It is a busy working day in April and Michael Martin, general manager of the soon-to-open InterContinental Dubai Marina, is waxing lyrical about the latest addition to the IHG brand.

"It has a very contemporary feel to it. It’s an InterContinental, which has a tradition of understatement, but certainly the food and beverage offering is a little more funky," he says. "I’ve seen some of the dishes the chefs have been producing and it’s just stunning. And it’s a great location – you couldn’t wish for any better."

Scheduled to open at the end of May, the hotel is a 328-key, five-star property, situated in the Bay Central development in the Dubai Marina. With nine different F&B venues, including a restaurant by celebrity chef Jason Atherton, it is touting itself as a ‘lifestyle destination’ – a smart choice for luxury holidaymakers of every stripe.

Now, with just weeks to go until the first of them arrive, the hotel is a hub of activity. Martin is overseeing a hugely diverse team – a melting pot of different skills, experiences and nationalities – as they count down till opening day.

"We’ve been quite specific in selecting people from different backgrounds, people who have worked with IHG and people who haven’t worked with IHG," he says. "We’re just adding the finishing touches and making sure it’s absolutely ready for the customers. Everyone’s working very hard to get the job finished."

Alongside his duties here, Martin is regional general manager for IHG, overseeing ten hotels across the UAE. His path to reach this point has been impressive – originally from the UK, he has spent more than 30 years working in hospitality, of which 22 have been with IHG. Following a four-year stint in China, he moved to the UAE in 2013.

"While the job description has never been static, in recent years the GM role has undergone an unprecedented transformation." 

Looking back over his time in the business, Martin is struck by how much the role of general manager has changed.

"I was thinking about this the other day – when I started out as GM, I didn’t have a computer on my desk," he reminisces. "New computer systems were just coming in for reservations and financial systems, but in terms of how we communicated, it was all by post. In those days, the hotels were all managed differently. And I guess it was much more customer-focused – you joined the hotel business to go into hospitality. Now it’s more commercial."

Evolving job description

Martin is not the only person to have noticed this trend. While the job description has never been static, in recent years the role has undergone an unprecedented transformation. Today’s GMs are facing trade-offs their predecessors could barely have imagined.

Until the 1990s or 2000s, the role was predominantly guest-facing, not dissimilar to the innkeepers of days gone by. You could expect to find the GM in the lobby, ready to greet guests and serving as the human face of the hotel.

Over the past few decades, however – and particularly since the financial crisis – back-office tasks have come to assume an increasing centrality. Today’s GMs are just as likely to be found tucked away in an office, head among the balance books, as they are mingling by the check-in desk.

"The role has always required the ability to adapt to changing job descriptions and situations," says Stefan Fuchs, general manager of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi. "The main duty has always been guest interaction, though nowadays there are many additional responsibilities behind the scenes."

Fuchs attributes the shift, in part, to a change in corporate structures. Today’s hotels have many more departments, each dealing with different aspects of the guest experience, and the GM’s role involves a greater degree of high-level oversight.

"Such changes have led to the expansion of the duties of a general manager, and also require a greater presence behind the scenes," he says. "It is very important to find a good balance between all responsibilities and still being available for guests."

Ready for today and tomorrow

Evidently, today’s general managers need to strive for excellence in both respects, keeping one eye on the bottom line and the other on playing host. This really comes down to something as simple as time management – recognising what is crucial at any given moment and what can be taken care of later.

"You have to make sure you have time for your customers and make sure you have time for the commercial side of the business," agrees Martin. "I guess it’s tempting these days to be more administrative, but I think you’ve got to guard very heavily against it. Without your clients – the hotel doing well and service being spot on – you won’t have the commercial side to deal with."

This applies perhaps doubly in the Middle East, where guests have come to expect a certain level of care and attention. With personal service paramount, the GM needs to ensure each guest is received with courtesy, either meeting and greeting guests themselves or simply enshrining the appropriate attitude in their staff.

City limits

There is another challenge associated with this part of the world, and that is its cosmopolitanism. Because Jumeirah at Etihad Towers is located in the heart of the city, most of its customers are business travellers. However, during holiday periods, it also welcomes many leisure guests, and they tend to hail from all over the world.

At the InterContinental Dubai Marina, meanwhile, the expected guest demographic breaks down into Gulf nationals and Europeans, with a respectable smattering of other nationalities.

Most general managers in the region, including Martin and Fuchs, are expats – they have hopped from one hotel to the next across the globe, and accumulated a lot of worldly understanding along the way. A smaller proportion, such as the Crowne Plaza Dubai GM, Georges Farhat, are UAE nationals who have been at one hotel for a while and worked their way up the ranks.

Whichever trajectory a GM has followed, it is critical that he or she can cater to a huge range of cultural sensibilities. Here, more so than elsewhere, their diverse set of duties is most likely paired with an equally diverse clientele.

"With personal service paramount, the GM needs to ensure each guest is received with courtesy, either meeting and greeting guests themselves or simply enshrining the appropriate attitude in their staff."

"You’ve got to be really tolerant and understanding of different cultures, and realise that just because it’s different from what you’re used to, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong," says Martin. "Finding out what makes people tick is half the fun of the hospitality business."

The hotel market in the Middle East is dynamic and growing fast, meaning these sorts of challenges are likely to become more pressing. Fuchs believes that, while maintaining market leadership will require creativity and innovation at the highest level, it also means keeping the basic tenets of hospitality firmly in mind.

"There will be many new emerging opportunities in the Middle East in the future," he says. "The expectations of travellers will also evolve and our roles will therefore adapt. The importance of the general manager’s guest-facing duties is likely to increase, as luxury travel is not about ‘bling’ and glitter. Today, it is more about personalised services and unique experiences, and the presence and accessibility of the general manager plays an important role."

The brand matters

Martin, by contrast, thinks that the challenges going forward may have more to do with sales and marketing – treating your hotel not just as a hotel, but as a business, and carving a strong reputation for your brand.

"Branding is becoming a really strong emphasis," he says. "Nowadays, it’s not just about the physical features of what a brand is; it’s about delivering an emotional connection. This is becoming much more prevalent with social media as well.

"The internet has probably been the biggest change that’s happened to our industry, as everything has to be responded to immediately, and that’s becoming more powerful as the years go by. As a GM, you have to use the people around you, and I suppose it’s a different sort of skill set you need in your hotel now."

For GMs themselves, this means being all things to all people – a rare composite of business brain, marketing guru, brand figurehead and innkeeper extraordinaire. It’s no small task, and there can be no doubt that this coveted role is one of the most demanding in hospitality. Still, for seasoned GMs such as Martin and Fuchs, all things are possible with the right mindset.

"I’m a great believer that excellence is not a skill, but an attitude that must be constantly revisited and worked upon," says Fuchs. "We are prepared for it with the right dedication and determination to succeed."