The hotel industry has been rocked by the recession and the slowdown in international travel. Selim el Zyr responded by rolling up his shirt sleeves and putting off his plans to take a long-planned rest. It is this enthusiasm that has been a lifelong asset.
Rotana Hotels chief takes a late check-out for retirement
Selim el Zyr, the president and chief executive of Rotana Hotels, should have been bidding his farewells and preparing for a well-deserved retirement. But instead of planning trips to the mountains and perfecting his golf swing, the 60-year-old Lebanese hotelier now finds himself grappling with the global economic crisis. Managers at the Abu Dhabi-based company, which Mr el Zyr co-founded, want to take advantage of his four decades of expertise to help them through the current climate. "I was ready to go," he says. "It's a different ball game now." Mr el Zyr has agreed to stay for another two years. After all, he had planned to keep his seat on Rotana's board in retirement, working half-days. The enthusiasm he conveys as he talks about his thwarted retirement makes it difficult to imagine him ever taking a back seat in the company. "I always find something to do," Mr el Zyr says. "Even on Friday, I wake up at 6.30 in the morning and think I am late." The hotel industry worldwide has been rocked by the recession and a slowdown in international travel. Hotel companies keen to expand find that strategy more difficult as loans are harder to obtain. But Rotana's management says it is not daunted by the sour economy. The company is pushing ahead with expansion plans to have 67 hotels in the MENA region by 2012. Rotana has six openings in Abu Dhabi alone scheduled for the next quarter, including two properties on Yas Island that will open in time for the Formula One events at the end of October. Mr el Zyr explains that he never imagined the company would grow to be so big, originally thinking it would have six hotels at most. "You build things step by step," he says. "You don't jump in life. We started this company as a very modest company." Mr el Zyr says that as a teenager in Lebanon, he had little experience of hotels. Raised in Beirut in the 1950s, family travel was limited to a couple of trips to Damascus by car. He says he vividly remembers the day he walked into the InterContinental Phoenicia Hotel, located near his school, when it opened. He was 16. "I was amazed by what I saw: the escalators, people in uniforms, limousines, drivers, the doorman, the valet. All this glitter and fountains," Mr el Zyr says. "This is the day when I thought this was going to be my business." A schoolfriend whose father managed the printing operations at the hotel later introduced him to the food and beverage manager, who advised him to study at the prestigious hospitality school in Switzerland he had attended. He "told me that he didn't know if they would accept me", Mr El Zyr says. "It was extremely difficult to get into Lausanne." He applied to the L'Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, received notice of his acceptance three months before his 18th birthday and entered the school as the youngest student in his class. Mr el Zyr had been taught French at school but in Switzerland he had to take up four more languages: English, Italian, Spanish and German. These later proved useful as he spent time in various European countries to fulfil course requirements and gain work experience. Tuition and board were expensive; fees alone were about US$4,000 a year, about five times the amount his parents had paid for his school fees in Lebanon. They were supportive of his vocation, although it was not a world they knew or understood. His father worked for an oil company and in construction, doing whatever he could to make money. "When I went and told him I wanted to be in a hotel business he did not not really understand, but he said, 'Do what you want, but you have to be the best in what you do'," Mr el Zyr says. "I think I owe a lot of my personality to my father." He heeded his father's words, graduating at the top of his class in Lausanne and winning a scholarship to Cornell University to attend its famous hospitality school. After graduating in 1970, Mr el Zyr took a job at New York's renowned Waldorf Astoria. His official title was assistant chief steward. "That means I was the assistant of the guy who was in charge of dishwashing," he explains. Over 12 years, he worked his way up the management chain in a variety of positions including food and beverage manager, general manager and area manager. Mr el Zyr then spent a dozen years with Hilton International in Germany, Spain, Egypt, Canada and the UAE. In 1982, he was offered a job as the general manager of Hilton Beirut. He brought his family back to Lebanon but the hotel never opened. The Lebanese civil war was raging and the hotel was shelled. Eventually it was demolished. Mr el Zyr was reluctant to move again and instead set up Juicy Burger, a fast-food chain with some friends. After a few years he missed the hotel business so he returned to the UAE in 1987 to work for Abu Dhabi National Hotels (ADNH), which was founded and chaired by Nasser al Nowais. The men had met a decade earlier, bonding over their shared passion for the hospitality industry. When Mr al Nowais left ADNH in 1992, Mr el Zyr decided to follow him. Together they set up Rotana and opened the Beach Rotana in Abu Dhabi. Soon, deals to manage more properties came together. Mr el Zyr insists he "will age in Lebanon", but calls Abu Dhabi his second home, having spent more time working here than in his home country. Two of his sons work for Rotana; one as the director of development, and the other as a front-of-house manager. The hotels will fare well during the slowdown, largely because it is a local company, Mr el Zyr says. "We have the knowledge of the area, we are from here, we speak the language," he says. The company has no plans to expand beyond MENA. "We had proposals to go to Europe, India, Pakistan, but we're not ready yet," he says. "In the good days we were signing 15 agreements a year. We anticipate we will now sign six or seven new hotels a year." Me el Zyr says that of the company's hotels, those in Dubai have been the worst hit by the downturn because just as demand dropped, new hotels opened increasing the supply of rooms available. He says he believes the business climate will stabilise. Rotana's goal is to expand to 100 hotels. "I think it's an attainable target," he says. firstname.lastname@example.org