Having bid goodbye to my wife Laura in Norfolk, England, I’m on the red-eye for one of my regular trips to Dubai, home of the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC) – an event I’m proud to have founded 13 years ago. I meet with a couple of our long-term partners before heading to Media City to host a webinar with the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Hotels, Khalid Anib. We discuss the catalysts for change impacting hospitality investment, from the digital revolution and the changing face of the consumer to the need to reduce operating costs and the potential for artificial intelligence to revolutionise hotels.
As usual, my trip to Dubai is the start of a longer journey, this time to Tehran for our inaugural Iran Hotel and Tourism Investment Conference (IHTIC) – probably our boldest venture to date. We’ve had to adjust to major changes since first planning the event, from sanctions being lifted in January 2016 to the impact of the new US President taking office. Still, the flight is full of hospitality heavyweights and I sit beside the head of development in the region for Minor Hotel Group, Ramzy Fenianos, We’re overwhelmed by the warm welcome on our arrival and spend a delightful evening at Ilio Café, the first open kitchen in Tehran.
IHTIC opens to 320 delegates, 50 per cent of whom have travelled from outside of Iran. The buzz was palpable during our speed networking session, where we sat the Iranians on one side and the international delegates on the other, allowing them to exchange business cards and meet for the first time. Dinner is hosted by one of Iran’s most successful businessmen, Mr Ahad Azimzadeh, the founder of the Azimzadeh Carpet Company and the owner and developer of Gran Melia Ghoo, who shares with us his rags to riches story.
We hold a series of round-table workshops and I am delighted to see so many delegates participating and learning about all aspects of doing business in Iran. I sincerely hope we have helped facilitate the beginning of hospitality expansion into this wonderful, untapped market. At night, I celebrate with my incredible, tireless team at Bench Events and some of our key sponsors at a mountainside restaurant in Darband, where we feast on barbecued kebabs and plenty of saffron rice. It’s always inspiring to sit back and reflect on our events with the people that make them happen.
After two intense days of discussions surrounding the future of tourism in Iran, now is the time to immerse ourselves in the wealth of natural attractions on offer. My son Ollie flies in from Singapore to join some industry friends and myself for an early start to the Alborz Mountains, where we check into a hotel at the base of Dizin. The equipment was well used and the lifts have not changed since the Revolution, but they work well and with our Iranian guide Hussain we went off country and see the magical white mountain range in all its glory.
My son and I leave the ski resort at midday and miss a major snowstorm that would have had us stuck in Dizin. We tour Tehran before Ollie returns to Singapore, where he is completing his PhD. This gives me time to catch up on plans for our other events. First up is AHIC, which kicks off at Madinat Jumeirah on April 25. I then sit down for a quick Skype catch-up with Arturo Garcia Rosa, my business partner in Argentina, with whom we are organising SAHIC Cuba in May and SAHIC South America in Buenos Aires in September. Like Iran, the potential for hospitality investment in these markets is huge and it’s an honour to play a role in bringing together investors keen to break into these destinations.
I spend my last night at the Novotel at Khomeni International Airport before heading home to Norfolk via Dubai. While in Dubai I met with the Bench Events team to run through the latest plans for AHIC, including marketing and PR, audiovisual, logistics, sponsor partnerships and receptions. There are always 100 things to review and approve in the lead-up to a major conference, but everyone is excited about the event which has some 700 delegates poised to attend.