A hotelier's vision
By Interview by Jailan Halawi
Mahmoud Mokhtar is a very charismatic and dynamic gentleman with over 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry. In an exclusive interview right after taking over as country manager of the Hilton chain of hotels in Egypt, Mokhtar spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly of his vision, mission and strategy for the group's future.
Previously, Mokhtar was general manager of the Ramses Hilton in Cairo. With over two decades of international and local experience as a hotelier, he had highly successful stints with numerous hotel chains. Mokhtar first joined the Hilton in 1996 as its executive assistant manager for Hilton Fayrouz Resort in Sharm El-Sheikh, then was promoted as general manager of the Hilton Nuweiba, followed by Hilton Al-Ain at the United Arab Emirates, and cluster general manager of all three Hilton hotels in Hurghada. It was Mokhtar who opened the Hilton Borg Al-Arab Resort in Alexandria and Hilton Fiji Beach Resort in the South Pacific.
What does an Egyptian taking over the management of Hilton Hotels Corporation in Egypt signify?
Being selected and entrusted to this position is a great honour of which I am proud. I believe such a decision was based on my long record of experience in tourism and the hospitality industry, not just in Egypt but internationally as well. Being Egyptian grants me the privilege of better understanding the Egyptian market's requirements as well as the needs and expectations of investors. My experience in hotel management across different markets is of course an asset and an added value that would surely help me carry out my current responsibilities.
Indeed there are great challenges ahead, yet there are equally promising growth opportunities for our company in Egypt and along with our team, business partners, owners and new investors in the region I'll exert my utmost to maintain our number one brand ranking.
What is your strategy to enhance Hilton Hotels' growth in the Egyptian market?
The Hilton vision is simple, especially our strategy, which stems from the fact that we are pioneers not only in the region, but in the whole world. A significant focus is growth, and we believe that this is the key to surpassing any competition.
Undoubtedly, what supports our strategy in Egypt is consumer confidence in the Hilton brand, and our focus on guest satisfaction, as well as maintaining our team member requirements. Searching for investment opportunities and new management contracts to further grow the Hilton brand in Egypt are also among my most important targets.
Hilton's name in Egypt has credibility, experience and a sincere heritage, as we were the first international hotel company to enter the Egyptian market 50 years ago with the Nile Hilton. Together with our team, we'll work on maintaining such credibility.
What about Hilton's future in Egypt considering the Nile Hilton loss now that its management went to the Ritz- Carlton?
We are very positive about the future and we will continue to lead the hospitality industry in Egypt. As the first international company to enter the Egyptian market, and the godfather of the country's hospitality industry, we have built a fantastic brand over the last five decades. Independent research clearly positions Hilton as the No 1 brand in Egypt, Middle East and worldwide (according to the 2007 Business Development Research Consultants survey).
With our renewed focus on expansion, our development team is exploring new profitable opportunities in Egypt. Currently, we have 18 Hilton and Conrad hotels and a number of other projects in the pipeline. We remain committed to our current portfolio and new opportunities.
What are your plans to compensate for the loss of the Nile Hilton?
I wish to make this very clear: nothing compensates the loss of the Nile Hilton. The Nile Hilton was not only a hotel that gets us revenue but there was a sentimental tie between us as a company and this hotel. It is a landmark. It is where we started in the Middle East so, we are very sad to see this hotel go from our portfolio. But having said that, life has to go on and we have to continue serving the Egyptian economy and look for other opportunities even with this hotel having had a very special place in our hearts.
There are a lot of opportunities in our pipelines. I am not in a position to say specifics now. All I can say is that over the next few months there will be a good surprise for the community and the industry.
What are the Hilton's plans to upgrade and develop its hotels in Egypt?
Ensuring our hotels are keeping up with our global brand standards is a priority for us. We welcome industry innovations and strive to remain one step ahead of the competition, while also meeting and exceeding guest expectations.
Later this year, Hilton Luxor Resort and Spa will re-open following a tremendous renovation and development programme to the tune of $40 million. Set in the "the world's greatest open-air museum", Luxor will feature the city's first world-class spa. There are also renovation plans for Ramses Hilton that are currently being discussed with the owning company, as well as the renovation of the food and beverage outlets at Conrad Cairo, which will take place this year.
In your own view, what are Hilton and Conrad's new initiatives in the Egyptian market?
It is well known that Hilton is a global pioneer in the hotel industry. Throughout its history in Egypt, we have contributed many initiatives and ideas that benefited the development and success of the hotel industry. We are currently in the midst of introducing a leading new technology known as "OnQ", a proprietary system owned by the company, to all Hilton and Conrad hotels in Egypt. This technology replaces the current administrative system with the aim of increasing customer service and facilitating management processes.
One of our most important initiatives is that we are the only hotel company to provide an integrated resort-marketing product. "Hilton Worldwide Resorts" was created specifically for our leisure guests in resort destinations. In Egypt alone, we manage 13 Hilton worldwide resorts. We continue to provide new and innovative marketing programmes to fulfil customer needs, such as "Pack and Go" for promoting and developing domestic tourism. We also have comprehensive solutions for meetings with a unique product called "Hilton Meetings". And these are just a few.
How would you describe the Egyptian market from a tourism and hotel sector perspective?
The Egyptian market is one of the biggest in the region. Thanks to direct foreign investment, the Egyptian tourism sector has reached 30 per cent, and tourism, as you know, is considered one of the most important economic sectors in Egypt, which in turn provides job opportunities, whether direct or indirect. The number of tourist arrivals in Egypt during 2007, according to the official figures, reached 9.79 million. This is an increase of 12.7 per cent compared to 2006. Additionally, the 2007 tourism competitiveness indicator ranked Egypt in 58th place on an international level among 124 countries.
We strongly support tourism growth in Egypt through many activities. Our regional sales and marketing teams are constantly participating in all marketing exhibitions and trips organised by the Egyptian Tourist Authority. We also assist the Ministry of Tourism in reinforcing relationships between Egypt and the largest international travel agencies from various markets, in addition to supporting ministry activities in developing new source markets.
In your opinion, what are the challenges hindering tourism sector expansion?
There are still many challenges facing the industry in terms of infrastructure, including integrated land, maritime and an air transportation network (which includes issues such as the facilitation of arrivals and departures from airports). However, Egypt is already working on this by upgrading all national airport infrastructures. One of the factors that will help tourism grow in Egypt is implementing an "open air" strategy, consequently increasing the number of key airlines serving all resorts and in turn increasing the volume of direct reservations, especially through the Internet.
Of particular interest is online reservations, considered one of the most important elements of our strategy. In fact, we have managed to achieve a 100 per cent increase in our online business last year and online reservations are expected to double yet again this year.