Interview: Bastien Blanc, vice president for operations - Middle East, InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG)

Interview: Bastien Blanc, vice president for operations - Middle East, InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG)
Published: 20 November 2018 - 6 a.m.

1. Could you please provide details about your properties operating in Riyadh? [keys, mice, F&B, facilities, etc.]

We currently have eight hotels in Riyadh across three brands - InterContinental, Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn to cater to a broad range of guests with different needs. We are the largest international hotel group in Saudi Arabia, both by number of hotels and number of rooms, and in the capital city we have in excess of 1,500 rooms under management, more than 75 meeting venues and over 20 dining outlets. Saudi Arabia is central to our expansion plans in the Middle East and we have more hotels in the pipeline in Riyadh including three hotel openings in the coming two years and we are also looking at bringing our new brands to the market.

2. What are the nationalities that top your bookings? Could you elaborate on your key source markets and segments?

The majority of inbound and regional business into KSA is comprised of travelers from the GCC followed by USA, UK and Europe. With religious travel at the core of Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry, the market geography spreads further into Asia and beyond. However, we are now witnessing an increasingly diversified pool of guests from domestic and international markets. With Riyadh, in particular, government, corporate and meetings are top segments for business.

3. Regarding occupancy levels, ADA and RevPar, how was the performance in Q4 2017 and 2018 so far? What were the key indicators for the performance?

According to the latest STR reports, Riyadh market has grown slightly in occupancies, but pressure remains on the ADR, which makes the market competitive. The mid-to long-term indicators for Saudi Arabia are still strong and we are continuing with our plans to expand our footprint in the kingdom. To combat any difficult trading conditions, we are focused on prioritizing digital and technological innovations and driving loyalty through our direct channels. Our new guest reservation system, Concerto, is in place in half of our properties and is due to cover all properties by 2019. With strong distribution systems, preferred brands and a best in class loyalty program, we are confident about the future.

4. What is your prediction for occupancy levels, ADA and RevPar in 2019?

Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector is a significant component of its economic transformation under Vision 2030, which bodes well for the hospitality industry. With the upgrading of infrastructure, such as Riyadh Metro, and implementation of various reforms, including relaxation of visa rules, we believe that the industry is moving in the right direction. However, with operational costs continually rising and a push to diversify the Kingdom, the market is expected face some headwinds. The development of free zones such as KAFD will definitely be of great support to the economy.

5. What are some the challenges you face as a hotelier in the region?

At IHG, our people are our greatest asset but finding the right talent can also be one of our biggest challenges. We are committed to hiring, developing and retaining local talent, and to increase the proportion of the employable workforce, we have a programme called the IHG Academy, which is a pioneering global collaboration between IHG and local education and community providers. We continue to invest in our people to ensure that our customers receive great service and memorable experiences.

6. How do you foresee hospitality in Riyadh growing compared to Makkah/Madinah and neighboring GCC countries?

Religious tourism will always drive hospitality and travel to Makkah and Madinah. The recently inaugurated high-speed Haramain railway linking Jeddah to Makkah and Madinah will, undoubtedly, increase day and overnight visits to the holy cities. This is an exciting development for the cities and is reflective of the Kingdom’s larger efforts to boost tourism across the country. On the other hand, Riyadh will continue to focus on conventions and events to drive tourism. Riyadh is quickly becoming an exhibition hub and is home to some of the GCC’s newest entertainment shows and festivals.

These developments are unique to Saudi Arabia, and we believe that the country will continue to grow and diversify its touristic offering while maintaining its own identity and DNA.

7. How do you think the recently introduced tourist visa for events will change the hospitality scene in Saudi?

It is too early to tell if the recently introduced visas for events will change the hospitality landscape in Saudi. However, the announcement has generated a lot of international interest and has brought people’s attention to several tourist attractions, like the Formula E race, that are now available in Saudi Arabia. The discovery and opening of the many hidden and historical sites in the Kingdom is also important. This presents a big opportunity – it attracts tourists who want to come and explore KSA for its rich history and the raw beauty. I am proud to share that we have IHG branded hotels across some of country’s greatest historical sites like the Red Sea Port of Jeddah.
8. What are some of the upcoming attractions in the region?

As part of Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is looking to promote culture and entertainment across the country. While there are several new attractions that are now available, perhaps the most exciting is the recent partnership between the Saudi General Sports Authority and World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). The partnership is bringing the ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’ event to the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah.

This is an exciting partnership and will certainly appeal to the young population of Saudi Arabia. We have a Crowne Plaza right across the street from the stadium and we expect an increase in hotel stays on the back of this memorable event.

9. Do you have a fair share in the Riyadh tourism and hospitality market?

We have a strong legacy in Saudi Arabia having opened the first InterContinental hotel in Riyadh in 1975. IHG is the largest international hotel operator, not only in KSA but also in Riyadh where we hold almost 30% of the market. Looking to the future, we are encouraged by KSA’s Vision 2030 and, given our regional presence, we are well placed to add strategic value with our growing brand portfolio.

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