When it comes to recruiting new members of staff, the average general manager of a five-star European hotel is able to cast the net pretty wide. Competition for talent is fierce, but whether the most ambitious and well-polished candidate is found in the halls of places such as the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne, or is poached from rival operators at home and abroad, suitable people are out there and willing to join the team – assuming the price is right of course.

However, for Katrin Herz, general manager of the Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz Carlton hotel in Oman, things are not so simple. In late 2014, the Omani Ministry of Tourism announced plans to extend its practice of Omanisation – a policy that replaces expatriates with trained locals – into the hospitality sector. The industry was growing fast and the government wanted at least 10% of its workforce to be locally trained. A fair target perhaps, but how does an international hotel brand recruit talent in a place with little experience in the hotel sector?

“It’s very different from what you would traditionally do in another hotel market,” Herz says. “It’s challenging to find a qualified Omani to do a hotel job because it’s not a trade they traditionally had here. That means we have to get directly involved with hotel schools and partner with academies to find students that want to join the programmes, and then work very closely with them so that they study and work at the same time. Personally, I’ve been very active in telling Omanis that this is a great career for them as an alternative to the government jobs they would traditionally seek. And it’s worked. We are the hotel with the highest percentage of Omanis in our workforce throughout all departments and on all management levels.”

As operators outline ambitious growth strategies for the Middle East, training and recruiting staff is one of the main challenges facing the region’s general managers. As well as Oman’s quota system, Dubai plans to increase the number of Emiratis working in the sector by 15% annually, as part of its 2020 tourism vision; and in other parts of the region, visa restrictions mean getting the right people into your hotel isn’t easy.

Hiring the right staff

“In the Middle East, certain nationalities can find it very tough to get work permits for,” says Kai Schukowski, general manager at the Kempinski Hotel Ajman in the UAE, which follows Abu Dhabi’s visa rules. “That restricts the mix of nationalities you can tap into. I would love to hire more Arabic speakers, but believe it or not, being in the Middle East, it’s very difficult for me to do so. For a lot of nationalities such as Tunisians and Egyptians, you just can’t get a working visa. The other day, for example, I was in Russia for a recruitment trip and found a fantastic guy who spoke Russian and Arabic. But he was Tunisian. So I couldn’t hire him.”

There is a shortage of people with the right attitude and mentality, the soft skills that you can’t train. For us, this means that one of the main problems that we face once we find and train a good person is poaching.

Another consequence of having a fast-growing industry without a natural pool of local talent is the threat of poaching. As the general manager of a luxury hotel, Schukowski – who was named hotel manager of the year at last year’s Hotelier Middle East Awards – spends a large amount of his time looking for the right staff, and training them to understand the principles of a high-end hotel chain. Retention, however, can be tough.

“There is a shortage of people with the right attitude and mentality, the soft skills that you can’t train,” he says. “For us, this means that one of the main problems that we face once we find and train a good person is poaching. Obviously, we have measures in place to increase engagement, motivation and retention, but other hoteliers often come over and say ‘your salary is x and I’ll give you x plus 30%’.”

It’s an issue that’s unlikely to disappear soon, given the region’s growth figures. Over the last year, a number of operators have revealed major plans to expand in the region. Starwood has said it will double its hotel portfolio by 2019, opening 50 luxury properties; IHG aims to open 25 new hotels over the next five years; and Accor is targeting 30,000 rooms by 2020. Even places such as Ajam, less well-known than Dubai and Abu Dhabi, are microcosms of the region’s wider growth.

 “Over the last 16 years, we were the only five-star hotel in Ajman,” Schukowski says. “We had a good time; our regular guests would come, and it wasn’t so challenging. Now, in the last two years, another four five-star hotels and a lot of new four-star hotels have opened. The supply went through the roof while, initially, the demand more or less stayed stagnant.”

The market is growing and it is invigoratingly competitive with hotel owners who demand a lot from their management team. Herz, the first woman employed as a general manager at a five-star property in Oman, has had a unique experience compared with many of her peers.

“We’re owned by the Ministry of Tourism and I think that changes things a lot,” she says. “Usually, in most other countries, you would have investors where all that really counts is the cash at the end of the month. Here, the interests of the ministry are different. Obviously, they want to generate revenue and make money, but I don’t think they would do something, which in the long-term, would go against their vision. They really are supportive through the good times and the bad. They want to lead the tourism industry, which is the second most important sector after oil. Because our hotel belongs to them, we have to support their vision of being a luxury tourism destination in the years ahead. There is a new airport coming, a new exhibition centre and many other things outside of the hotel industry that are being developed. We work closely with the ministry on all of those projects.”

For Schukowski, the personalities of owners tend to vary. Institutional investors can have very different priorities from private individuals. Levels of experience in the hotel industry can also vary widely. “Some come from a hotel background and are very understanding,” he says. “Others might have inherited a big hotel and run it on behalf of their father. Often, they can be very emotional. You get those who sit in your coffee shop and say, ‘I don’t like the croissant’.”

Navigating these important relationships can be complex. Herz says: “The business part needs to be there, but I think nothing in this region moves ahead if you don’t have a strong relationship. You need to invest a lot of time building them, and you need to show emotional intelligence. Most of the time, they aren’t experts in their field. The hotel industry and hotel management are quite new to them. So, it’s not just about knowing your facts, percentages and agreements, it’s about finding a way of communicating with them and getting their support. They can be supportive, kind and long-term partners but you need to get that trust in the first place.”

The profile of the general manager has clearly changed. You have a lot of people coming from sales and marketing because we’re moving towards a system-based, technological era where you need a deeper understanding of everything.

Not everything about being a general manager in the Middle East is different from other markets. Over the years, the old stereotype of the industry’s general manager has evolved from the charming host prowling the lobby into someone in the back office who is driven by numbers. Appointed general manager at 29, the youngest at a Kempinski property, and coming from a corporate background, Schukowski is a perfect example of the evolution of this role.

“The profile of the general manager has clearly changed,” he says. “Traditionally, it was the guy that hands over the room keys. Then it was about food and beverage. About 80–90% came from a food and beverage background because it was a big part of the business. But these dynamics are completely changing. We already see hotels, especially in the Middle East, that outsource all of their food and beverage operations, so having that background is no longer necessary. Instead, you have a lot of people coming from sales and marketing because we’re moving towards a system-based, technological era where you need a deeper understanding of everything.”

Like any hotel anywhere, the trick for Schukowski is to find the right balance. Investors and owners need pleasing, but standards have to remain high to attract guests in a demanding Middle Eastern market. “I signed up to Kempinski because I like luxury hospitality,” he says. “We have to safeguard and maintain that level otherwise we might as well just hire consultants. Having a hotel background helps you relay to the owner that there are certain things you just can’t compromise on.”