Selim El Zyr, World Class, with Regional Roots

Selim El Zyr, World Class, with Regional Roots

Selim El Zyr, homegrown hospitality visionary and Rotana’s vice chairman, talks to HN about the region’s competitive advantages, the challenge of training and retaining the next generation of hoteliers, and why the founding principle of delivering ‘Treasured Time’ is as important today as ever

How do you assess the regional hospitality industry?
The region continues to enjoy a strong reputation as an outstanding family-friendly destination with something to offer all types of visitors, thanks to its rich blend of cultural, historical and modern offerings. The tourism sector has continued to grow in 2018, despite the challenges facing the industry in the region. This ongoing success can be attributed to a number of important factors, including campaigns led by the regional governments to drive tourism and attract visitors from all corners of the globe. The region also remains an attractive proposition for investors, with a fast-growing youth demographic that has access to rising disposable income. Massive investments are being made on new commercial, tourism and entertainment projects, such as Dubai’s EXPO 2020 and Saudi Arabia’s USD 500 billion Red Sea coastline project. These are also generating exciting opportunities for the sector, owing to the associated rise in corporate travel, and domestic and international tourist arrivals. With increasing numbers of domestic and international business and leisure travellers, the industry can expect to see further improvements across all key performance indicators (KPIs) in the years ahead. Consistent high performance and positive global economic prospects have set the stage for a bright future for the region’s hospitality business.

What do you think has enabled Rotana to stand out from the crowd and position itself as a strong homegrown chain?
As a homegrown brand, we understand the region very well, and have consistently leveraged this knowledge to adapt to the needs of our guests. For example, we were one of the first hotel companies to introduce an ‘all-suites’ concept, which proved highly popular with the local market. In addition, the launch of our affordable lifestyle hotel brand ‘Centro by Rotana’ in 2006 proved a game-changer for the region’s mid-market hospitality segment. The caliber of our people is also a key component of our continuing success. We have over 11,000 colleagues from more than 100 different countries and backgrounds, proudly working for the company. We also place a strong emphasis on providing opportunities for locals to establish careers in the hospitality sector through initiatives such as our Duroob program, which offers unrivalled opportunities for the brightest local talent in the hotel industry. Ultimately, I would say our belief in measuring business success not only through growth and how many hotels we operate, but also through the value we contribute to people’s lives, is central to our success.

How did Rotana’s vision evolve?
Rotana’s vision evolved from the shared dream of two friends. Nasser Al Nowais and I set out to create a hospitality group that was rooted in the region and capable of developing world-class properties to the highest of international standards. This ultimately led to the birth of Rotana in Abu Dhabi in 1992, with our very first property – Beach Rotana – opening its doors the following year. From there, we worked tirelessly to grow our portfolio of properties in the UAE, before expanding into the wider region. Our goal was to open a Rotana property in every major city in the region, and, following a quarter-century of fast-paced expansion, we are well on our way to achieving this. Just as the UAE itself gloriously rose from the desert to become a top global destination, Rotana, too, forged its success story from humble beginnings to become one of the region’s leading hotel management companies. However, the underlying essence remains the same; the principle of delivering ‘Treasured Time’ by providing a consistent experience across the diverse range of more than 100 properties we manage today.

Do you think that when a hotel is owned and operated by a chain, its chances of survival in the region increase?
Speaking from the perspective of a hotel management company, we do not own any of our properties. However, as a chain, we treat all hotels equally and according to the standards applied to each of our brands. Our properties in the region are not only surviving, but thriving. This reflects both the hard work of our dedicated teams, and the high level of guest satisfaction they are delivering, which sees customers return to our properties time and time again.

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In what ways does Rotana’s journey resemble your own?
As one of the founders of Rotana, I have seen the company grow and evolve over more than a quarter of a century, and I am pleased to say we are still guided by the same key principles as when we first started out. If you look back through the company’s history, our success has been built on enduring partnerships. It is these bonds that best describe the essence of the business – sincere friendships, based upon loyalty, integrity and the desire to serve. Having dedicated my life to the hospitality industry, it is both humbling and rewarding to see the next generation of talented team members across our portfolio continuing to embrace these values – and in doing so, fulfilling the vision both Nasser and I had for the company all those years ago.

As a hospitality veteran, how are you investing your experience and what advice do you have for the next generations of hoteliers?
One thing I have learned throughout my journey with Rotana is to seek out bright people with ambition, together with the intelligence and patience to deliver on this ambition. The challenge is to keep these people motivated, by offering them the opportunity to grow and develop within the organization. I feel Rotana has been highly successful in this respect. Young people have to understand that a career in hospitality is a long-term investment. Education is highly important for success – not only academic education, but the practical experience gained ‘on the job’. Dream big; it is important to remain ambitious, but always be patient, things will come to you at the right time. Also, learn from your mistakes. Some people are afraid to commit to a decision in case it’s the wrong one. But if you don’t learn from your mistakes, you won’t learn at all. Plan your future carefully, and seek out an employer that is committed to developing and nurturing their team members.

Where do you see Rotana in five years’ time?
Rotana’s portfolio of operational properties has increased from two in 1993 to more than 100 today. It is our ambition to double this number by 2030. Over the coming five years, we will be opening 10 hotels per year. The plan is in place, and the knowhow to execute it is there, so in five years, we expect to see 150 hotels in operation. Our objectives are clear, and we are confident that if we continue to manage our growth in an efficient way, there is nothing to stop us from achieving our goals. We look forward to bringing our guests the world-class hospitality our brands have become associated with in more locations than ever before.


Prior to co-founding Rotana, Selim El Zyr forged his path in hospitality, acquiring international exposure with global brands. He graduated from Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in 1970 and, after completing his postgraduate studies at Cornell and Columbia Universities, he gained his first job as chief steward in the Waldorf in New York. He then spent 12 years with Hilton International in Germany, Spain, Egypt, Canada and the UAE, before reaching the position of regional director. El Zyr then decided to move into industrial catering, establishing a leading Lebanese fast-food chain in 1982. He then moved to the UAE as vice president for Abu Dhabi National Hotels, overseeing their operations in the emirates, as well as overseas.

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