviced out of the office in Dubai. Having monitored international travel trends we thought it best to remove the operations from Paris, considering that Middle Eastern travellers are in fact keeping the North African tourist destinations in business. We would also like to expand in Abu Dhabi, where we currently only have one hotel and we still need to enter, Lebanon, Morocco and Egypt.”
With many hotel brands launching their own booking systems and campaigns, essentially trying to push out OTAs, Rai insists that the OTAs aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. “Independent hotels need to be friends with the OTAs. They have the single largest deployable funds for electronic marketing, therefore ensuring a supreme level of proactive consumer outreach and engagement.”
He argues that “independent hotels cannot afford to take on the OTAs” and that hotels must be doing more to convert repeat business, adding: “OTAS are just platforms for completing transactions, hotels need to identify that they do a great job of bringing in new business, but what many hotels fail to do is convert an OTA guest into a direct booking. If a hotel is getting repeat business from an OTA, then they aren’t doing their job right. Guests aren’t booking a second time through an OTA because they liked the service – they are rebooking because they like the hotel, the experience and facilities, therefore hotels need to capitalise on this.”
Despite being a new player in the Middle Eastern Market, Rai envisions that defining trends over the next 12 months across the hospitality industry will not only be the shifting dynamics of OTAs, but that 2017 will be a year of “rate stabalisation” and offer “correction in the market.”
He says: “Construction pipelines have slowed down as owners and investors have undergone a sense of caution due to economic circumstances, the declining oil prices and to some extent political instability across neighbouring regions, but Dubai will always be a successful market due to its diversity. It seems that Qatar and Saudi will need to take steps to encourage other revenue streams aside from oil generated incomes, and both governments are trying to boost tourism streams to encourage this.”
With the likes of Dubai Parks and Resorts entering the region, Rai insists that entertainment is a key theme for success and will play an instrumental role in driving business to the Middle East, as he explains: “Entertainment related tourism is extremely important for this region, it is going to give Dubai and the Middle East a whole new edge, perhaps even enough to rival the likes of Paris and Florida.
In line with Preferred Hotels and Resorts and considering the potential that the new theme parks have to offer to the tourism industry, Rai concludes that the company is “keeping a keen eye on upcoming hotel developments near Dubai Parks and Resorts to evaluate the potential for new partnerships.”