Rami Sayess is the General Manager of the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut and the Regional Vice President for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. He sat down with MET&T in Beirut to discuss the impact of local and regional events on Beirut’s luxury hotel and event industry, steps the company has taken to find additional opportunities for both local and expat staff during unexpected slower periods, and the expansion possibilities for the brand throughout the region.
Interview by John Nicholson, Editor-in-Chief, Middle East Travel and Tourism (MET&T)
MET&T: Can you give us little sense of your background? Where are you from and what’s your background in the hospitality industry?
Rami Sayess: I’m originally from Lebanon, but I’m also British. So, I’m a dual citizen. I grew up in Lebanon until high school, then went to Switzerland where I studied hotel management, then I went to Cornell University in the United States to continue with my education.
I started initially with InterContinental Hotels, so I was very lucky to have moved around a lot from food and beverage to rooms and then to sales and marketing. I moved 15 times and lived in 15 different countries working with different companies. So, it was great to get the perspective of the industry from different cultures.
I’ve worked for several international chains over the years and eventually joined Four Seasons 15 years ago. For the last four years, I have been based in Beirut as regional vice president, overseeing hotels within the EMEA region, including Mauritius Tunis, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and so forth.
MET&T: When did this Four Seasons property here in Beirut open?
Rami Sayess: It opened in 2010, so this is our 10th anniversary actually, which we just celebrated in January.
MET&T: And was it always your ambition to try to get back to Beirut?
Rami Sayess: I think the circumstances brought us here. It wasn’t a plan, as much as it was my children getting to an age where my wife and I felt that it would be nice for them to spend some time here, learn the language, and study the culture. At the same time, there was a vacancy, and the company approached me first, being from Lebanon and knowing that I had that interest. So, it was just circumstances.
MET&T: Can you give us a sense of how you have seen the hospitality scene in Beirut evolve over the course of both your lifetime and more specifically in the past four years since you’ve been back here?
Rami Sayess: For sure it has been a roller coaster. We’ve had great years; we’ve had bad years. We’ve also had different ups and downs within one year. I arrived here in March 2016 and we had an amazing three years. We just basically grew the business year over year. In 2016, business went up 20% over 2015, and then in 2017 it went up 100%. So, we’ve really doubled the profits.
In 2018, there were some events happening, as you may recall, with the Prime Minister of Lebanon. This really affected us, but we still did pretty well. In 2019, we were forecasting to triple our net profit compared to 2015, and we were having a record year. So, we’ve had really a great ride in the last three years and nine months, until the last three months.
Having said that, I truly believe that in the longer term business is going to come back. It will bounce back. This is a painful period we’re going through because our business gets affected immediately by what happens around us. But you have some fixed costs that you need to deal with, and that’s what we’ve been doing over the last three months here.
It helps being part of a global company like Four Seasons. We’ve already arranged for almost 25% of our employees to go and help on task forces in other Four Seasons, so that really brings down our labor costs. And we took several other measures to reduce utilities, expenses, and so forth to really manage the cash flow. So, it’s a cycle. We’re now at the bottom of it, but I personally believe it’s going to come back.
MET&T: What can you tell me about the hospitality scene now in Beirut? Do you think that Four Seasons has any competition here?
Rami Sayess: Yes, certainly. Obviously, there are other hotels, and also on the food and beverage scene there are freestanding restaurants and so much great competitions out there. Today, everybody is affected somehow. Some restaurants have closed down. I think the number is over 300, which is very painful to see. I believe some hotels will not be able to sustain themselves if this continues for too long. But I think what’s been interesting in the last few years, because of so many new outlets coming online, it became more competitive for everyone. It’s nice to have a challenge.
Being a 10-year-old hotel, we have plans to renovate, which we started working on almost 18 months ago now. We’re almost in the last phase of getting the new designs finalized for the restaurants and for the lobby where we’re sitting. We renovated our beautiful rooftop last year and did it really well. The rooftop used to be only a summer outlet, but with the new design now it’s a winter bar as well. So, you could go up in the winter and it’s heated, closed, and beautiful.
So that was the first phase. Then we have the restaurant going to be done on the third floor here, and all of the rooms. So, we have great plans for the hotel. And now, because the occupancy is low, we’re trying to accelerate the process because we can afford to work on the floors without affecting the guests.
MET&T: How have your occupancy rates been impacted over the past couple of weeks and months?
