VIDEO: Setting the agenda for the GM Leaders Conference

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by Patrick Ryan | Published 3 years ago

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The fourth edition of the GM Leaders Conference is taking place this year at The St. Regis Dubai on Monday, 7 May. The GM Leaders Conference has become one of the most eagerly awaited dates on the hospitality calendar in the region. A selection of the leading GMs from across the region met last month in Fairmont Dubai to set the agenda for the event.


  • Maria Tullberg – General manager Radisson Blu Dubai Deira Creek
  • Alexander Schneider – General manager Nikki Beach Hotels and Resorts
  • Nila Pendarovski – Hotel manager Rove Downtown Dubai
  • Ammar Hilal – General manager Fairmont Dubai
  • Mark Lee – General manager Media One Hotel
  • Remco Werkhoven – General manager DoubleTree by Hilton Dubai Business Bay
  • David Allan – Cluster general manager Radisson Blu Dubai Waterfront and Dubai Canal
The panel assembles for the GM Leaders Conference roundtable discussion at Fairmont Dubai. Pictures by Hayder Al Zuhairi

The panel assembles for the GM Leaders Conference roundtable discussion at Fairmont Dubai. Pictures by Hayder Al Zuhairi

What are the latest trends facing the industry?

Mark Lee:  We can’t ignore the emergence of social media and the massive impact that’s had on all of our lives as hoteliers. I know that my life has changed – we didn’t manage it particularly well to begin with but we have worked hard to improve every aspect of our social media. I came into hospitality having the ability to connect with people quite directly so I initially found social media quite difficult. It’s just constant monitoring, we have a lot of checking processes in place, checking summaries from Trip Advisor and social media posts consumes a large part of my day.

Maria Tullberg: Social media is a huge trend but what comes with that is how people make their bookings and how they plan their trips. When they come to us they want to be as connected as they are at home so it puts a lot of responsibility on us as hoteliers to make sure they can connect.

Ammar Hilal: The traditional methods of marketing have no place to survive in the world of hotels and 80% of it has moved to digital. 20% remains with PR and traditional marketing. OTAs are a threat to us too.

Remco Werkhoven: Social media is impacting us. Because of social media we are always available, it is always hard to step back and check what we are doing and refocusing. It is about finding the right balance between work and life.

Nila Pendarovski: The type of traveller we are having has changed. We are used to millennials by now, but the new generation is coming. We have to start getting ready for these guys who are very career driven and focused on becoming the next executive chefs in five years-time. This is a departure from millennials who were not so career focused, with them it was more about dabbling around and having fun and looking for an experience. The new guys coming up are highly educated 20 to 22-year-olds and come from fantastic schooling. They even have time on their hands at weekends to create apps but they want guidance to get going and we have to be so tech savvy at all times. Even having wi-fi is old news by now. We have to look at the next big thing.

Alexander Schneider: The biggest macro trend is the rise of the boutique brand. I can see a very big disruption in the next few years, the chain hotel was about safety, security and comfort to travellers abroad who were seeking club sandwiches. What we are starting to see now, though, are travellers who want to experience a destination and have a unique experience where they go. They are much more likely to try street food or go to a souk and have something authentic in their hands. Digitalisation enables us to work from anywhere and I think that’s why I see standardised hotel brands having a tough time in the next few years. Localised brands will thrive and OTAs have given brands like us the opportunity to punch above our weight with big brands because we don’t need distribution centres anymore, the internet is doing it for us.

Maria Tullberg: The challenge with social media is that if a guest is really upset with you he has a powerful network of social media channels he can really ruin you with one comment.

Remco Werkhoven: I wouldn’t get too nervous, if you go to Trip Advisor and take away the 5-10% at the top, and the 5-10% at the bottom you get a more accurate reading. We go through the rankings and if you have the majority saying this a great property with a great team you get a clearer picture.

Alexander Schneider: Let’s go back to the start when Trip Advisor started, it was a really good tool. I remember my first reviews on it, they were well written with a really high amount of authenticity, there was a high level of respect between guests and hotels but then people started to get nasty with fake reviews, they were the ones that got free nights. There is a culture of fake complaints and that starts to overshadow the real constructive feedback.

Where is the next generation of guests coming from?

Nila Pendarovski: Now we have Generation K called after Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, she personifies what this new generation stands for – a tough, strong go-getter that is very goal-oriented, it is very interesting to see these guys coming through.

Maria Tullberg: Guests are also getting older, we have a tendency to talk about millennials but there is a lot of people in the older age groups that also has a lot of money too. They want to travel differently than before too, they don’t want the club sandwich either – they want to experience more, they want more excitement too.

Alexander Schneider: I think it is worth while looking at the older market. Even at our beach club some of our most loyal guests are 60 plus. They just love what we do.

