General Manager of Al Faisalliah Hotel
Apart from the climate and the opulence of some of the hotels, Las Vegas and Riyadh have very little in common. They will never be sister cities. To move from one of the world's top playgrounds to the capital of a conservative religious country would be a major shift for anyone, let alone if you are supposed to manage two of Riyadh's most famous hotels. Peter Finamore did just that when he moved over from Las Vegas to join Rosewood Hotels as managing director of Al Faisaliah and Al Khozama Hotels. “Actually, my perspective has changed completely since I arrived in the country. I was expecting a more difficult time and a much more challenging environment. Saudis are more open-minded than I thought and although I was told we would never be able to have close Saudi friends, I have not found that to be the case,” says the tall, slim and lively Finamore.
Al Faisaliah is one of two iconic landmarks in the Saudi capital, with Al Faisaliah Tower dominating Riyadh's skyline. Since opening in 2000, Al Faisaliah Hotel has been at the forefront of luxury, sophistication and service in Saudi Arabia. Operating to the Texas-based Rosewood Hotels and Resorts peer-setting guidelines, Al Faisaliah has a dedicated 24-hour butler service. The hotel is currently celebrating its 10th Anniversary by opening the first spa for women in an international hotel in Riyadh. In addition, the prestigious hotel has added a new South Wing, increasing the number of rooms and suites from 224 to 330. Designed by HRH princess Al Anoud Bint Khaled Al Saud, owner and founder of Al Dar Designs, the new wing is all vibrant colours that touch on Arabian and Islamic culture while fusing with the original sand dune design of the property.
In recognition of such attention to customers' needs, the hotel last year won the award of Leader in Hospitality at the Kingdom Excellence Awards. A further indication of its recognition is in the loyalty of its clientele, which is almost entirely corporate. “The guest return ratio for Al Khozama is 84% and for Faisaliah 65%.” comments Finamore. “I have never worked in a hotel where the ratio exceeded 35%. This reflects the level of commitment we have to our guests.”
AKMC: A growing brand
The Faisaliah Complex stands out in Riyadh with its 267 meter tower, renowned for its stunning views from the observatory and the Globe restaurant at the top. The hotel is connected to the Prince Sultan Grand Hall, the Faisaliah Mall and the Al Faisaliah Centre designed by Norman Foster. All are part of the Al Khozama Management Company (AKMC), founded as the direct property investment and management arm of the King Faisal Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organisations in the world.
“The Khozama hotel was built 1977 by the Movenpick organization. Fifteen years ago, AKMC invited Rosewood Hotels to take over the Khozama Hotel and develop a concept for its new 5-star brand, which is Al Faisaliah. The entire complex is actually a village within the city, unique in terms of its long-term perspective,” explains Finamore.
Like king Faisal, the founder of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, Caroline Rose Hunt, has a long history of charity in and a similar foundation, the Rosewood Foundation. “The King Faisal Foundation was established to honour the former king and its primary objective is to encourage the education of Islam inside and outside the Islamic world, as well as the Arabic language and the recognition of the importance of other sciences and education in general,” says Finamore. The foundation has established a highly recognized award, a school, a centre for research and Islamic studies and a university.
The King Faisal International Prize rewards dedicated men and women whose contributions make a positive difference to Islam, science or specific areas that benefit humanity. This incentive also encourages expanded research that may lead to important medical and scientific breakthroughs. Al Faisal University was established in 2001 on the grounds of the late King Faisal´s Palace, with a curriculum focused on science, business and technology.
“In order to support the vision of the King Faisal Foundation, a business component had to come into place. That is the reason for the creation of AKMC as a holding company for the businesses within the complex. The property here is very profitable and the ultimate goal is investing its earnings in the country,” says Finamore.
A Challenging Environment
“This country depends very heavily on foreign labour to keep the economy going, so there are a lot of challenges in the assimilation of cultures. I have never worked in such a United Nations of nationalities and culturesIt is important to build consensus and create mutual understanding, not just on the level of language, but in everything we are trying to do,” says Finamore who is a Canadian himself.
A further challenge is to integrate Saudis into the hotel's staff to comply with the kingdom's saudisation policy, which aims to bolster employment and reduce reliance on foreign workers by requiring companies to have citizens account for 33% of their staff.
“When you establish a business, the requirement goes up gradually. As of yesterday we are at 30%, which an achievement is given that Saudis do not perceive the service industry as a desirable career option,” explains Finamore. “Instilling discipline, which is necessary in order to have consistent standards, is a bit more challenging with Saudis who are not used to the rigour of a business like ours. Nevertheless, we have many young Saudis that show good potential”.
But this situation is set to improve with summer 2010 having seen the first batch of hospitality majors graduating from King Saud University. Fifteen of them have done an internship at Al Faisaliah and a handful of graduates have been selected to join the hotel's staff. They could become the future captains of the hospitality industry, as their expertise will certainly be needed with a projected 900,000 jobs being created by 2020 by the kingdom's promotion of tourism and investment in related infrastructure. The number of hotel rooms in Riyadh alone is expected to increase by 100% over the next five years.
The chicken or the egg?
In 2009 about 42% of arrivals in Saudi Arabia were for religious purposes, 18% percent for business and a negligible number as actual tourists. Although the number of tourists grew from 10.5 million to 11.4 million in 2010, there is still a long way to go to develop the sector. But how do you approach this development? It is the classic dilemma of the chicken and the egg – which comes first?
“One can approach the growth on tourism in different ways,” observes Finamore. “Should we first create the tourist sites? Should we first create an environment that is more attractive to westerners or individuals from outside the GCC? Developing domestic tourism should be the first step, as the tourist sites are here, the infrastructure is here, and the level of sophistication is here. The efforts of the SCTA are focused on encouraging Saudis to spend their holidays at home. One would think that the easiest way to develop tourism in a country is by starting with a domestic focus, like the French or the Americans have done very well – just think of the fact that less than 10% of Americans have passports. However, so far the Saudis generally prefer to explore other countries.” The latest figures, released in 2009, show that 870,000 Saudis tourists spent SR 4.7 billion vacationing abroad.
In Finamore´s view, over the past year and a half the government of Saudi Arabia has taken positive steps to strengthen the hospitality sector. “The SCTA is putting in place the foundations to have greater control over how the tourism industry is administered and priced. The government is also investing heavily in health, education and infrastructure as real steps in the development of the country and the sector. It is important to ensure that the middle class, which is very significant here, grows considerably and has higher aspirations creating a sense of belonging,” concludes Finamore.