Hotel News Middle East catches up with James Hewitson, general manager, Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara, to find out we should be paying attention to the southern Omani property
There is a beloved television programme in the UK about property called Location, Location, Location.
While the show has absolutely nothing to do with the hospitality industry here in the Middle East, the sentiment of the title has very much been adopted by James Hewitson, general manager, Al Baleel Resort Salalah by Anantara.
Hewitson is determined to make the most of the picturesque surroundings the north of Oman to help continue his hotel’s success story.
“We want to spread the word about both our resort and the wonderful destination of Salalah, which is still a relatively undiscovered destination,” says Hewitson.
“It really is an undiscovered gem and that’s why we are working closely with the tourist board here and media across the world to drive awareness that you are in an amazing part of Arabia down here.”
It is no secret that these are challenging times for the hospitality sector all over the world, not just in the Middle East, but Hewitson passionately believes that the combination of the luxury property and the surrounding area is a recipe for success.
“Oman, with its culture, unique topography and 3,500km of coastline, sets itself slightly apart from its regional competitors,” he says.
“The government’s strategy to develop adventure and experience tourism while preserving Oman’s culture and heritage are paying off, resulting in it becoming a popular destination for travellers looking to get a taste of Arabia.”
One area that Hewitson has immediately identified as presenting opportunities for the property is the F&B sector in Salalah.
“We’re keen to put the resort on the map as a culinary destination in Salalah, as well as providing unique experiences for guests so they can explore this stunning region,” he says.
“The dining scene in Salalah is non-existent, with most Omanis preferring to entertain at home however we’ve been successful in establishing our three restaurants in the market.”
Hewitson and his team are obviously on to something as they have flown out of the blocks, in terms of performance, in 2018.
“2018 has been a great start to the year with 100% growth over January 2017 and we expect to show strong growth year-on-year in the coming months ahead with a good solid base of leisure bookings already on the books,” he says.
“We are into our second full year of operation and we have been very pleased with the progress we are making, we are developing all areas of the business but our restaurants and spas have been performing well above expectations and we will continue to innovate and drive at improving the quality of these two key components of our business.”
It is not simply about profit at Al Baleel Resort Salalah by Anantara, Hewitson is eager to make a difference to the lives of the local community.
“I’m passionate about recruiting and training young Omanis from the local community,” he says.
“As a brand, indigenous experiences are part of Anantara’s core ethos and by employing from the local talent pool, we are building a team that has a deep understanding of the culture and region as well as a desire to aid the country’s future growth and development.”
An indication of the hotel’s commitment to the local community is further illustrated by an official partnership with the National Hospitality Institute to recruit and train local Omani students.
The aim of the partnership, Hewitson explains, is to provide the students with the opportunity to spend time working in different departments at the resort before being hired full-time.
“We’ve also introduced an overseas training programme, providing key Omani members of the team with the opportunity to gain valuable experience at other Anantara properties around the world,” he says.
“We hope it has instilled a strong sense of pride in their work so they can begin to progress up the career ladder and pursue a successful career in hospitality. Through recruitment and training programmes, we have been able to build a team that is more than 25% Omani from senior leadership to rank-and-file positions.”
While there is a vibrant Omani presence in the hotel there is also a cosmopolitan feel to the property, as Hewitson reveals.
“We spend a lot of time on recruitment and have over 40 different nationalities working with us with a variety of levels of experience and this has helped to drive competition amongst the team to outperform each other every day,” he says.
Staff morale is something that Hewitson believes that you can’t put a premium on.
“It’s particularly important to create a positive working environment in a relatively remote location such as Salalah so I put extra care into ensuring the accommodation was 10 minutes from the hotel to avoid long transits to work and that the team has access to facilities such as internet, satellite TV, shopping malls and the wonderful beaches in Salalah so everyone stays happy,” he says.
“I believe that very happy colleagues lead to very happy guests and I take full responsibility to ensure the team is well looked after and motivated so they can really feel passionate about looking after our guests.”
These are key pillars of management that Hewitson has picked up since he progressed in the restaurant business in his native UK, before taking up his first overseas post in 1999.
His journeys took him to such locations as Kuwait, Bahrain, Malta, Thailand before he took up a role with the Minor Hotel Group in 2011.
It is that experience that helps Hewitson remain focused on the future growth of the property.
“The GCC market is key for us, as well as European leisure markets such as Germany, Italy and the UK,” he says.
“The market in Salalah previously has been based on charter business driving large volume and low rates and we were very conscious that we would not be following this strategy. We have positioned our product and rates to be able to compete with the luxury hotels in Muscat and our main focus now is to keep developing the awareness so we can drive better occupancy moving forward in line with our forecasts from our original feasibility study.”