Special feature: JORDAN

Interview with Mr. Oussama Massoud, Regional General Manager, IHG Jordan

May, 2017

QMr. Massoud, our fellow journalists from The Guardian recently published a very interesting article about their surprise over the situation in the country and them not understanding why tourists and investors were fleeing, or not coming to the country. They could see that it is spectacular, safe and friendly. What is your opinion on the situation in the country and specifically the tourism sector. What is your opinion on the situation in the country and specifically the tourism sector?

OM: The tourism sector is important to Jordan, it is our oil. It could be our oil for the future. We have grown our tourism sector slowly and at the same time firmly. We have a wide selection of tourism including cultural, adventure and Medical Tourism. Medical tourism is as important as tourism itself as it generates over 2.5 billion dollars of business to Jordan. The traditional tourism we are very proud of; but normally takes more effort to bring in travellers. Normally in tourism, a country needs to have stability, peace, adventure, new experiences, new cultures and food. We are very proud of these aspects and another example of the tourism aspect is food, we travel to eat. It is very important how people see things, they want to enjoy the local food, wine, spirits. In addition to these things, we have quality and good service, not only in our hotels but in our stand-alone restaurants and bars across Jordan. To enjoy a good meal and a memorable evening with your friends. We are trying to put all of this together and present it to the people. On top of that is the safety and security that you are experiencing now. You can get testimonies from ex-pats as well as tourists you meet in the lobby. We currently have a Turkish group staying with us which is a new market – there are 40 ladies who have come from Turkey, which is great to see. I was curious to chat with them and see “why Jordan?”. We shared stories and they reiterated – the food, the churches, the culture, the mosques – everything. The name of the game is to have safety and security, which we have here in Jordan. You have to prove it to people: in many years we have had no incidents. You can go out safely to a bar and come home at 3 in the morning and fear nothing as it’s a free culture.

QUnfortunately, since 2011 tourism has fallen 66%. In 2005, a series of coordinated bomb attacks hit three hotel lobbies in Amman. Today unfortunately, Jordan still has not recovered from its wounds. How has a well-established hotel group in Jordan like IHG been impacted in the past years?

OM: What we have seen is a positive thing. We had this bombing 11 years ago; since then we have opened 2 resorts – in the Dead Sea we have the Holiday Inn Resort Dead Sea and the Crowne Plaza Jordan Dead Sea Resort & Spa, we have added 620 rooms and we have added the biggest spa in the region in the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea. This is the trust that we gained in Jordan, we know that in every dip there is an opportunity to go up. The business will come back, we have done refurbishment in this hotel “Crowne Plaza Amman”, to make it ready for the new era. We have trust in Jordan, we have added and updated our properties and we are serving different cities in Jordan.

QMr. Massoud, you have recently signed an unprecedented agreement with Royal Jordanian, the national air carrier, becoming the first hotel group in Jordan to sign a partnership of this nature. Could you tell us more about this historical agreement, and how this will positively affect the image of IHG regionally?

OM: As you know it is a national carrier, it has a base of 800 000 people who are carrying Royal Plus the card. Whether they are Jordanians or foreigners, they are carrying these cards and using them on hotels and flights, we encourage them to come gain more points with our properties. It is a win-win situation. We are international with Jordanian roots as well – our owners are Jordanian. Royal Jordanian as you can see is growing, they are updating their old fleet with brand new planes, each month they are receiving a new plane and retiring an old one. We are doing the same, we are growing, adding more rooms, renovating our rooms and getting ready for the future. Not only are we updating the tangible things, but the intangible, for example we have the fastest internet in Amman. We know how important it is for the international travelers to immediately connect, download and email. It is like having hot water in the shower – it is a must.

QTraining talent to reach service excellence has always been key in the hotel industry. IHG has recently signed an agreement for the launch of the ‘IHG Dead Sea Hotels Training Academy’. Jordan is well-known for its natural hospitality, it is intrinsically part of your culture. How does IHG Capitalise on this fundamental Human Capital?

OM: The DNA of our company is to look after the local community, to train and hire the local community and even export some of them to other places in order for them to make more money for the country. We consider ourselves a training centre for Jordanians at our properties. We have turnover like everyone else, they are either going to the competition (which is fine, it is healthy), or to newly opened hotels, stand-alone restaurants, bars etc. We are a factory of manpower to the market. The Academy is not our first initiative; we have many initiatives including a form of accreditation we have created for colleagues who have been working in the hotel industry without a certificate. For example, those who are working within the company but have never gone to a hotel management school. We have created this accreditation in order to show that our employees are certified – for example a manager, or supervisor, or housekeeper of different levels. We certified people to become trainers themselves, a full system of training methods and accreditation for the industry in Jordan. Even before that we had built curriculums and we assisted vocational training centres in creating books to teach the students. We came up with English and Arabic books as a donation to vocational schools to teach and we have trained their trainers in our properties and we still do. We do the same with the universities to assist them, improve them, and make it more practical to bring their professors into the industry as you cannot teach someone reception and guest relations if you haven’t been behind the desk.