Rami Sayess: Within three days of the events of 17 October, we dropped from 100%, because we were running full house, to 4%. That was the immediate drop. We ended November at 10%, which was the lowest I have seen since I’ve been here for four years. I’ve seen lower when I was in Thailand when we had the flooding, but that was very very low. We picked up a little bit in December because of Christmas, but it was just to around 20%, which is still very low. Traditionally we are at 80-85%. It’s high season, but in January we only did 17%. Now [in February] we’re running around 10-11% this month, so it’s very low.
MET&T: When you say it dropped off from 100% to 4%, are those just cancellations of foreign visitors, or does that also include cancellations of weddings, events, and banquets that were being held here?
Rami Sayess: It’s a combination. The good thing over the last couple of years is that we have had a lot of foreign tourists coming to Lebanon from South America and Europe. And obviously we’ve had business people, which was nice to see because they replaced some of the Gulf business we’ve lost in the last couple of years. Visitors from some of the Gulf countries have dropped because of travel advisories and other political reasons. So, we lost that.
As for weddings, we had 24 weddings on the books for the last two months of the year and that dropped to four, so 20 wedding bookings were canceled. Some of them went to Dubai or Cyprus because people were not going to come to to Lebanon.
Over the last few years Lebanon had become a place for destination weddings for people from Jordan, for a lot of Syrian families, and even from as far away as India, which was quite interesting. But we lost all of that, unfortunately, at least in the short term.
MET&T: You mentioned earlier that one of the ways in which you’ve adapted to the drop in occupancy and the issues that are going on politically in Beirut was by sending staff to other properties. Are those mostly the foreign staff members or do they include Lebanese staff as well?
Rami Sayess: Both. Most of the foreign senior staff had to leave, but the good thing is that they’ve done a great job where we’ve sent them. Some of them were offered permanent jobs, which is great. My assistant hotel manager went to Dubai to help. She did an amazing job, there was a vacancy, and they offered her a full-time job. So she now has transferred to Dubai, which is great because she is still in the same company.
But most of our staff members are Lebanese, including the department heads, assist managers, and junior staff. It helped that November, December, and even January are high season months in some of our other hotels, so they needed the help. And it makes me very proud that they’ve all done such a great job that a lot of them are being offered permanent positions now. We’re encouraging them to do that because we don’t know how long this is going to take. At least they secure a job with the company and they stay with us.
For the ones who come back, it’s been a great development opportunity for them because they see something different. Some of them have never traveled, so they help the hotels but at the same time they help their careers. And they get paid outside of Lebanon, which is easier for them because it’s very difficult here with the financial situation. So now while they are on assignment, they get paid by the hotels that are receiving or hosting them.
MET&T: Along that same theme, how difficult was it for Four Seasons to recruit staff from the local Lebanese population that are trained up to the Four Seasons standards? Or do you have to spend a significant amount of time investing in training?
Rami Sayess: We certainly invest a lot of time in training, and that started from day one when we opened the hotel. When Four Seasons came the market here, it was really a very new level of luxury in this market. So, certainly, we had to hire people both locally and they had to go through a lot of training, which continues to be the case because we never stop training.
What we have experienced over time now is that whenever a new hotel opens, they usually target our employees because they have a reputation of being well trained. But I think we built a great culture in the hotel where a number of employees have been here since opening or a number of employees who left to try something else have come back, so it’s very encouraging.
It has been difficult sometimes to find employees, but in the last couple of years it became easier because there was stability and security, so a lot of people wanted to come back to Lebanon. It’s always linked to what’s happening in the region. There are a lot of expatriate Lebanese who would love to come back.
MET&T: A city like Beirut has a lot of international journalists coming in to cover events, you have people in finance coming in, as well as staff of international organization and international politicians still coming even during times when tourists stay away. Do you believe that a brand like Four Seasons, which is at the peak of the luxury scale and attracts this type of clientele, is able to weather the political unrest that happens from time to time in this region better than other brands because of this?
Rami Sayess: We’ve had our fair share challenges, but I think we have become more resilient over time and more prepared. We always are thinking ahead. Back in the summer, we were having a regional meeting and, although the outlook was great for Lebanon at the time, we were discussing how we should update our crisis plan. I spoke to my team about it after that and they were wondering why we needed to do that given that we were having such a great year. But I said, you know, we need to be prepared because we never know what might come our way. And that’s what helped when events started here on October 17th. But over time, we’ve been through so many different situations and we have managed to weather those storms.
MET&T: I recently saw a quote from the president of Four Seasons in which he talked about trying to make Four Seasons properties into “destinations within destinations.” Can you talk a little about how you are planning implement that strategy at properties around the region?
