Interview: Ahmed Ramdan, founder and CEO, Ròya International
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Interview: Ròya International’s Ahmed Ramdan on the changing face of the region’s hospitality sector

Interview: Ròya International’s Ahmed Ramdan on the changing face of the region’s hospitality sector

The founder of the home-grown hospitality firm shares his company’s milestones and how hospitality in the GCC is poised for further growth

Neesha Salian
Ahmed Ramdan

Ahmed Ramdan values a strong work ethic, solution-oriented approach, and above all, discretion. It’s key to his business and success, he says.

Ramdan is, however, quite vocal and passionate about the stupendous growth of the region’s hospitality and tourism sectors, as well as his dream to see more Emiratis pursue a career in hospitality. 

Considered one of the early architects of Dubai’s hospitality industry, Ramdan has seen the Emirates transform and evolve at the helm of Ròya International Hospitality & Leisure Consultants, a company he founded in 1998.  

More than 25 years later, the home-grown company has emerged as one of the region’s top hospitality firms.  

Speaking to us at his office on Sheikh Zayed Road, the veteran hotelier engaged us with his anecdotes, analyses, and insights – weaving a compelling narrative of the company’s growth over two decades, hospitality trends that will impact both investors and consumers, and his vision for the future. 

The following are excerpts from our discussion with Ahmed Ramdan.

 The UAE’s, and particularly Dubai’s, hospitality landscape has totally transformed over the past 25 years. What has underscored this growth? 

What has been done in hospitality in the UAE in over a quarter of a century is nothing short of impressive. Several factors have contributed to this transformation. The first involves the airlines. They are like ‘oxygen’ to tourism. Our airlines are among the best in the world, bringing in people from different destinations.  

The second is the ‘sense of arrival’ and the way we welcome tourists. It’s not just our tradition; it’s also a part of the government’s effort and employee training. When people come here, they feel comfortable – getting visas is easy, navigating the airport is simple, and transportation is readily available. These are essential factors. 

The third is the tourism infrastructure, which includes hotels. Dubai has all the categories of hotels that cater to a variety of demographics. So, you can come to Dubai or the wider UAE and easily stay in an ultra-luxury or budget hotel. A combination of these factors: transportation, sense of arrival, infrastructure and ecotourism, has played a role. 

Another primary sector where Dubai and the UAE have established themselves is distribution management or tourism promotion. Several destination management companies promote the country and bring people from around the world here. From Indian destination management companies to Asian, European, and American (North and South) ones, we are being promoted globally. This has also been critical to raise the profile of the country.  

Other small but vital factors are safety and hygiene across the country. A lady can walk around the city at 2am sans any fear. These factors encourage tourists to stay longer.  

And finally, it involves ‘availability.’ A tourist can find everything in Dubai – every type of cuisine and shopping experience – traditional souks or bigger malls. The city has many world records that have put it on the map. All these help tourists get more curious and eventually visit Dubai and the UAE. 

 Tell us about Roya’s growth along the way. 

Our growth has run parallel to that of Dubai. I’ve been advising government authorities, both formally and informally, since the company was launched, on the kind of infrastructure we need to attract tourism and star ratings our hotels should have among other areas.   

We came up with two types of hospitality offerings: urban (business) and resorts. We have been involved in many high-end hotels in Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC), Sheikh Zayed Road and Jumeirah Beach Residence. These are significant milestones for us.  

Internally, another milestone is that we have opened new local, regional and even international offices every five years. The first significant one after Dubai was in Abu Dhabi. We then went to Doha followed by Saudi Arabia. We are opening an office in Athens, Greece soon.  

In terms of your regional and international growth, tell us more about what you’re doing.  

We have various verticals within the company. We offer tourism strategy, hospitality strategy, hotel development, food and beverage development, asset management and project management. We offer a 360° service, starting with a hotel feasibility study to when the hotel is handed over and also providing asset management, if required. Large-scale projects, mega projects, and even giga projects – we can handle them all. We work with governments, individual hoteliers and financial institutions.  

 Tell us about some of your projects.  

We’ve been instrumental in the creation and management of many hotels that are located on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. They’ve won several awards and provided a fantastic return on investment for the owners.  

Ròya has also been a pioneer in bringing new aesthetics to hospitality. For instance, we built Dubai’s first minimalist hotel, Media One. Studio One hotel is yet another boutique property that I am very proud of. We visualised it as a funky, avant-garde destination and delivered on that. It’s doing exceptionally well, and the owners are happy with it. We built The St. Regis Abu Dhabi, a high-end property with very elegant and sophisticated interiors. We’ve also built a private hotel in Seychelles. It’s hugely popular and the owner now wants us to create an extension. 

How is the Saudi market driving growth?  

In addition to our marketing efforts, existing and former clients have recommended us a lot to companies in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is a big market; it’s also in the mood for growth. The next four or five years will be very aggressive in terms of culture, tourism and hospitality sector growth.  

