James Hewitson, general manager, Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara, explains how he intends to position the newly opened Oman property as one of the most luxurious resorts in the region
How did your career in hospitality begin?
I began my career with branded restaurants in the UK before moving overseas almost twenty years ago to set up branded restaurants in the Middle East. I remember well my interview in London back in 1998 with a gentleman called Hani Kafafi who first brought me out to the region and has had a major impact on my career in the hotel industry. After spending two years with branded restaurants I followed Hani, who was a hotelier by profession, into the hotel industry. Hani provided me with the opportunity to take my independent restaurant experience and use it when looking after multiple restaurant concepts under one hotel roof. The solid grounding I received has stood me in good stead as I have risen to general manager and some of Hani’s stories I use for inspiration for my team still today.
What attracted you to join Minor Hotel Group?
After quite a few years working successfully in corporate hotels in Kuwait, Bahrain, Bangkok and Malta I decided I wanted to change into luxury resort hotels as I had a taste for this while working in Malta. I felt that resorts were more suited to my skills, and most importantly I found I enjoy working in resorts. I joined Anantara in Koh Samui over six years ago as executive assistant manager and quickly managed to understand the DNA of the brand and what would drive success within Minor Hotels. I was given several projects to work on in Mozambique and Phuket before being asked to set up the opening of a new flagship property in Dubai. Following the successful opening in Dubai, I spent some time again working on other projects and gaining experience in the Maldives, Mozambique and Doha before I was asked to open Anantara in Salalah as my first general manager role. Anantara provides the freedom to work and run our business but also provides the coaching structure to make us better business leaders by constantly challenging results in a healthy way.
How has your past experience influenced your management philosophy?
I started at the bottom and I have worked my way up through the various ranks so I feel very close to the team and the daily pressures we work under and the highs we experience when things go well. I enjoy talking to the team and try to make sure that I am open and available for anyone in the team to approach. I do get upset when people make statements like, “I didn’t want to ask you this because you are the GM”. We should always be available to the team members and should understand their thoughts and feedback.
What makes a great GM?
I believe that general managers are very resourceful people. We work in very exciting environments where no two days are the same and we need to be adaptable to change very quickly in an ever-changing work place. People skills are a key competency as we help influence the team and in turn their performance. Drive for results is another key competency, as we work in a competitive playing field and you can never rest on your laurels in this industry.
What were the key challenges of the pre-opening phase?
I have found that people and relationships are the keys to the success of any opening. Having a good balance between internal people who know the brand and external skill-sets provides a great combination to create some amazing stories with openings. Balancing all relationships between owner, contractor and consultants is another key challenge. Since it’s the project team’s goal to complete the project and hand over to us, we must ensure we are given a fully functional, well-put-together machine or we will be dealing with headaches for years to come.
What are your targets and expectations for this year?
Our main target is to establish the resort as the first luxury product in the Dhofar region and drive awareness of the destination through PR and media exposure along with great guest experiences. We have revenue and profit targets for the owner that we have to achieve and to be able to do this we need to ensure all the revenue taps are turned on and yielding new business. Currently we are not taking from the existing business pot, so driving new markets and luxury guests is a key priority too.
What are your thoughts on the Oman hospitality market?
There is a lot of support and new initiatives being driven by the government, and we are supporting their efforts with the opening of two Anantara resorts. I see only positive growth for Salalah hotels where we have seen occupancy growth year-on-year for the past three years. Even with new supply coming on to the market place, the existing hotels are showing year-on-year increases in occupancy and rate during 2017, so overall RevPar is increasing too. The new infrastructure of the airport and roads network is a massive boost and with the introduction of greater airline connectivity within the GCC, this will keep the current trends heading in the same direction.