Michelle Sephton, managing director, Elegant Resorts tells Hotel News ME about breaking stereotypes as a female MD in the industry and why the operator decided to make its Middle Eastern debut.
You began your career with Elegant Resorts in 1992, what first attracted you to the role and what has kept you with them for more than 20 years?
I started my career in finance as I was training to be an accountant, I loved the actual job itself but found the industry didn’t challenge me. So I took the role at Elegant Resorts, and soon fell in love with it.
At that time luxury travel hadn’t exploded onto the market, but the glamour of the industry and the role, completely sold it to me and kept me in the hospitality game for over 20 years. The opportunities that I have had whilst working in luxury travel have been spectacular, and other roles don’t offer the same kind of experiences.
What are the key ways in which the industry has evolved over that time?
The industry is ever evolving, but the biggest change that I have seen throughout my career has been the evolution of practices due to technological advancements. When I first began my career, everything was documented on paper and hand written, it was books, writing out currencies, filing out bankers drafts, and writing forms for clients. Today we do nothing like that with the majority of processes being online with easy access to banking, flights and accommodation.
The industry has further evolved in the sense that when I first joined Elegant Resorts, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean resorts were really far away exotic places and everyone knew that the Caribbean was where you went for a luxuriously mysterious experience, but now the world is a lot smaller. In terms of travel, how people are able to visit exotic destinations at the click of a button, and now with with the luxury of air travel being reasonably priced. When I started out, flying to the Caribbean was far too expensive, now it is just a whole different ball game.
How did you transition from an executive level to become a managing director?
For me it has just been progressing though the business and growing along with it. It has been quite an easy transition as every promotion I received happened naturally. Becoming the MD generally came about because we were experiencing such change within the company from 2008 onwards and so I was then responsible for looking after the business and employees.
I am often teased in the office as my team call me mum, and I don’t mind that because one of the most important factors of being an MD is remembering your people are your core and they keep the business going. For me it is easy to navigate because I have grown up with Elegant Resorts and the people there too.
There are very few females in leadership roles in the UAE hospitality industry; what challenges have you faced as a woman in the industry?
To be a woman in the industry you need to be extremely confident in yourself and in your position. You can’t spend too much time procrastinating over the fact that you are a woman, you just have to remember that you know your role, and being a woman in the industry doesn’t mean I need to talk louder or try and assert my position, I know when to talk, how to talk and I’ll always wait until I have something to add to the equation in order to prove that my voice is just as valuable as those of my peers.
It can sometimes take a little longer as a female leader to gain the respect and recognition that you deserve, but it isn’t impossible. It is important to let people know that you aren’t a push over, and that is often quite a big challenge in itself.
There is also an element of stereotyping, whereby people perhaps think that you aren’t up to par, and unfortunately there will always be that group of people in existence that place you into a category and think that is where you belong, it is our job to break those stereotypes and continue thriving.
What advice can you offer to other women in the industry looking to climb the career ladder?
I’d say to any female who wants to climb the career ladder to keep going, persevere, be confident and don’t be intimidated. Women have the ability to multitask and are extremely resilient, two very important elements that will carry them through their career.
Elegant Resorts recently made its Middle East debut, what attracted you to this market and what value do you believe ER as a tour operator can bring to the Middle East?
Elegant Resorts was acquired by Al Tayyar Travel Group (ATG) in February 2014 and that really opened doors for us and made the Middle East an extremely viable option. Looking at the competition in the Middle East, no other company offers the services to the extent that we do in the region. Elegant Resorts compromises the full 360 package, we are all about service and providing the accommodation plus the little extras. We deliver the luxury experience but we also build firm relationships with our clients and we become a lifestyle choice, which is the attraction. Nobody seems to be providing the full package here and that is where we spotted the niche in the market.
There are many tour operators and travel sites for the Middle East market. How will ER differ from those and what value can you add for hoteliers and the leisure industry in the region?
Elegant Resorts is a global brand. So in essence we sell the world and are well known in the luxury travel sector. We contract all of the luxury hotels around the world and at the moment we are selling to the UK and Europe so what we say to the suppliers from this region is that we are still using all of you but we are bringing volume and a new set of clients into the loop. The attractive thing for the suppliers is that our service is not just about the accommodation, the flights and the travel it is about the in-resort spend and everything the traveller spends whilst staying, which adds to the whole tourism piece. It isn’t just the suppliers we bring value to, we also add to the economy and the tourism boards.
Which country markets within the region do you expect to generate the lion’s share of your business?
At the moment our focus is the UAE, both locals and expats. Moving forward our focus for 2016 will be on Saudi Arabia, where there is a massive market for what we do and it appears no one is currently tapping into the services that we offer. Following that we are very open to new markets and ideas and may look at Lebanon or Oman for example.
What is your global growth strategy for the brand?
The strategy is to place offices in various strategically positioned areas around the world that it will become a global brand functioning out of different locations, helping us to sell more across the entire network