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Five minutes.. with Anantara Al Baleed Resort Salalah GM James Hewitson

Five minutes.. with Anantara Al Baleed Resort Salalah GM James Hewitson

James Hewitson gives a unique insight into Anantara’s new property as it prepares to open for business

What distinguishes Anantara Al Baleed Resort Salalah from the brand’s other properties in the region?

Anantara has been establishing properties in the region rapidly and each one of them has a uniqueness that reflects the location. Here in Salalah the resort has some unique characteristics such as a 30 per cent local workforce, offering local knowledge and experiences to inquisitive travellers. The design of the resort with 96 villas and 40 rooms is quite unusual as normally a resort will have a higher quantity of rooms than villas. In Salalah we include 88 private pool villas which is the highest of any resort in the region.

Why was Salalah chosen as a property destination and what attracted Anantara to the city?

Salalah is a developing destination and with its different weather patterns compared to the rest of the GCC it has huge potential to offer something different to travellers in the region who don’t want to travel too far from home. The expansion of the airport along with the amazing topography combined with the rich history of travel and culture makes the destination stand out from the nearby competitor locations.

Is this a good time to be opening a hotel in Oman, given the oil-linked downturn in the country this year

I think we are seeing the effect of the low oil price across all regions, however, that being said, Salalah is showing growth in occupancy year on year in the hotels which is very encouraging. This suggests that the market is growing faster than the new supply of rooms, with 800 introduced in the four- and five-star category over the past two years. With occupancy forecast at 65 per cent for the year and no competitor resort having a pool villa product, it would seem like a great time to open and establish a new luxury hotel in the market in Salalah.

The sultanate has previously been described as lacking in five star hotels and resorts, do you believe there is an untapped market to fill?

I strongly feel that Oman needs more luxury resorts, too many hotels are masquerading as luxury resorts when they are a corporate hotel first and leisure resort second; this needs to change to support the Government’s drive to increase tourism into the sultanate. No leisure resort can survive on corporate business as their primary segment and Oman has so much to offer the luxury traveller in terms of scenery and activities as well as hospitable and engaging Omani people. The concept for the resort was created by Safana Al Barwani, managing director of Musstir LLC, who wanted a resort in the GCC where Gulf families, particularly women, could relax in the privacy of their own pool villa. The market can certainly support more luxury resorts and we work closely with the Ministry of Tourism and Oman Air to really position the destination as an example of Arabia and all that the word conjures up.

What is your outlook for the hotel’s performance in its first year of operation?

We are quite positive that after the initial ramp we will start to see growing occupancy and we are focussed on the rate of our pool villas as this is the key to our success. Driving occupancy is important but given the development costs, getting the right rates for our 88 one-, two- and three-bedroom pool villas will be what determines how quickly we can pay back the investment.

Which nationalities do you expect to be your main hotel guests?

We have business on the books from Europe, mainly Germany, the UK, France and Italy, but we have numerous inquiries from within the GCC, both GCC nationals and expats. I am expecting a strong GCC presence in our pool villa products given the privacy and size of the villa, but on short weekend breaks and during school holidays. Europe will provide longer stays and we are seeing inquiries coming in from India and other parts of South east Asia.

How does managing a hotel in the pre-opening phase compare to managing established properties?

I have enjoyed managing both pre openings and existing operations. Pre openings are all about creating, planning and visualising how you want the guest experience to be and then driving really hard to ensure the team can deliver the vision to the guests. Managing existing operations is twenty-four-seven on call and always to expect the unexpected. Weekends are always a mix of work and family life where as during pre-openings weekends are relaxing until you start to ramp up close to opening. I will certainly miss my quiet weekends once we open for guests. I like to share with the team that there will be many managers who come and go in this property but there will only ever be one opening team and we are it.

Have you committed to hiring a certain percentage of Omanis under government Omanisation plans?

I don’t think committing to a number is realistic, my commitment to my owners was to be the market leader in Omanisation within Salalah (which we have achieved already) and then to constantly try and grow that percentage year on year. We have a great spread of Omani talent from my hotel manager right through to rank and file positions. Our goal is to develop these Omani team members by using the strength and diversity of our brand to ensure that they become the next leaders in our growing portfolio of properties in Oman and the GCC.

Are you hiring?

Recruitment is 95 per cent complete but if the right talent is available then we will always try and find a position to get them onto the team.

What is your leadership style?

I enjoy leading my teams to victory so I live and breathe the business and expect similar levels of passion from my key team members, which allows them to challenge me freely when they feel their view is right. Winning together is great fun and identifying the team’s strengths and development opportunities is key to everyone’s learning so we can deliver continued success and keep the pressure on the competition. Growing up, I was never allowed to rest on my laurels and I have kept this mantra in my working life, so while success is important to celebrate, we must start the next day driving at the next challenge as there always is another one to face.

In my spare time I like to…

I enjoy the privacy of walking our dog early in the morning without a mobile phone and email access but, most importantly, I enjoy spending time with my wife and children. We love exploring the fascinating destinations that we have lived in and currently live in, gaining some amazing stories. Isn’t that why we are all here?

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