We are trying to change the curriculum into English because if you want to export human capital and labour into Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar for example, you should be able to speak that language. If you can only speak Arabic, you cannot reach higher positions. We are putting our influence into the business community, in the parliament, with the Minister of Education in order to improve the outcome for the students – better education, better I.T., and better English. We need students who can speak English, and who know computers. You give me these people and we can train them and we can prepare them with an education in order to raise their earning potential.

QA few months ago, a student-organised summit took place at Les Roches school in Switzerland to address the future of hospitality. The conference focused on the rapid pace of innovation affecting your industry. Les Roches prepares innovative graduates here in Jordan as well. How is IHG preparing for the future of the hotel industry? How is innovation part of your strategy today?

OM: We have agreements at all our hotels and resorts, we have made it official now – we will take their trainees and we will employ them once they are finished their course. We already have many within our team – they have studied culinary, some of them have decided to go in a different path. We take these young individuals and give them a course of iGrad, they take a year and a half and they go through all the departments. One of these students has become the quality manager of the hotel. They do not need to stick to culinary for example, they can move anywhere.

QThere have been several conferences recently in the Dead Sea; in regards to M.I.C.E. in Jordan, how do you plan on developing it and attracting more events.

OM: It is growing but not enough. We need to do more as hoteliers and as the Jordan Tourism Board and as the Minister of Commerce all together – we need more. We are working on it with the Minister of Commerce, and the Jordan Tourism Board to go out together to promote this need. To see major international players, for example BMW – to suggest that we want your yearly event to come to Jordan. These international communities can be the best ambassadors to Jordan. It cannot only be our responsibility; it is the responsibility of all of us to work together on this initiative. These people can be our advocates.

QLast month, Rotana Hotels inaugurated its new Jordanian flagship in Amman. Soon, additional competing resorts will emerge in the Kingdom: W hotel, Fairmont etc. How is IHG preparing to face such competition?

OM: You cannot stop competition; you must embrace it. We must work together and the more the merrier, we can all sell Jordan more. We have more budgets, brains and voices to sell Jordan. We have felt a pinch from the competition – our figures were not as good as the year before. This is normal as the cake is not growing. Eventually if that cake doesn’t grow, we will eventually hurt one another. The newer hotels may be hurt more than the older hotels will be. The reason for this is that older hotels will have depreciated, they have done their return on investment and on the books it is cheaper. These newer hotels are paying today’s prices and Jordan is expensive.

QCSR is at the heart of IHG’s strategy. It has implemented some of the best environmental practices among Jordanian hotels. Crowne Plaza Jordan Dead Sea has signed an agreement with the regional programme, Economic Integration of Women in the Mena Region (EconoWin); the same hotel had already participated in a clean-up of the Sweimeh beach at the Dead Sea. Why is important for you to contribute to the society, Mr. Massoud?

OM: It is very important, it is our DNA, it is our obligation as a company, as IHG, and as human beings to take care of the environment and to take care one another. With this Academy, our intention is to get the local people, train them, give them jobs, give them hope that there is a better tomorrow. It is not new, 35% of our employees are from villages, they have proven that they can do these jobs – waiters, waitresses, masseuses and other roles. We try to be very engaged as a company. Environment is one initiative – we have green engagements as a company, we are conscious of our carbon emissions, how much water we try to save per room, the sourcing of and what we do with the chemicals etc. We deal with recognised brands; sometimes paying a premium to ensure that we are doing the right thing. We live here, we are the third poorest country in the world when it comes to water, so we are careful.

QHow important is the U.K. market in regards to tourism, to Jordan, and in regards to you as a high-end hotel brand? What can you do to lift those numbers?

OM: For a long time the U.K. and Jordan have had a special relationship. We have many people who have been educated in the U.K., in England to study. English is the second language here because of the British influence, Lawrence of Arabia and other stories, religions have stemmed from here, there are multiple crossovers between the two countries. It is 000.1% of the population who have created this dilemma for all of us. We are all living together: Christians, Muslims, Jews. Now we have a sect who believes it is me and only me, they have nothing to do with Islam. We are lucky we do not have them in Jordan. Our King is the main person who is fighting them everywhere. We have to work together to eradicate this issue and show people that it is not here.

QSo to correct these misperceptions that people might have, how might you like them to look at Jordan instead?

OM: I think they must look at Jordan like the U.K. We are a little bit more conservative in a way, but we have the same values, we want to raise our children in a nice place, we like to have fun, to travel, we all work very hard, we do NOT ride camels. We are a hard-working population; we strive for perfection just like the U.K. We are fighting to make Jordan better, but at the same time to be as friendly as possible with one another. People need to come here and see it for themselves.