Woman on the rise

26 July 2019

Maram Kokandi is the first woman in Saudi Arabia to rise to the role of general manager, having been awarded the position at the Park Inn by Radisson Madinah Road, Jeddah.

We are in the final stages of the opening process of the Park Inn by Radisson Madinah Road, and it certainly feels like a lot of responsibility to be taking on, but everything I’ve experienced from when I started in hospitality has been leading to this point. If you work in the business long enough, you will have experience in finance, human resources, food and beverage, room service, sales and marketing – in everything, because each department is linked to another. You cannot function alone; if you work in the front office, you should know what the housekeepers do, what’s happening in the kitchen, the systems and rules.

And a hotel doesn’t operate in isolation – politics matters. Just look what happened to Cairo in the wake of the Arab Spring. The city was a leading destination for all Arabic people. Suddenly, tourism in Egypt essentially stopped for two years. It has stated to grow again, but very slowly and not like before. Political events change travel habits.

Saudi Arabia has been the place for Hajj and Umrah since Prophet Mohammed, so travel and tourism is embedded in our culture, but when I went to study hospitality management in the UK, people were confused about what hospitality in Saudi Arabia actually was. Now they are very excited to know the first Saudi female general manager.

Thanks to God, I have very good, open-minded and educated parents, and they support me. And within the industry itself, people have been so generous and supportive.

When I started 14 years ago, I found I was the only Saudi woman working in the hotel business, but people seemed to see promise in me. I met Prince Sultan bin Salman, the minister of hospitality and tourism 10 years ago. At that time, I was in Dubai, and he wanted to know how a Saudi woman came to work for a hotel in the UAE. I said it was just where I’d found myself. Then he asked, “What do you want to do?” I said I wanted to get the education to go with my professional experience. Because of this, he gave me my scholarship and sent me to the UK to continue my studies. When I graduated and returned to Saudi Arabia, I didn’t go directly into hospitality because I couldn’t find the right position, so I moved into real estate. It was useful; I’d spent seven years outside the country and needed to see what was happening in the market. When I got a phone call from our regional manager asking me to become a general manager, I couldn’t believe it. “Maram,” he told me. “This will be a big surprise for everyone.”

The personal touch

From that point, I knew I had to be a role model for the new generation. I do a lot of training and speeches, and people look at me as the example that nothing is impossible. My big message is to put a goal in front of you. Don’t think everything will come easy; you will need time.

In hospitality you build long relationships with your clients. I still know guests who visited the hotel I was at when I started as a very low-level employee. They have been calling ever since my appointment. “Maram, when you open your hotel, we want to visit.” I tell them it’s only four-star and they reply, “We’re coming because of you – because we found our comfort with you. You know everything about us, and we know you can handle it.” It’s true, I know the families and the kids. Even when I graduated I got cards from all these people. Then when I got this position they called, “Maram, you deserve it.”

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