At a time when most hoteliers in Dubai are plagued by worry, Philip Barnes, the regional vice president of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts and general manager of Fairmont Dubai, is in his element.
A seasoned hotelier, with more than three decades in some of the world's most luxurious hotels behind him, he relishes challenges. "When all the hotels were making money, when all the restaurants were full, you could get away with anything," he says. "To my way of thinking, that's not fun." With new hotels springing up left, right and centre, and with weaker demand and steep falls in room prices, Mr Barnes has the perfect challenge to keep him amused.
"If it was easy, everybody could do it," he says. He took up the role as general manager of the luxury hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road only last May, at a time when business was declining. "It was easy for a lot of people before. It's not easy any more. I think the winds are blowing against us." He is a down-to-earth and affable character whose British accent at times lapses into a Texan drawl, and there are hints of an Aussie twang.
"I've got a dog's breakfast for an accent," he says, explaining his wife is American and that he has picked up the intonations heard in the places he has lived, having left the UK early in his career and not returning to live there since. Despite his success, there is no air of arrogance about Mr Barnes. "I think the biggest challenge that anybody can have in what they do is if they reach a point where they think they know it all. There's only one way from there and that's down. You don't walk into the Fairmont Dubai after 30-odd years of hotel management and say I know how to run this hotel. I know how to run components of it, but there's an awful lot to learn before you start making decisions about the way things should or shouldn't be."
Mr Barnes has spent most of his life seeking new opportunities to keep pushing himself. His quest has taken him around the world. He was born in Manchester in the north of England and moved south to the village of Copthorne. At 19 became a trainee manager at the newly opened Copthorne Hotel. The hotel would turn out to be the beginnings of the British hospitality giant Millennium and Copthorne Hotels.
But after a couple of years he left for London to carve out his own development path. He joined the Lex Service Group, which operated a number of hotels in the US and UK, and used this as a springboard out of the UK into Chicago and the world of luxury hotels. "I was very fortunate to get an opportunity to go to the United States at a time when it was very difficult to get work permits and everything else. I pushed for it. I'd grown up in the UK and it was all I knew and I wanted to get out and I wanted to see other parts of the world."
Growing up in the UK, he had no personal experience of high-end hotels. "We never stayed in hotels. It was camping or bed and breakfast. So when I got into the hotel business, it was a world that was quite alien in many respects because I didn't grow up with any of the experiences." At 30, he joined Four Seasons at its Hotel Pierre in New York. "The hotel industry really was in a huge state of evolution. You were seeing small luxury hotels being introduced. You were seeing new brands being introduced. When I joined Four Seasons in 1984, it was a baby and hadn't been around that long."
On his 35th birthday, he started his first general manager role at a Four Seasons hotel in Houston, Texas, after a stint in Toronto. He met his wife in Texas, and after that he worked for Four Seasons and other brands including Shangri-La, going to Singapore, New Zealand and Australia before joining Fairmont in Vancouver, where he spent nine years. "To me one of the things that has been fascinating about doing what I do is going around and being able to live in all these different cultures."
But, he says that after moving to Dubai in 2007 to take on a role as Fairmont Hotels' Middle East vice president of development, he established his home in Vancouver. "Sometimes you have to leave somewhere to know how good it was. Home is now Vancouver. I have a house in Vancouver. I have a circle of friends there that I have known for an average of eight to 10 years. I think the problem with being in the hotel business is that a lot of hoteliers don't know where they want to end up. I think it's really important that you work that out somewhere along the way. We didn't work it out until we actually left and came here that it was somewhere we wanted to be in the long haul."
Despite exposure to the rich and famous, Mr Barnes displays a healthy scepticism about wealth. "Hotel people get pretty jaded because they see an awful lot of stuff and they see an awful lot of wealth and if they're not careful they can think they're entitled to it," he says. He has hosted countless celebrities over the years, but says this has often led to disappointment. "Some, you'd really rather forget. My children sometimes will be watching television and they'll go, 'papa, there's that guy you really hate'. Some of them are so badly behaved and it's not necessary and it's unpleasant."
But he concedes that partying with The Who in 1979 in the Whitehall Hotel in Chicago was a highlight. A keen amateur guitarist and music lover, Mr Barnes has a collection of six guitars, including a vintage 1972 Guild and a 1991 Les Paul Goldtop. "Every band stayed there, from the Rolling Stones to Fleetwood Mac. That guest list was a who's who. But to be honest, you try to keep a distance." He chuckles as he reminisces about meeting Queen Elizabeth II at the Four Seasons in New Zealand.
"The queen was very nice, but what do you say to the queen? We were in the elevator and she looks at me and asks, 'how many staff do you have in the hotel?' I had to stop and think about it for a minute because I was totally unprepared for the question. When I replied, she said 'oh'. It was very awkward." Other experiences were less of a trial. "Richard Burton used to stay with us in Chicago all the time and he was an absolute delight," he says. "I think I met three wives. But he was just a really pleasant, nice man to deal with."
Mr Barnes came to Dubai as the company started to expand in the region, including in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. After two years, Fairmont appointed individual vice presidents for its operations in those countries, so he handed the projects over and was keen to get back into a hotel-based role. There is plenty to keep him busy, as corporate business has slumped and new hotels opening on his patch are competing for customers. "It just sort of made sense from my perspective to stop the travel and land back in a hotel. While I really enjoyed what I did for a couple of years, at the end of the day I am still a hotelier. I'm at a point where I do what I do because I really enjoy it. This is a lot more fun." firstname.lastname@example.org
Watch Rolex. It was my father's. I gave it to him, and when he passed away it became mine. To me it is not just a Rolex. Car I do not have a car. I walk to work.
Restaurant Spectrum on One. Book I have just finished a Neil Young biography. Music John Mayer, Eric Clapton. Film Disney's The Jungle Book. Sport Going to the gym. Gadget/Mobile Hate them. Last Holiday How about my next holiday; I am going to the Olympic bronze and gold men's hockey [games] in Vancouver. Pets Two dogs and a cat Children Two boys and a girl
Secret pleasure A plate of sashimi and a glass of champagne on a Friday after the gym Key to success You have to be passionate about what you do. If you love what you do and you're driven, you'll be good at what you do.