Rami Sayess: I think the beauty of how we operate is we allow each local hotel to do what is right in their destination. For example, we don’t dictate that every Four Seasons has to have a buffet restaurant or a rooftop. If it makes sense in one location, great, but if it doesn’t then that’s fine too. We give the liberty to the general manager and the team to really come up with the concept that they believe is right for that market, and that has proven very successful.
So, you might go to one of our hotels and find a trendy rooftop and then you go somewhere else and you find a cigar bar or something else unique. It has to make sense in the market. I think that’s the best way to do it – you go to the market, you really understand what works and what is needed, and we figure out how we can do something different that gives us an edge over the competition. Of course, we still have our standards and our sequence of service, but when it comes to the concepts we really give a lot of freedom to the hotels to decide.
MET&T: Looking at the broader region, in Cairo there are two Four Seasons properties very close to one another on either side of the Nile river. Is that unusual? Why do you think Four Seasons put another property right across the river from where they already had an existing Four Seasons?
Rami Sayess: They are very different properties, but I feel that they complement each other. So really it depends on the circumstances. For example, if you come today and you ask me if we would have another hotel in Beirut, we would do a market study. For this specific question I already happen to know the answer – I would say no. However, it might make sense to have a smaller hotel in the mountains, perhaps a ski resort. So, it has to make sense in the market.
Sometimes it’s circumstantial as well. In Dubai we also have two hotels. One is on the beach and one is in the International Financial Center. So if it makes business sense, we will do it. Sometimes it’s also owner driven. We have some owners who own a Four Seasons and they want to open another hotel, and so our job is to really guide, coach, and advise on what makes sense or what doesn’t make sense.
But in Cairo itself, we started in 2000 with the Four Seasons First Residence property in Giza, and eventually when we had the chance to get a location on the other side of the Nile, it was the right thing to do, and it has proven very successful over the years.
MET&T: What can you tell me about plans for Four Seasons expansion in the region? Do you have plans for properties in new countries?
Rami Sayess: The way it works with us is that we have identified the main destinations where we believe we should be. But then what happens next is to find the right partners, meaning the investors, because, as you know, we’re only a management company. So it may slow down this year within this region, given what’s happening, but we’re still going to open a new property in Madrid and we have a hotel coming up in Rabat as well, which will be our third in Morocco.
MET&T: Are hotels located that far west going to be included in the same portfolio as those in this region?
Rami Sayess: You know, the portfolio changes, so it really depends. I used to have Morocco, and now it’s not with me. Sometimes portfolios move around. But we’re looking at more hotels in Egypt and more hotels in Saudi Arabia. I’m actually going there tomorrow night to look at a new site. There is a lot of interest. When I said slow down, it’s actually not really slowing down considering what’s happening. We do have some major destinations in Europe where we are seriously considering, but I can’t talk about them because they’re not signed yet. There are a lot of discussions ongoing with more properties to come.
MET&T: Speaking of Saudi Arabia, they’ve obviously made a huge investment and huge bet on creating a serious tourism industry there in the next five to ten years or so. Can you tell me a little bit about Four Seasons’ plans in Saudi Arabia? Are you buying into the bet that there actually is going to be a significant increase in in tourism arrivals as opposed to just clientele from business and government?
Rami Sayess: Well, it’s a fact. I mean, I was there last week, and I know this from the business that we run already in Riyadh. And having lived myself for years in Saudi, I feel the shift. It’s unbelievable the way you can access the country now the visa restriction gone. Depending on nationality, you can get visas at the airport, whereas this was unheard of before. Women can drive, restaurants are packed, and it’s just amazing. The change is huge, and we can feel it in the business sector. Our business has never been better.
Yes, we do have projects under development and some under construction. We have hotels in Jeddah. We have one in Khobar with the same owner as the Four Seasons in Kuwait. There is project is coming up in Mecca, and we’re looking at probably three or four other locations too.
MET&T: What about Neom?
Rami Sayess: We’ve looked at Neom as well, and that’s something that’s still being discussed. There’s a lot of interest in Four Seasons. I’m aware of at least four or five discussions that are happening, but these things take time. Sometimes they materialize, and sometimes they do not.
So yes, I believe Saudi has huge potential and obviously with the volumes they have, they’re very strong financially. People like to go out and experience things, because all of a sudden they can do what they couldn’t do before. I believe that there is a huge potential in that market not only for our hotels in Saudi, but also because Saudis represent a huge source of income for us everywhere. They travel to Europe, the US, Asia, and our hotels in the GCC, so that’s very important market to us.