Nila Pendarovski: It is about being young at heart. You see kids and the grandparents travelling together a lot, that happens more and more. It is very sweet to see, the grandparents are getting even more tech savvy as well.

How should hotels market themselves in the modern age?

Alexander Schneider: When I started with Hyatt, we were so proud you could wake up in Shanghai or Hong Kong, Capetown or Stockholm and you could open up your eyes and know where you are immediately. The room was essentially the same, it made a lot of sense back then.

Maria Tullberg: It is important to stay true to your own heritage, for example when we renovated Deira Creek, it’s a 44-year-old property, the first five star hotel in Dubai, it would be devastating if we put in the same things that we have in our hotels in London or Stockholm.

Ammar Hilal: There will be as movement to return to traditions, because we live in a modern world, it is exhilarating but at the end of the day you want to have an authentic experience which only comes from authenticity itself.

Remco Werkhoven: I think the brands have got their act together when it comes to authenticity. I think when we build a hotel now the design revolves around the roots. We have embraced Emiratisation – our guest relations manager started in a rank and file position and now she is running things. You cannot fake authenticity.

Nila Pendarovski: You have to stay true to your brand, it makes no sense if you are a midscale hotel to start offering slippers and bathrobes and vice versa if you are in luxury five-star and lower standards because of economic circumstances, you damage the market and confuse the customer.

Alexander Schneider: You can ask McDonald’s how their campaign to go green and healthy went? That was one of the most expensive failures in F&B history, making the logo green does not make the Big Mac healthy. We as Nikki Beach are a very niche brand, there is much to hate about us and there’s much to love about us. I would always be intimidated when I meet someone who is not a fan of our concept as I would have a difficult and unsatisfying job convincing them to embrace our brand –  but as much as the Porsche 911 is no mini-van, the mini-van is also no race car. This is true for hotels, the more defined your brand is the better your chances are. Rove is a fine example here, it’s a home-grown brand that is clearly defined.

How can the region increase the RevPAR while supply continues to rise in the run-up to Expo 2020?

Maria Tullberg: Dubai comes from such a high level when we talk about RevPAR because there has been such a lack of supply. Now the market is maturing, we are getting more midscale hotels in there, we are going from a rate that was sky high and even though RevPAR is going down this is still a good level.

Ammar Hilal: I am not sure Expo 2020 will have the impact people expect because while a lot of people might attend the exhibition are they really going to stay in five-star hotels or are they going to go for AirBNBs or serviced apartments?

Remco Werkhoven: We opened six months ago in a new area, nobody knew us there so you might think it would be challenging but we have had fantastic results. It is a matter of the market maturing.

Is there any way hotels can combat the continued rise of the OTAs? Is pooling resources to create their own equivalent a realistic option?

Alexander Schneider: It is useless to try and convince the customer he doesn’t want choice, it is illogical, absolutely illogical. The customer wants to compare, why is Amazon so successful? Because you get all the other brands and the clicking around is what we do. Ask fashion retail. What is their biggest problem? People try on the clothes in the flagship store and then they go online and buy it there because it is cheaper or they can compare it. It won’t go away until we have a platform that offers choice.

Ammar Hilal: Today we pay OTAs something between 16 to 22% depending on size of the company, if you want to be on page 1 it is going to cost a little more. The question is what are you going to be paying in 10 years from now, probably going to be paying 35-40%?

How can hotels get the right staff in and retain that talent?

Maria Tullberg: We have to try to be the best employer so you can invest in all the talent that’s out there. Business schools are used by brands -Rezidor has a business school for example. We also have a balanced leadership programme called Women in Leadership – there are so many men out there in leadership roles and we are not taking care of the female population. It’s 50% of the population, if we don’t look after it then it’s not going to be enough.

Alexander Schneider: I think we are too late in terms of talent when it comes to millennials. They are too old to join us, we really lost an amazing opportunity there – it was the first generation in a long time that wasn’t looking at the pay cheque. These were the dreamers, it was all about being meaningful and recognised for it.

Remco Werkhoven: We have to find a balance between life and work, there’s no golden formula. We are open to recruiting people with no experience, we recruit on aptitude, we have developed programmes and trained them and it gives you a bit of loyalty.

Alexander Schneider: You have to pay fair money for good people and you have to break the rulebooks if you have exceptional talent.

The canal side view

David Allan, cluster general manager Radisson Blu Dubai Waterfront and Dubai Canal, believes that personalisation is going to be a huge issue for hotels in the region in years to come.

“Aside from the ever-evolving aspect of technology, personalisation is a prominent issue and worth deep consideration.  How do we identify with our guests and more importantly, how do they identify with us, our products and our brand?” he asks.

“There is also the aspect of community involvement, giving back to our hosts, and a fair wage for our workers.  Provided balanced leadership and growing Emirati involvement in the hotel industry also has to be looked at.”

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