Currently, hospitality is tremendous, and we are riding that wave. We’ve just opened an office in Riyadh and are working with the government there. We are also working with authorities in other areas, including Jeddah, the Red Sea, Mecca and Medina, to name a few.  

I believe there are two areas of growth in Saudi. One is natural growth, where they are building brand new giga projects. At the same time, a cycle of renovation is also occurring. Right now, we are working with nearly 18 hotels, which will go through major renovations. 

Ahmed Ramdan
Ahmed Ramdan

 Tell us about your work in Qatar. 

We’ve been working in Qatar for nearly 15 years. However, our busiest period was just before the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.  We had to build hotels at breakneck speed – the past few years were demanding, but rewarding for us. 

Qatar did a fantastic job as hosts; the service and organisation were terrific. So, it’s no surprise they are not stopping there. Several hotels are coming up, both resorts and urban. We have been awarded a couple of projects that we will announce over the next few months. 

How different is project planning in this region versus the Americas and Europe?  

The differences are very pronounced. Urban planning is an integral part of the system in the Western world. However, feasibility planning takes much longer because those governments want to look at it meticulously to understand the potential environmental and social impact.  

Acquiring building permits is complicated, especially in mature cities, as they consider various factors such as the impact on heritage, existing buildings and infrastructure, transport networks and even social impact. The process is highly regulated and drawn out.  

Once construction starts, another set of regulations must be adhered to, including restrictions on work in terms of timings and weather conditions.  

The Middle East is relatively easier to work in. While safety standards are quite high across the board, it’s easier to get building and design permits. Construction costs vary slightly in both regions. While they are coming down now, prices are generally higher, exacerbated by shipping blockages during the pandemic and a rise in demand.  

How is the demand for sustainability affecting your work? 

Sustainability has picked up pace strongly over the past few years. However, we must be cautious since buildings are long-term assets lasting over 50 years. It’s not just developers, but also governments who are focusing on sustainability.  

We have to now factor in sustainability right from the design process, starting with the water and energy consumption to workforce movement within the building once it is completed.  

Investors are also being encouraged to look into the sustainability of properties they are investing in. While it does cost more to make a building that meets various green ratings, the return on investment in the long term is good. 

Even consumers are more conscious today; if the development doesn’t meet green standards, they won’t patronise the hotel. So, sustainability is definitely gaining momentum and it will only go up from here.  

Are there other emerging trends that are impacting hospitality globally?  

We are seeing increasing ‘segmentation’ across hospitality with consumers demanding very specific types of hotels: urban or resort; high-end, mid-range or low-end; lifestyle or traditional; business or holiday; cosy and comfortable or chic and uber cool. Investors and developers must think very carefully about what kind of property they want to invest in. If a brand has to survive, it has to cater to all these segments as it’s the market demand. Airbnb is also becoming popular and poses some competition to hotels. 

In the early days, they used to say three things matter in property: location, location, location. This adage holds true even now. Select the right site.  

My advice: Don’t select a three-star site and build a five-star hotel on it. The return is just not going to be there. Build a hotel keeping its purpose in mind. You also need to be thorough with your feasibility study. Select your segment carefully and ensure that most of your property caters to this segment. If it’s a convention hotel, then focus on that element. If it’s a family hotel, then offer facilities that families would enjoy. In the past, we had a regional trend of palatial, luxurious properties. This no longer exists. Guests will not come for ‘grand’ rooms; they cannot take the room with them. Guests only want comfort. Investors should focus on that.   

These trends are exciting, but also challenging for us; we have to be very careful in what we do. 

What steps are you taking to encourage Emirati talent to join the hospitality sector?  

At Ròya International, we have been very active in doing so — both directly and indirectly. We have many programmes that encourage Emirati talent to come on board; we are also in touch with universities and colleges around Dubai to showcase them.  

It’s also important to be a good role model for this generation. I attend many conferences and hospitality career fairs, encouraging Emirati students to venture into hospitality. I share my story and journey; I see a lot of interest. We also leverage our asset management division to encourage hotels to hire locals. There have been some cultural misconceptions about the hospitality sector, and parents were uncomfortable sending their children to study hospitality. However, with both time and the generations changing, people now understand that the hotel industry differs from what it was perceived as before.  

International brands can also play a greater role in bringing Emirati youth on board. They must highlight available career paths and how our youth can grow within the industry. Simply put, they need to place a greater degree of trust in Emirati youth. Look at the municipalities of our emirates or any other Gulf cities – they are run purely by locals. If they can manage dynamic cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, think of how successfully they can impact the hospitality sector.  

What does Ròya International’s future entail? 

We are here to grow. We are planning to expand into Europe, Africa and India. The Indian market is huge, and we are eager to capitalise on it. Within the company, we want to increase the services we offer. For instance, we would like to venture into tourism and talent acquisition. In short, the future is exciting for us. 

Read: How hospitality is reshaping Dubai’s real estate landscape

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