JEDDAH: The travel and tourism business in the Arab world has stabilized since the upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring, according to a leading player in the world hospitality industry.
“Initially things were tumultuous… Our Egyptian business was impacted more than any other place. Today, however, business has stabilized,” Chris Nassetta, CEO and president of Hilton Inc., told Arab News during an exclusive interview at the Jeddah Hilton, the group’s flagship property in the Kingdom.
He sees tremendous growth coming to Saudi Arabia in the next two to three years in the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.
“Our biggest presence (in the region) is in Saudi Arabia, where we have 11 operating hotels. We have 33 hotels in the pipeline. We’re very optimistic about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Nassetta, who graduated from the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce with a degree in finance, said his group is looking forward to being involved in Vision 2030.
“The Saudi government is making travel and tourism one of the vision’s main components. We’re big players in travel and tourism, and we can bring a lot to the table. We can help with marketing Saudi Arabia as a destination, and obviously continuing to build our presence in the Kingdom to better serve customers from around the world.”
He said he has read a lot about Vision 2030. “It would be hard to argue the underlying fundamentals of diversifying the economy. It makes a lot of sense. We’re incredibly supportive of it. Vision 2030 is about creating opportunities for growth and employment. I’m sure we can play an important role in helping attain its goals. Saudi Arabia is on a tremendously positive path. Vision 2030 is the beginning of a long path.”
The chief of the global hospitality giant explained how Saudi Arabia can benefit from Hilton’s massive reach.
“We have a massive global footprint… We’re connected to nearly 5,000 hotels in 104 countries, serving 100-million-plus customers a year. We’re constantly connecting our customers with different opportunities for travel around the world. We have a big megaphone,” he said.
“In the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) alone, we have 16,000 rooms under construction, which is more than any other major global operator.”
According to him, travel and tourism are a huge economic driver, with the industry comprising one in 10 jobs in the world and 10 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).
“I believe that the goal for Vision 2030 is to have it close to 20 percent of economic activity in Saudi Arabia. In order to do that, and in order for travel and tourism to play that kind of role, you need to have the right people and have them trained in the right way,” he said.
He advised young people to start at the bottom in their bid to scale new heights, citing his own example.
“My first job in the hotel business was plunging toilets in a Holiday Inn in Washington, because I told my father I was interested in getting into business. He said I had to start at the bottom, so I did. Now I run one of the largest companies in the world,” he said.
“My own experience shows the tremendous opportunity and growth there is in the industry, as well as how much upward mobility there is.”
He lamented that few young people are aware of the growth opportunities the industry offers. “You’d be surprised how many young people don’t really understand this, so part of our job is making sure they’re aware of the opportunities. The second part is preparing them with the basic skills. In some cases, they don’t have the skills needed to become contributing team members,” he said.
“This is why the Passport to Success (PTS) program has been so instrumental in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the world. We use it as a basic way to get young people to prepare to work for us, and ultimately we employ many of them. We’re not perfect, but we do a wonderful job in developing people and giving them opportunities for growth. That’s why people stick with us.
“We’re opening, on average, one hotel a day in the world. That means opportunities for young Saudis and other young people. We need people who are motivated and inspired to serve other people.”
He said employing women is “really important” for Hilton. “We’re in business to serve our customer base. That base is large and diverse, and a large component of it is female. For us to succeed in serving that part of our customer base, we have to have a team that illustrates gender diversity. Around the world, nearly half of our team member base is female.”
He said Saudi Arabia has all the ingredients of an ideal tourist destination. “The key to being successful in travel and tourism is to make sure you have a safe environment. People generally don’t travel to places where they don’t feel safe, and Saudi Arabia has done a good job in making them feel safe,” he said.
“The next thing is making sure you have, and can protect, destinations that people want to see and visit. Saudi Arabia has the destinations, so the next thing is marketing. This is where we can help as a result of having some much-needed infrastructure.”
Nassetta repeatedly spoke of the role his parents, especially his father, played in his success and in inculcating core values in him.
“My father is a wonderful man. He is 85 years old, and I had dinner with him the night before I came here. He has been an inspiration to me and many other people. He has given me and my family wonderful values. His experience was in many different businesses, not only hospitality.
“I think there are two things you always look to your parents for: Love and mentors. They can give you a foundation, and that foundation is values. For all of our team, there must be something burning inside that will take you where you want to go. My father and mother gave me great gifts, and what I took from them was a basic value system. I try to use those gifts to make a positive impact.”