Discussing Saudi Arabia’s Hotel Industry and the Success Story of Crowne Plaza Riyadh RDC Hotel

Delve into the dynamics of the hotel industry in Saudi Arabia with Khaled Hafneh from IHG for Riyadh Central. Khaled shares insights on the transformative impact of Vision 2030, and unveils the evolution of inbound tourism, marking a paradigm shift in the local landscape. Discover the unique elements that set Crowne Plaza Riyadh RDC Hotel apart and gain valuable perspectives on talent development, marketing strategies, and the hotel’s pivotal role in hosting high-profile events.

Khaled Hafneh, Area Director of Sales and Marketing at IHG for Riyadh Central

Interview with Khaled Hafneh, Area Director of Sales and Marketing at IHG for Riyadh Central

Could you provide an overview of the hotel industry and share your insights on its latest developments in Saudi Arabia?

The hotel industry and hospitality sector as a whole are incredibly dynamic sectors. It involves constant fluctuations, where there are times of high activity and others of relative calm. Working in this field is particularly rewarding, especially if you enjoy meeting people and learning about diverse cultures. The appeal of the industry lies in the fact that it attracts visitors from around the globe.

In the context of Saudi Arabia, the sector is experiencing significant growth, driven by the Vision 2030 initiative. This strategic plan aims to attract investors, increase tourism, and diversify the economy beyond reliance on oil. The country is actively encouraging entrepreneurship, and the hotel industry plays a crucial role in accommodating the growing number of visitors. Hosting events requires sufficient accommodation, and hotels, in particular, showcase the local culture and hospitality. This, in turn, contributes to shaping the country’s image through the interaction of visitors with local staff and society, fostering development.

Over my almost 11 years in Riyadh, I have witnessed a notable transformation. Previously, there was a substantial outbound movement, with many Saudis traveling abroad even for short trips. Now, the trend has shifted, and inbound traffic has surpassed outbound. Despite the country’s significant population, there is a noticeable change in the local scene. Riyadh, for instance, remains bustling even on weekends, contrary to the past when weekends meant a quieter city. The increased activity is evident in the morning, with numerous people frequenting coffee shops, showcasing the evolving lifestyle and preferences of the local population.

This shift reflects the positive growth and changes in Saudi Arabia’s hotel industry, and it is personally gratifying to be part of this dynamic and evolving landscape.

As a seasoned professional in the industry, what was your impression during your initial visit to Crowne Plaza Riyadh RDC Hotel and Convention Center, and what is your vision for the hotel itself?

When I began my journey with Crowne Plaza Riyadh RDC Hotel six years ago during its reopening phase, my first interview left me genuinely surprised by the immense space it offered. It was a departure from the traditional hotel setup where you find a modest lobby, a reception area, a small coffee shop, and elevators leading to the rooms – a straightforward layout. However, our hotel presented a different scenario. It raised questions about whether it was a hotel, a convention center, a mall, or even part of an airport due to its massive scale. Managing such a complex space demanded constant activity and a proactive approach to seize opportunities rather than passively waiting for them. It took considerable effort to position the hotel where it stands today. I firmly believe that we have successfully established the hotel in the right position concerning its reputation, revenue generation, and market intelligence.

Considering future plans, expanding further within the same brand level might prove challenging. There is a possibility of taking the hotel to another brand level for greater reach. Nevertheless, I did not anticipate the level of success we have achieved, especially given the challenging market conditions over the past six years, including the impact of COVID. However, events like Riyadh Season, increased entertainment options, and ongoing city investments have positively influenced the hotel’s returns.

What sets Crowne Plaza Riyadh RDC Hotel apart are its unique elements, unparalleled in any other hotel in Saudi Arabia. While similar offerings may emerge in the future, the hotel remains distinct, comparable to prominent hotels in various international cities like London, for example, where massive hotels boast extensive exhibition spaces and meeting areas. I have observed similar setups in France and Dubai. Riyadh is moving in this direction, and we may see similar products in the future. However, as of now, this hotel is exceptionally unique, from its rooms and meeting spaces to public areas and diverse restaurants. The key differentiator lies in the quality of our people and the exceptional service we consistently provide.

