Holidaying in a time of unrest20 December 2012
Ongoing political turmoil and recent violent events in the Middle East may be beyond a mere hotelier’s control, but how one prepares for and reacts to them is not. Owners and operators based in the region’s trouble spots discuss their efforts to reassure guests about safety.
The luxury travel industry in the Middle East has had a tough time this year, typified by continuing unrest across the Arab world. Following 2011's wave of uprisings, 2012 saw unremitting bloodshed in Syria, bitter division in Egypt (despite its first free presidential election in June), an impasse in Bahrain between government and opposition, and another eruption of violence between Israel and Palestine in November. Such events have, inevitably, left their mark on the region, and for hotels in affected areas, the consequences are potentially enormous. Once a region is perceived to be dangerous, persuading visitors to return can be a major challenge, but it is possible to rebuild reputations. Furthermore, in difficult circumstances, hotels can play a vital role in helping affected areas to recover, and must be ready to project the right message in terms of safety and security.
Life on the edge
One man who knows more than most about operating a hotel in a troubled region is Gordon Campbell Gray, owner of Le Gray in Beirut. Despite concerns over the threat of Syrian violence spilling across the Lebanese border, the city has managed to retain its emerging reputation as an attractive travel destination. But this wasn't always the case; during the development of the hotel, tensions were high throughout the country.
In 2006, Israel launched a military bombing campaign in Lebanon, while in 2008, Hezbollah-led fighters seized control of some neighbourhoods in Beirut. Unsurprisingly, Campbell Gray's project was delayed by a number of years, but he never considered pulling out.
"The creation of Le Gray was not without incident, but I never thought of leaving or giving up," he explains. "It has been a bit of a challenge, but if it were dangerous to be here, I wouldn't be. If things aren't perfect, don't worry, they probably will be tomorrow."
The hotel finally opened its doors in 2009, and has since become one of the Middle East's most aspirational destinations. The striking 87-bedroom property is located within the historic heart of Beirut, and is part of a wave of recent openings, with properties by Grand Hyatt and Kempinski also in the pipeline.
A city synonymous with danger
"Beirut is an exceptional city," says Campbell Gray. "It is rich in history, with extraordinary sites such as the Roman ruins at Baalbek and, of course, Byblos. In addition, there is the Lebanese love of living and unequalled hospitality, which is found in the amazing nightlife, restaurants and bars."
Despite the obvious attractions of Beirut as extolled by Campbell Gray, the city's turbulent past - compounded by current regional tensions - is never far away and, for some, its name remains synonymous with chaos and danger.
Overcoming this perception is a major challenge for the country's luxury travel industry, but Campbell Gray thinks hotels can play an instrumental role in the task at hand. "Le Gray has had tremendous press throughout the world, and this has resulted in many new visitors to Lebanon, who have had the best time, gone home, told their friends and helped to dispel the myths of danger," he explains. "I feel totally safe here - you can walk around at night and feel safer than in most major cities in the world, which is why it is a shame that people tend to be ill informed."
Egypt: take the long view
While the success of Le Gray shows that it is possible to rehabilitate an area with a troubled reputation, insurgency across the Middle East and North Africa over the last 18 months means it is likely to remain an uphill struggle. Geoffrey Kent, founder and CEO of luxury travel operator Abercrombie & Kent, has first-hand experience of promoting destinations that are perceived as dangerous, and understands how difficult it can be. He advises taking a longer view, citing Egypt as an example.
Initial optimism among the international community has transmuted into concern. The election of Mohamed Morsi as president in June 2012 has riven the nation, as highlighted by violent antigovernment demonstrations and protests in response to recent reforms.
"You must take a long-term perspective," he explains. "Since opening our office in Egypt in 1985, we have seen many ups and downs in business, but tourists always return. So when something unexpected happens, communication is key. Our local executives meet with clients travelling in the affected country to update them on the situation and discuss their options. "The situation in Egypt last year  demonstrated the value of having people on the ground empowered to take action. We moved our clients to a hotel near the airport, organised charter flights from Cairo and rerouted clients on Nile cruises onto direct flights to the UK from Luxor." Ensuring that accurate information is available is also vital.
"We provide detailed, regular updates about current situations from our offices on the ground in order to counter any misperceptions," adds Kent. "It is crucial to reassure travel agents and prospective clients that appropriate security measures are in place at hotels and tourist sites. We are as specific as possible about what that means, from bag screenings and metal detectors to the visible presence of the tourist police."
Jane Heywood, commercial director at upmarket tour company ITC Classics, agrees that it is necessary to be on hand to assuage any fears travellers may have. "We work closely with all the properties in our portfolio, to encourage customers to the resorts with added-value extras or discounts," she explains. "We are reassured that all the properties are of the highest standard and are often removed from political situations, which also helps to encourage customers back."
Round-the-clock support is also available for travellers who may be in the middle of a trip when a situation arises. "We have a 24-hour emergency team to provide assistance and a genuine fast track to getting problems solved, which means our clients are not just at the mercy of the customer service desk," adds Heywood. "Booking through a tour operator also offers the client financial protection."
Far off the beaten path
Destinations that have experienced problems, whether as a result of political strife, terrorism or a natural disaster, attract certain types of visitors, according to Kent. "While many who travel are thrilled simply to be in a foreign country, our guests seek a deeper knowledge and appreciation, an experience of a more profound nature that expands their understanding of the world, often far off the beaten path," he says. "They are drawn to places that have retained their rich cultural traditions, such as Bhutan, China's Yunnan province, Mongolia, Myanmar and Zambia."
While volatility in the Middle East may have affected overall bookings, the picture is not as bleak as one would suppose. This was corroborated by a recent survey by Ernst & Young, which reported a 7% increase in occupancy rates in hotels in Cairo. However, some, such as Khaled Helmy, manager at the Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan, believe that hotels outside of the Egyptian capital face a more difficult task of rebuilding visitor numbers.
Situated on the banks of the Nile, the historic hotel was once the haunt of Agatha Christie and Winston Churchill, and was recently the subject of a major refurbishment, opening in September 2011 after a three-year closure. Now, guests can take advantage of 138 luxurious bedrooms, an iconic fine-dining French restaurant and a state-of-the-art spa. While business has suffered as a result of political instability within Egypt, Helmy believes the hotel and others like it will help encourage visitors to return.
"The hotel industry can be instrumental in positioning Egypt as a place that is safe and secure for tourists, and needs to focus on promoting safer areas like Aswan and Luxor," he explains. "Marketing strategies with airlines can make these cities accessible for international tourists, without using Cairo as a hub. Our primary objective is to position iconic hotels such as Old Cataract and the Sofitel Winter Palace as destinations rather than just a place to stay."
The inherent value of travel
While there is much work to be done in countries affected by the extant repercussions of the Arab Spring, Kent feels that hotels can aid the recovery by offering guests a unique experience.
"Experiential travel is about inherent value, a balance between authenticity, flexibility and the sense of well-being that comes from staying at a fine hotel," he says. "To some, it's a suite at a five-star property, and to others it's being able to spend sufficient time to explore a place in depth. For more adventurous clients, it's about being stretched physically, psychologically and, perhaps, emotionally. This is travel for people who define luxury not so much by the degree of elegance, but by the quality of experience."