The Cairo Marriott in Zamalek is an iconic hotel that is popular for its representation of Egypt’s history and culture, and has one of the strongest foundations in the hotel industry, whether in Cairo or as part of Marriott International’s flagship hotels. Recently joining the hotel from The Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi, we had a talk with General Manager Khaled Al Jamal about the plans he has for the property.
Seeing as your career in the hotel industry has been in the Marriott hotel chain or their flagship properties worldwide, what drew you to this industry in general?
Honestly, it begun as a coincidence. I had initially studied to become a banker, and after finishing my studies and my time in the Jordanian army, the quickest job I could get was in the hotel industry as a night auditor and night receptionist. As the cheques were done manually at the time, they relied on cashiers with strong finance or accounting background, and so I also helped out in that department.
I would usually find myself in the restaurants where I realized that I enjoy interacting with people more than staying in one place behind a desk. From then on, I moved to the food and beverage department for most of my career, until I completed my cross training in the rooms division, before becoming the Director of Operations and then General Manager.
We always say that in the hospitality industry, it is always long hours, seven days a week and 365 days a year, and so you have to be a specific type of person to love it, otherwise you will not survive in it.
Having started your career in Jordan before heading to Prague, the US and the UAE, among other stops in between, what were you most looking forward to about your move to Egypt?
If you look at the Middle East on a worldwide hospitality map, you will find that two of the biggest cities are Dubai and Cairo, where Cairo was even before the UAE in terms of history and culture, but unfortunately due to the political and security issues, the UAE gained more popularity in the past years.
The second motivational factor for me was the hotel itself. The Cairo Marriott is an iconic hotel, and is one of the biggest of its chain in the Middle East and Africa, and is certainly one of the first and most important for Marriott International. When I was asked to come to Egypt, I was flattered by the opportunity.
What are some of your short-term and long-term objectives that you wish to achieve as General Manager of the Cairo Marriott?
We have many things going on already, for example, we are currently renovating the rooms throughout the hotel, where we are almost done with one tower and we will soon be moving on to the other. Parallel to this, we are also renovating our swimming pool, and in a short while we will be opening our Egyptian Nights restaurant that is amidst the palatial gardens.
We are also creating a full-fledged spa by the end of this year or the beginning of the next that has never been a part of this hotel before. The spa will have 11 treatment rooms along with the gym facilities, which will be a great addition along with the renovations we are completing. All of these changes are to be made while preserving the image of the palace and its historical aspects.
In the short-term, we are renewing our menus and offerings in the food and beverage department.
How do you prioritize tasks and goals given their importance and in consideration with the budget?
A large part of it comes down to the budget. Right now, what defines the prioritization is the age of the hotel and its need, as well as of course focusing on modernity and keeping up with technology.
When we prioritize tasks, we split them up into daily, weekly, monthly and annual goals. We are currently finalizing our annual 2018 plans where the budget, renovation and costs are all being put into consideration. Tasks like menu changes, restaurant openings, packages and sales and marketing are prepared on a daily and weekly basis. Priorities, however, occasionally change, and so the hotel business requires flexibility as some days do not go as planned.
What are some of the opportunities and threats that you are witnessing here in Egypt that are different to other countries in the Arab World?
In a hotel business in general, there are many managerial similarities, but what changes is the country itself and the culture of the people you are dealing with. When it comes to Egypt, a positive thing about it is that it does not need to be marketed, everyone knows the country and what history it holds. Many people dream of visiting the pyramids as well as many of the historical sites and beautiful beaches, and so in a sense it markets itself.
However, unfortunately, what we need to work on that is not only required of the government, but also the private sector and the society, is to improve the image of safety and security and what the hotels can offer. Word of mouth is extremely important, and so it is a positive thing for any visitor to go back and spread the word that things are safe, especially with the terror attacks going on that are sometimes repeated by the media and scare people off, where on a day to day basis you see that people are hospitable and welcoming to foreigners. This is what we need to market: that Egypt is a safe place.
We also need to be vigilant for any terrorist attacks as no place is immune to it. The whole world is now all in the same boat.
Given that tourism in Egypt is not at its best, what are some of the ways you look to attract more tourists to your hotel? How much of the total hotel occupation do foreigners occupy?
We are witnessing a shift in visitors now that is not only applicable to Cairo. In Egypt, hotels are usually occupied by Gulf and Arab nationalities, however, there is an increased demand coming from China and India that will be seen evidently in the coming years. Although the UAE has already welcomed a large number from these two countries, the numbers in Egypt are not significant yet, but from what we see from the inquiries we receive, we can forecast that there will be a rise very soon.
In 2018, it is an encouraging sign to see inquiries for tours coming from the US and Japan, which have been absent recently. We as Marriott enjoy a huge network of sales forces worldwide, and we do utilize this in different formats of direct visits abroad, or bringing these people in and showing them around. In fact, we regularly have someone from our corporate sales worldwide come to Egypt to look at ways to boost business coming out of North America and the rest of the world to Egypt.
In our marketing efforts, Marriott enjoys some of the strongest award-winning loyalty programs in the industry; the Marriott Rewards. We use this program in promoting our destination to our approximate 100 million members worldwide.
The Marriott has won several prestigious awards. How do you plan on maintaining such high quality control and expectations?
First of all, we have to listen to our customers and meet their demand in an innovative way as their expectations change faster than we sometimes think. Ten or fifteen years ago, having no Internet at the hotel was not a big deal, whereas today it is a necessity.
You always have to be upgrading your services, in fact this year, we allocated a lot of money to upgrade our Wi-Fi system, and so it is not just the direct services we are offering, but also where technology is taking us and what the customer is looking for. How easy is it to make a reservation? How easy is it to communicate with the hotel? Our mobile app is a big hit right now and within our company, we have the guest chat option and mobile check in. In the future, we are looking at keyless room entries where they can open their room with a barcode.
Marriott did a great job in surveying a huge number of clientele on what they want and expect, and they start modifying based on that. For example, more than 80% of our clients remarked that they do not need bathtubs but they need showers in the rooms, and so all of our renovations include these changes.
Time has become an essential element in society today. Years ago, sending an offer by fax that would be received in 48 hours was acceptable, however, now if you do not send it within two or three hours, the customer has already contacted another hotel. Because there is more supply, the customers’ expectations are also rising, and with mobility, everything is moving at a faster pace.