Starwood has now fully integrated Le Meridien’s reservations, distribution, loyalty and sales functions into its systems. Its loyalty programme, Moments, no longer exists and the hotel group will join Starwood Preferred Guest.
Recently appointed director has been appointed to head up Starwood’s portfolio in the Middle East. Guido de Wilde now oversees regional operations, which include 48 hotels in 11 countries.
The plan is to now grow the group’s premium brands throughout the region. Especially since Starwood’s acquisition of the Le Meridian brand in November 2005 has increased its portfolio in the Middle East by 100 percent.
Currently four of Starwood’s eight hotel brands including Sheraton, Westin, Four Points by Sheraton and Le Meridien are in the region.
Breaking Travel News spoke with Guido de Wilde, vice president and regional director of Starwood for the Middle East about re-branding and focusing on the Arab traveller.
BTN: How are you settling into your role as VP and regional director for the Middle East? What are your priorities for 2006?
De Wilde: I am very excited about my new role. The Middle East has great potential for growth and has already outgrown all other regions worldwide for the past two consecutive years.
We are presently introducing and expanding our brands in the region. We see great opportunities following the tremendous growth in the industry. We have signed our first W in the Middle East. The 350-room luxury W Dubai Festival City hotel is scheduled to open in 2008.
Investing in the state-of-the-art IT technologies, online booking initiatives and customer loyalty programs are also key priorities for us.
BTN: What will set the W Hotel apart?
De Wilde: All our brands are quite distinct in their personalities. They all have distinct brand positioning and different core values and hence distinct customer target groups and profiles. All Starwood brands have been through an extensive brand re-positioning exercise in the last year and this will be unveiled at the end of May.
W is where you go to escape from the routine. W delivers a sensory multiplex allowing guests to flirt with their desires, providing the signature whatever whenever service.
Following the Le Meridien acquisition, Starwood’s properties across the Middle East almost doubled, increasing from 25 to 48 hotels in total. In the UAE alone the number of Starwood properties jumped from 7 to 19 hotels; and in Saudi Arabia the Le Meridien brand doubled the portfolio of Starwood properties reaching ten hotels compared to five in the past.
BTN: What is your opinion on the growth of the hotel industry in the Middle East?
De Wilde: Hotels in the Middle East retained pole position for the second year running, posting double-digit RevPar growth of over 21 percent.
Increased demand has been supported by the transformation of both the airline and hotel industry across the region. Passenger traffic through the Gulf is the now the fastest growing in the world, rising by ten percent per annum and there has been a rapid expansion of Emirates Airline, Etihad and Qatar Airways, as well as Gulf Air.
Hotel development continues unabated across the regions. All the global hotel brands have established themselves or are in the advanced stage of expanding their presence to the region.
It is estimated that 80 new hotels will open on the Arabian Peninsula by 2008. Dubai leads the field with an estimated 12,500 rooms being added over the next four years. Qatar and Kuwait are also projected to see increases in rooms’ by 145 percent and 75 percent respectively.
The future continues to look bright for the hotel sector and the development of more mid-scale and budget accommodation should help fuel growth in years to come.
BTN: What is Starwood doing to accommodate the budget traveller?
De Wilde: From now until end of 2006, Starwood will have opened 15 Four Points worldwide. Our moderately-priced brand still has room to grow in the region.
The Four Points by Sheraton first opened in 1995 to cater for the price-conscious business and leisure traveller. Presently we operate four properties under this brand in the Middle East.
BTN: Earlier this year at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC) there was a panel on the impact the hotel industry is having on the environment, what is Starwood doing in this area?
De Wilde: For tourism to continue to thrive, the industry has to pay more attention to the “triple bottom-line”, ensuring the balance between three elements - social, economic and environmental.
Starwood will continue to be an environmental activist. We have been an Energy Star Partner since 2001, and have been named an Energy Star partner of the year by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for our commitment to pollution prevention through better energy performance.
The group was honoured for its leadership in incorporating strategic energy management into its business plan. Many of properties are involved in environmental projects.
Sheraton Karachi Hotel and Towers worked with the government of Pakistan’s Sindh Province to save endangered wildlife; while Sheraton Bahrain has been involved in initiatives to revitalise the island’s once-proud pearling industry.
Sheraton Sana has earned high praise for greening a 20-acre wasteland, a project which has made the hotel virtually self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables and created many jobs in this poor nation.
Additionally, a Starwood Six Sigma initiative has been carefully re-examining all of our management processes including energy conservation and hotel operations practices and their effect on the environment.
BTN: What are your long-term goals for Starwood in the Middle East?
De Wilde: Following the introduction of the first W in the Middle East, our strategy will be about continuing the expansion of our brand portfolio. Starwood is the only hotel operator in the Middle East region that has a presence in every single market.
Confirmed expansion in the Middle East includes the opening of the 198 room Sheraton Aleppo Hotel & Towers in Syria in August 2006; Le Meridien Karachi, Pakistan (320 rooms) and Le Meridien Towers Makkah (1,320 rooms) in 2007.
We have about ten other hotels in advanced discussions in the region and we are geared up to roll out some very exciting new hotels for Four Points by Sheraton and Sheraton in particular.
We are also looking forward to introducing the St Regis brand and grow our presence of the Westin and Luxury Collection brands.
In addition, Starwood has now stretched to new markets including Al Fujaira in the United Arab Emirates, Al-Medina and Al-Taif in Saudi Arabia and Lattikia in Syria, where we previously had no presence.
BTN: What types of services do Middle East guests demand specifically? What kinds of services do you offer for the Arab traveller?
De Wilde: Arab travellers have different travel patterns, especially when on holiday. They usually travel in families and therefore have more specific needs such as in accommodation where they often request connecting rooms and suites, butler services and special transport arrangements and cuisine. Our properties do take such special requirements in consideration and cater for their needs.