Mohammed Arshad was working as a cleaner for a contracting company at the corporate office of the InterContinental Hotels Group in Dubai, and living in a labour camp. But the group's vice president for human resources was so impressed by the 25-year-old Pakistani's eagerness to learn that now he is working as a waiter at the five-star InterContinental Dubai Festival City's conference and events centre, and he is training to become a supervisor.
He is just one of 33,000 employees that InterContinental is aiming to hire to work at the 46 hotels it plans to open in the Middle East and Africa in the next three years. "We're adding at least 50 per cent to our portfolio in the next three years, and it doesn't matter whether you're talking about hotels, the number of employees we need or the number of rooms," said John Bamsey, the InterContinental's chief operating officer for the Middle East and Africa. InterContinental already has the largest presence of any hotel company in the region, with 76 properties in the Middle East.
"We need a combination of people who have got industry experience and people who haven't got industry experience. Clearly there are a number of challenges." Hotels in the Middle East and Africa were hit hard by the global economic crisis. In January, hotel occupancies in the region fell 2.3 per cent to 54.8 per cent from January last year, with the average daily room rate decreasing 1.9 per cent to US$170.20 (Dh625.11), data from the London research company STR Global show.
Still, the InterContinental group is pushing ahead with plans to open a further seven hotels in the UAE. Those plans include an InterContinental hotel at Al Raha beach development in Abu Dhabi; InterContinental hotels in Ras al Khaimah and Fujairah; and two more Crowne Plaza hotels in Dubai. The group already has 16 hotels in the country and is opening a Holiday Inn Express at Dubai International Airport this month.
But some of the group's projects were experiencing delays, Mr Bamsey said. "The overall level of construction activity has been so huge that people have been more optimistic about how fast they can actually turn a development drawing into a fully operational hotel." Dubai has started to see an improvement in its occupancy levels, but room rates are still down significantly from the boom times before the global downturn.
Occupancies in Dubai increased by 6.1 per cent in January over the same month last year, reaching 72.1 per cent. Average daily room rates, however, were down 23.4 per cent to $180.26 in the emirate. "You will see recovery," Mr Bamsey said. "If Europe has been in economic recession, when those markets pick up, there will be more disposable income and people will travel more, so the markets will come back. The fundamentals of Dubai and the Gulf are very strong. It's still within six-and-a-half hours of 1.9 billion people."
The region simply needs to ride out the crisis, he said. "I have a surfboard in my office. I don't surf, but it's a way of articulating to my team: 'ride the wave'." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org