Regarding HR, what is your policy for enhancing the skills of local talents and ensuring they meet the standards required for international clients?

As part of the InterContinental Hotels Group, we have a vision known as “room to grow” for every team member. This is an appealing aspect we offer to all our staff, with a specific focus on encouraging local talents. It is not just about an eight-hour workday and weekends off; it is different. We provide room to grow, facilitating personal development through programs and opportunities. This approach is attractive not only in Saudi Arabia but globally. For Saudis, it is particularly enticing, as it solidifies their career prospects.

I can share a real example, starting with my own journey within the company. Over the course of 5 to 10 years, I progressed from an entry-level position to a department head and now hold the position of Area Director. We offer tangible examples, showcasing that our managers and leaders within the hotel all began at entry-level positions. It is not just theory; it is a reality. This approach encourages individuals, showing them that with commitment, punctuality, and excellence in their tasks, they can progress in their careers. This is evident in our hotel, where many locals started at entry levels and are now in top managerial positions.

We have structured programs and the right leaders to guide individuals on their career paths. This encourages people to stay with us. Looking at our retention and turnover percentage – a key indicator – we know that our company boasts one of the lowest turnover percentages, a significant achievement for us.

As the head of Sales and Marketing, could you share the policies and tools you have implemented that have proven successful?

In terms of tools, we prioritize utilizing the tools provided by the company effectively, which has been a key success story. Not all hotels fully engage in leveraging these tools properly. Additionally, we conduct a thorough market analysis and assess the type of business our hotel attracts. Each hotel has its unique factors, elements, and design, making it imperative to tailor strategies accordingly.

Our approach involves analyzing our strengths, understanding the unique aspects of our hotel, and devising strategies to enhance our business potential. For instance, we initially implemented pricing strategies for rooms, meetings, and the restaurant. However, due to our success stemming from diverse services, a strong and attractive location, and exceptional service quality, we revamped our strategies.

The success and trust we have garnered from consumers have made Crowne Plaza RDC a well-known and preferred venue for events. We believe in the success of our partners’ events as our own success. This has led to collaborations with ministries and major companies, positioning our hotel as the preferred choice in the market. Our success is not solely attributed to luxury but is centered around exceptional service.

Based on this, we adapted our tactics and pricing strategies, swiftly elevating the hotel to the next level. The high demand specifically for our hotel has played a significant role in our rapid progression.

Could you provide information about the exhibitions, meetings, and events you organize? What types of events do you welcome, and what kind of space can you offer to the business community?

We have a total of over 12,000 square meters of meeting space available, which is quite exceptional and not easily found in most hotels. In addition to this, we offer other spaces to provide comprehensive services related to events, including breakout areas, food services, and more. This ensures that we not only have ample space but also alternative areas to deliver services for attendees. This flexibility is a key success factor for us, as we are the only hotel capable of hosting three significant events simultaneously. We have three large ballrooms, with the smallest being 1500 square meters and the largest at 2000 square meters – ideal for hosting sizable events concurrently.

Furthermore, we have the necessary facilities to support attendees, including ample parking space. It is essential to not only have extensive event space but also the convenience of parking for attendees, and we have it all. This unique combination makes our hotel stand out in the city at this moment.

What is something that you are proud of?

One notable success is our role in hosting the G20 summit in 2020 right here in Riyadh. Despite the challenges posed by COVID and the lockdown, our hotel served as the operational center for this massive event. It was a tremendous success, something to be proud of. We played a pivotal role in facilitating a highly successful event for the government and the country. The uniqueness of this success lies in orchestrating multiple concurrent events. For instance, simultaneous meetings for ministers of foreign affairs, a media center with representatives from all 20 countries, and discussions on investment and the economy were all happening concurrently. This success story did not end there.

