Moving forward with history
For decades, the iconic Nile Hilton Hotel stood tall on the banks of the River Nile; its diverse outlets left memorable moments in the hearts and minds of its guests and employees. The hotel is now owned by the luxury Ritz-Carlton chain, and for the past year operated under the name Nile Hotel. At a recent news conference, it was announced that the hotel will soon close its doors to undergo major renovations and re-open by 2012.
In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Simon Cooper, the president and chief operating officer of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, spoke to Amira El-Naqeeb about the beginning of a new era in luxury hospitality in Egypt. Cooper is in charge of overseeing the operations development and strategic positioning of one of the world's most powerful brands and luxury groups.
The Nile Hilton was the first international hotel to launch in Egypt 50 years ago; it is considered the "godfather" of the hospitality industry here. How do you intend to compete with that?
The Nile Hilton was a benchmark for luxury hospitality 50 years ago; it was a landmark around the world. It was built when Hilton built this one along with those in Istanbul, Athens and Rome. Our plans are to do two things. First, create a benchmark for global luxury hotels for 2012 and onwards; second, take the history that was developed over 50 years and put enough of it in the future.
I want people, especially in Cairo, to know that we respect this history. I want them to know that we understand what the famous winding staircase which had 15,000 couples photographed on it means. We understand people who walked through these doors and respect the memories and know what this history means. We all know what a luxury hotel needs physically, but here we are dealing with emotions.
In this regard, I have to thank my partners in the project Fathi Nour, chairman of Misr Hotels, and Ali Abdel-Aziz, CEO and chairman of the Holding Company for Tourism, Hotels and Cinema (HOTAC), because they guided us through the whole process of what should go and what should stay.
How do you intend to preserve some of the history while moving onwards?
In a contemporary room we would put old photographs of the hotel; also, we are looking [into maintaining] the Belvedere but modernising it. I think the shisha terrace might be exactly where it is today -- it's too popular -- but we will definitely change the furniture. What I want to say is that this hotel is going to be very approachable, very welcoming. People have to feel emotionally uplifted as a result of visiting the hotel.
How much time will these renovations take?
Approximately two years, the extent of the work is gigantic. We knocked down offices in the back, which primarily was the main entrance, and where [former] president Gamal Abdel-Nasr used to enter. Now, we have the total vista open from the front to the back.
We are also building a ballroom that would be appropriate for heads of states today; the new ballroom is a great example of what you need today in luxury hotels. We will keep the old ballroom, but state banquets would be held in the new one. Also, a new state-of-the-art conference centre covering an area of 1,700 square metre will be built. The government will be proud to host its functions there.
Last year, the original plan was to work on renovations without shutting down. Why the change in strategy?
I don't know where the original plan came from, but we weren't party to it. Our original arrangement was to integrate the balcony in the guest rooms; the minute you do that you can't have guests in the hotel. It was critical for the hotel to have large rooms in order to compete with other luxury hotels, so the balconies would become incorporated in the rooms. As you see on the computer-generated renderings, the new hotel has a glass façade without balconies.
While the hotel functioned for one year under the name Nile Hotel, we tore down the offices in the back and eventually closed the rooms there as well.
It is reported that the Ritz-Carlton is interested in several properties in Egypt. Could you elaborate?
We have definitely looked at some places; we want to be in Alexandria, on the Nile and in Luxor, We are already operating the Golf Courts in [the suburban area on the outskirts of Cairo] Palm Hills, and this is the only signed deal. There will also be a hotel in Palm Hills which is a ground up construction, and we will start operations in the Spring.
We are involved in Marrasi [on the North Coast], although there are no signed deals yet. All these projects, frankly, were stimulated by getting Cairo.
What are the challenges facing investing in Egypt?
As the Ritz-Carlton, we didn't face any problems. Misr Hotels dealt with all the issues; we just told them what we need to get the operation running, and they worked on getting the approvals. I know for sure it wasn't easy to get permits to knock down buildings in Egypt, especially if they are governmental.
How do you see the future of tourism in Egypt in the coming 10 years?
I think Egypt dealt with last year's recession very well. It is taking tourism very seriously and is building the right infrastructure to support it. If you look at the airports in Sharm El-Sheikh and Luxor, they are very good; and now in Cairo we have the new Terminal Three. This is important because people have to fly here, so you need good airlines with good services and good runways.
What gives Egypt an edge over other destinations?
In my opinion, Egypt has the best of the two worlds. There is Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab, Hurghada, all inexpensive compared to other European destinations, easily accessed from Europe, and guaranteed good weather. This will ensure charter tourism, which is one market. Another new market, like Russia, has become aware of these qualities.
Egypt also has cultural heritage, like in Luxor, Aswan and the Pyramids, that is unsurpassed by any country in the world.
You have travelled around Egypt, what would be your favourite destination?
My favourite spot is St Catherine.
The Ritz-Carlton Reserve boutique hotel was recently inaugurated in Thailand. Would you consider introducing a similar thing in Egypt?
The concept of a reserve hotel is a secluded, hard to reach hotel, at an exquisite location. If Egypt lets me do it in St Catherine, I would do it in a heartbeat. However, I'm sure there are a lot of other great locations which would suit the concept. Many people don't like to leave the Middle East, so all we have to do is provide them with great escapes in the region.
By Amira El-Naqeeb