Elie Younes and I first spoke in 2020, as the pandemic was ravaging global travel and hospitality. Given the circumstances, you might have expected him to be worried. But what struck me most about our conversations was his optimism. "I recently learnt a new English word," Younes tells me in our most recent chat, "and that's 'grit'. It stands for your ability to persevere and continue pushing forward, irrespective of what's going on around you."

To a certain extent, this attitude has likely been built up through experience. Despite the disconcerting statistics buzzing around global hospitality, Younes and his colleagues at Radisson Hotel Group (RHG) have gone from strength to strength. That is bolstered by equally impressive development numbers. With Younes leading the charge as the group's global chief development officer, RHG secured 50 hotel signings in the third quarter of the previous year alone, with a vast 2022 pipeline stretching from Europe to the Pacific. Despite the uncertainty caused by the war in Ukraine, he argues that staying "innovative, flexible, agile" will serve RHG well. 

Not that any of this comes easily. He may be insouciant in the face of an uncertain hospitality climate, but it is equally obvious that Younes leans heavily on an expanding development team, learning from his mistakes and keeping a close eye on target markets. Working with outsiders is crucial too, with his partnerships with other giants creating lucrative new opportunities for investors and operators alike.

A big bang

Even a cursory glance at RHG’s development plans for 2022 will leave you impressed. This year, the group hopes to ink many new signings across EMEA and Asia. Delve into the specifics and the figures are similarly striking. In Europe, for example, Younes describes Radisson Collection properties opening in locales as varied as Berlin, Mykonos and Tallinn. Across the Mediterranean, RHG hopes to reach 50 properties in Turkey by 2023, including the Royan Hotel Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. Further east, Younes is eyeing opportunities in China – which he says accounts for 70% of RHG’s focus in the Asia-Pacific region.

Given all this, it is unsurprising Younes characterises his recent schedule as “busy”. But, if his ambitious development plans risk sounding scattershot, it is equally clear that he is careful to align openings with wider economic trends. In his native Middle East, for instance, the Lebanese notes that deals in Saudi Arabia dovetail neatly with RHG’s commitment to Vision 2030, which aims to attract 100 million domestic and international travellers by the end of the decade. It is a similar story in Egypt, where RHG has announced ten new hotels and hopes to add the same again. The point is to reflect on the “timing and fundamentals” of investment decisions. “You need to understand the domino effect of each of these factors and how they could impact development costs, inflation, labour or funding,” Younes explains.

Not that Younes attempts to do all this alone as he partners with outsiders to achieve his goals. Typical here is RHG’s work with PPHE, which, since 2002, has enjoyed a licence to operate Park Plaza properties across the EMEA sphere. Younes describes this newest phase of the relationship as an “extended strategic partnership”. Among other things, PPHE will have the right to leverage the full suite of RHG’s brands, including Radisson Collection and Radisson RED. More broadly, RHG will have access to the Park Plaza brand in certain regions, for which PPHE will enjoy a fee. The idea, explains Younes, is for the two companies to “complement each other vertically”.

Eyes on the prize

Beyond these external partnerships, Younes is pushing ahead with his own brands. That is true everywhere from the upscale Radisson Blu to the technology-minded Radisson RED. But it is arguably with prizeotel that the comprehensiveness of RHG’s development approach is most apparent. That is true, if nothing else, in terms of how long RHG has worked to define the offering, both for guests and owners. As Younes explains, his team has spent much of the last year reshaping prizeotel, a 2006-founded modern economy brand with a footprint across central Europe. This hard work has paid off.

Encompassing both single and family rooms, prizeotel is equally appropriate for business travellers and families, especially given the properties are strategically located near airports’ other travel hubs. No less important, Younes stresses that prizeotel is attractive for owners too. From in-house architects to engineers, RHG is keen to support investors across the development process, encompassing everything from concept planning to final openings. Boasting a lean operating model, and GOP margins of up to 50%, Younes adds that prizeotel offers “the experience of a mid-scale lifestyle product at the investment costs of an economy hotel”. Given all this, it makes sense that this is yet another brand destined for serious growth, with Younes hoping to shortly unveil around a dozen new prizeotel properties across the UK.

If confidence in the merits of his hotel group has remained a constant over his tenure as RHG’s development guru, Younes’s reliance on his team is surely another. Perhaps in preparation for prizeotel’s UK debut, the executive has expanded his development team in the country. That is similarly true in other markets, something Younes argues is vital to the continued success of his company.

“You need to be committed to your people for them to commit back to you,” he says. “It’s very important to have confidence in your team – one of our key values is that we grow people and people grow us.” Given RHG hopes to have 115,000 rooms in the EMEA market alone by 2025, you have to think they do.

Visible from space

Between the broad trajectory of RHG’s development plans and the imminent rise of revamped brands, Younes and his optimism may be utterly unbowed. Yet, it is obvious that he is too thoughtful for that. As he says, mistakes are bound to happen, but what matters is to turn errors into “learnings” that can sharpen future projects. “You must tolerate people making mistakes,” he stresses, “so long as you learn from them and move forward constructively.”

This attitude seems fair. In an industry as fast-paced as hospitality, the odd misstep is probably inevitable. What matters is the general direction of travel and, here, not even the biggest cynic could accuse RHG of going wrong. No wonder Younes is so excited about what his employer has planned in the months and years ahead. Asia-Pacific is a particular area of focus, he says, noting that “the scale of the opportunity in that part of the world is gigantic”.

With tourism booming in places like the Philippines, and Beijing likely to emerge from its Covid-induced straitjacket sooner or later, it makes sense that RHG hopes to see its Chinese portfolio rise to 1,000 properties by the middle of the decade. With numbers like that, how could anyone fail to be optimistic?