Another significant achievement was hosting the Riyadh Season. For four consecutive years, their headquarters were located within our hotel. We actively partnered with them, providing essential support for planning, execution, and meetings before they moved to their headquarters in King Abdullah Financial District.

While there are many other success stories, one that truly stands out for me is when decision-makers approach me on the last day of an event and express their immediate interest in booking for the next year. This has happened with events like Formula E, the Spanish League, WWE wrestling, and numerous other significant gatherings.

We actively contribute our support to various associations in the country, such as the Saudi Heart Association. They require spacious venues for a variety of events, including meetings, workshops, and talk hubs. For instance, the Saudi Heart Association recently hosted its sixth edition event at our hotel, featuring discussions and workshops conducted by eminent doctors. Additionally, we host annual events for the Plastic Surgery Association and the Association for Medical Eyes, adding to our diverse portfolio.

The list goes on, with numerous other associations choosing our venue for their events. The recurring presence of these organizations in our hotel is a testament to our success and the trust they place in the quality of our services. It marks a significant achievement for us.

What are the current projects you are working on at the moment?

Currently, one of our ongoing projects involves elevating the menu of our Peruvian restaurant. Additionally, by mid to late February, we are gearing up to unveil our latest addition, the Habanos Cigar Lounge. Recognizing the considerable number of cigar enthusiasts among our hotel visitors, we believe this will be an exceptional space. When you visit next, we would love to showcase the newly renovated lounge, designed in a trendy and luxurious manner.

We are also focusing on expanding our outdoor activities, introducing a new outdoor coffee shop to take advantage of the changing weather. With our ample space and inviting landscaping, we aim to offer a delightful outdoor experience. Given the diverse climate in Saudi Arabia, ranging from very hot to cold during winter, people particularly enjoy outdoor spaces in the winter season. Our expectations are high as we have observed people relishing their time outdoors. Last year, we created dedicated outdoor areas for the World Cup, complete with a large screen and special offerings. This year, despite the absence of the World Cup, we are expanding these outdoor activities to capitalize on the general interest in outdoor and sports activities.

Another significant project involves continuous improvement in our service quality. With an increasing crowd from the Digital City in our vicinity, we are reorganizing our parking space, which has become a substantial revenue generator. We have engaged a new company to manage the parking area, presenting a significant opportunity for us.

Furthermore, we are delving into the co-working space concept by renting out offices to businesses. We have already initiated this and have ongoing discussions with major entities in Riyadh to provide them with office spaces for their companies and expansion plans. These initiatives have opened up new opportunities, and we are actively pursuing them.

What is your vision for Crowne Plaza Riyadh RDC Hotel?

After exploring the market and identifying ongoing opportunities, which are still growing, we realized the need for continuous exploration. Our plan involves extensive international travel, attending major exhibitions globally, spanning from east to west. This year, we have participated in events like IMEX in Frankfurt and Vegas, as well as WTM in London. The plan is to continue attending these and expand our reach to the Eastern Gate in the coming years. We see significant potential in countries like China, South Korea, Japan, and Australia, considering the various agreements between governments. For instance, a recent agreement between the Saudi Minister of Investment and the French Minister of Investment, signed in our hotel, indicates upcoming business ventures in Saudi Arabia. We aim to seize opportunities from specific countries. In three years, I envision the hotel operating at a different level, influenced by demand, improved services, and a crucial focus on consistency. I can confidently state that Crowne Plaza RDC will emerge as one of the most important hotels in KSA within this timeframe.

Is there something else you would like to add?

Emphasizing opportunities and people, success is impossible without the right people. We take pride in the individuals we recruit and develop. Over the past six years, many of our team members have advanced their careers, with some now leading in different hotels. A noteworthy example is the team that moved on to open the first hotel in the Red Sea project, Six Senses in Red Sea. This achievement at our sister hotel reflects our commitment to nurturing talent and creating opportunities. Developing people will remain a continuous priority, and we anticipate sharing more success stories in our future interactions or interviews in the years to come.

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