Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, area vice president operations, Hilton Worldwide, Northern, Central and Eastern Europe headed to the UAE with a delegation of Hilton general managers from Austria and Germany last month to eye the UAE tourist market. In an exclusive interview, Jan Sleiffer tells Hotel News ME about building allies with operators in the Middle East and opening flight paths to cash in on GCC travellers heading to Austria and Germany.
Jochem-Jan Sleiffer is a man on a mission, eager to enhance ties with operators in the Middle East to forge partnerships with Hilton’s 20 hotels in Germany and four in Austria. Having recently spearheaded a trip to the UAE with a selection of GMs from Austria and Germany, Jan-Sleiffer brings with him 25 years of hospitality expertise, placing him in good stead to build relations between Hilton hotels in Europe and operators in the Middle East.
Having begun his career with Hilton Worldwide as chief steward at the Hilton Amsterdam in 1990 after earning his Bachelor’s degree in Facilities Management, Jan Sleiffer has most certainly earned his stripes as he explains: “In 25 years, I have enjoyed a challenging and fulfilling career in the hospitality industry with Hilton Worldwide having managed and worked in 14 hotels in six different countries including Belgium, Greece, Great Britain, France, and my home country, the Netherlands.”
Sleiffer currently oversees operations for Hilton Worldwide’s full service and luxury hotels in European markets including Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Scandinavia to name a few.
With improving travel accessibility to Europe from the Middle East, how do your properties in Germany and Austria cater to UAE travellers?
Hilton is seeing significant interest from UAE and Saudi Arabia residents for travel to Austria and Germany this summer season (post-Ramadan). In the last few years, we have seen an 11% increase in room nights from Emirati travellers across our 20 hotels in Germany, and more than 60% to our four hotels in Austria.
We see this in part due to the increased levels of travel capacity to some destinations from the UAE, as well as the simpler process for Emiratis to apply for the Schengen tourism visa which gives access to all the Schengen countries on one visitor visa.
Travellers to both Germany and Austria enjoy visiting these countries for their shopping, culture and pleasant summer temperatures – as well as the ease of travel and relative good value, given that the Dirham is buying more Euro’s than in previous years.
What steps are you taking to secure more Middle Eastern travellers?
Across Hilton Worldwide’s portfolio in Germany and Austria, provisions are made to give an extra special welcome to Arab travellers, including Arabic-speaking team members on welcome, extended restaurant opening hours, Arabic TV channels and specific Arabic guides to selected popular destinations.
With this attractive offering in place, we are now leveraging demand from the Middle East. In May 2016, myself and a senior delegation from our European executive team and general managers travelled to the Middle East to meet with numerous travel operators, such as Emirates Holidays and Dnata; many of whom were eager to enhance their existing partnerships.
This sales mission ties in with an increase in traveller numbers from the UAE, with the Austrian National Tourist Offices recording a 130% rise in UAE guests in the last four years, and its German equivalent seeing overnight visitor numbers from the GCC to Germany up 17.9% in 2015, compared to the same period in 2014.
In May 2015, the European Parliament voted to allow Emirati citizens visa-free access to Schengen states for up to 90 days, whether for business, tourist or family visit purposes. What does this mean for your properties and the industry?
Visa-free access to Schengen states opens up a whole region of tourism opportunities for Emirati travellers and, after a year in effect; we are recording impressive growth in room nights from the UAE. While the UAE has always been a key growth market for us, this regulatory move signals a steep change in the market’s importance to European hotels.
Emirates recently announced that it will operate one of its two scheduled daily flights into Vienna International Airport with its Airbus A380 aircraft from July 1 2016, how do you expect this move to boost tourism and occupancy levels at your hotels in Europe?
The high-growth in demand witnessed by our Austrian hotels, which can be tied back to airlines’ enhanced focus on the market, showcases the value of improved flight options.
We are witnessing marked increases in guests from the UAE and we expect further improved travel accessibility to have a catalyst effect on traveller numbers from the Emirates in the coming years, especially with the introduction of the A380 on the Emirates Dubai-Vienna route from July 2016.
Hilton Worldwide now hotly anticipates negotiations between German and UAE authorities to open the skies from the UAE to Berlin under the countries’ air services agreement, to further boost travel to this major European capital.
Where are your main source markets for business?
The Middle East is a key source market for our German and Austrian hotels, with travellers predominantly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. We regard these markets as a major growth opportunity, especially after the European Parliament eased visa regulations for Emirati travellers.
How has being a GM at some of London’s most iconic Hilton’s placed you in good stead for your role as AVP?
Having spent over 12 years in general manager roles across Europe – four years as general manager of Hilton Athens, four years at the Hilton London Olympia and Hilton London Paddington and Euston; and another four years at Hilton Brussels – I feel my time at this level of the hospitality career ladder has given me invaluable experience for my current role’s responsibilities covering Hilton Worldwide’s full service and luxury hotels across Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.
As a general manager, I made sure that I spent as little time in an office and as much time as possible amongst the team to ensure I had a close view of the operations of the hotel and a close understanding of our team members and guests – a rule I try to stick to in my current position too.