Deep dive with Makram El Zyr, corporate vice president of development, Rotana

UAE-headquartered hotel management company Rotana has an aggressive expansion plan underway so THP News sat down with its corporate vice president of development to see what this entails.

Makram El Zyr outlined how the firm is intending to reach a target of 30 openings across the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey (MENAT) region in the next three years.

What does Rotana’s current hotel pipeline look like?

Rotana currently operates 72 hotels and 19,237 keys, across six brands in the MENAT region, and continues to cement its position as one of the leading hospitality brands. Leveraging the buoyant and sustained growth of the hospitality market, we have an aggressive expansion plan in place, aiming to expand our operations with 30 openings in the next three years.

In the final quarter of 2023, Rotana will see the opening of Riviera Rayhaan by Rotana in Doha, Qatar, and Bomonti Arjaan by Rotana in Istanbul, Türkiye. Moreover, we maintain a strong focus on Africa, with several new properties planned across the continent, including our entry into the Algerian market with Azure Rotana Resort & Spa in Oran.

Looking ahead to 2024, our plans include Dar Rayhaan by Rotana in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, and Onyx Arjaan by Rotana in Manama, Bahrain. We also anticipate the opening of Bloom Arjaan by Rotana on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island, featuring 217 hotel apartments, a floating infinity swimming pool, a state-of-the-art fitness centre and a diverse range of dining outlets.

What targets do you have for your portfolio in the next few years?

We have a strong pipeline target that we aim to achieve, in terms of room count, number of hotels and even new destinations. This includes 30 planned openings in the next three years.

Since inception, Rotana typically grew with the hotel management model, where we signed management agreements with hotel owners and developers. However, in 2019, Rotana diversified further and started franchising its brands, which today includes 12 pipeline properties and several more to be announced soon. With our franchise model, we expect to accelerate our growth further and even tap into new markets such as Europe where the franchise model is developed and mature.

We also added a new brand to our portfolio, Edge by Rotana in 2022, which is a collection of independent hotels that maintain their individuality, while capitalising on access to Rotana’s extensive network and systems. Since launch, Rotana has successfully opened three Edge by Rotana-managed hotels in the UAE — Arabian Park and Park Apartments in 2022, and Damac Hills 2 in 2023.

Another strategy that we have recently adopted is to brand existing hotels. Instead of only considering new builds and greenfield projects, as we historically did, we are now exploring converting existing hotels into Rotana-branded hotels. This approach has proven to be successful and promising, and we are confident that we have the right business models and brands to support our growth strategy for the coming years.

Which new countries or regions are you looking to move into?

We are exploring opportunities in Europe and especially in eastern Europe. Along with our presence in Bosnia with Bosmal Arjaan by Rotana since 2019, we announced a partnership with Pontus Development this year, to bring Pontus Rotana Resort & Spa Gonio to Georgia, where it is poised to become one of the country’s largest hotel complexes.

Moreover, Rotana marked its entry into the United Kingdom earlier in 2023 with two new London properties under Centro, its lifestyle hotel and serviced apartment brand. Centro New Malden and Centro Kingston are slated to open in 2024.

Centro New Malden will include 70 distinctly designed apartments furnished to a four-star hotel standard, with fully equipped kitchens and separate living and bedroom areas. Guests staying at the serviced apartments will enjoy easy access to central London in under 25 minutes.  Meanwhile, Centro Kingston will feature 31 highly distinctive apartments, each designed to maximise space, light and efficiency, including smart technology and in-room entertainment.

These two properties are set to launch as part of a wider agreement to develop up to 1,500 keys over multiple sites across the greater London region, all under the Centro brand.

Africa also remains a key target and destination for Rotana, and we will be announcing a few new destinations in the coming few months. Rotana recently announced a new Arjaan Hotel Apartments by Rotana branded property in Senegal. The 150-key site in Dakar will represent the height of elegant city living and is expected to be completed by 2026.

Which of your existing markets do you think are most promising for further expanding your footprint?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remains a key market for us. We strongly believe in the market there and its potential. This year, we signed four Edge by Rotana and one Rayhaan by Rotana properties in Riyadh, in addition to an Edge by Rotana in Al Baha. Rotana’s aim is to triple its room count within the Kingdom over the next two years.

We are all familiar with the major, more established cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah; and some other up-and-coming cities such as Abha and Al Khobar. However, there are many others such as Al Baha, which may not be as well-known as a destination yet. Such cities are growing in popularity and hold enormous potential for further development in the coming years.

Egypt – a country steeped in rich history and culture – remains another important market for us, and one that has huge potential for tourism and hospitality. It was recently ranked first in a survey of African countries with the highest number of new hotel investments on the continent, and has seen a number of international brands entering the market with branded residences and hotels. In Egypt, we see vast promise for further expansion, with plans to open a total of five new hotels, including properties in Cairo, Luxor and the North Coast. 

In Cairo, our endeavours include White Palace Rotana Resort, a five-star hotel featuring 353 rooms and suites, an array of dining options including two specialty restaurants, state-of-the-art facilities and 11 meeting rooms, further underlining our commitment to delivering excellence in hospitality across the region.

Which Rotana brands do you feel hold the most development potential?

As our affordable hotel brand that offers superior class accommodation and hospitality, at reasonable rates, Centro remains one of our focus brands for development. The locations of Centro properties are at the heart of business or commercial districts in major cities across the region. The finesse and functionality these properties provide to our guests makes it an attractive accommodation option for people who spend a lot of time travelling either for business or for pleasure, and a highly efficient operational model for Rotana.

Edge by Rotana is another brand that holds great expansion promise in the coming years. These hotels can maintain their individuality, bringing a welcomed sense of additional diversity to both Rotana’s portfolio and guests’ accommodation needs, while benefiting from Rotana’s extensive network and systems. We’ve already witnessed great success since the launch last year, opening three hotels in the UAE and five set to open in KSA.

Which hotel segment do you think is going to most help to boost the Rotana network?

Rotana’s lifestyle hotel and serviced apartment brand, Centro will boost our network further due to factors such as limited service, location, extended stays and digital solutions, which are all shaping the future of travel. Our Centro brand caters perfectly to these shifting traveller needs. 

Are you tending towards newbuilds or conversions?

Our approach involves a careful blend of new builds and conversions, driven by thorough market analysis. We assess market needs and guests’ preferences, which dictate the direction that we pursue. 

What are your criteria for choosing hotel suppliers for each project?

Our ESG framework plays a key part in how we identify and select hotel suppliers. This differs based on each property or brand, as well as the region, however we maintain rigorous standards that align with our corporate sustainability framework, Rotana Earth.

Particularly for FF&E, our primary criteria revolve around working with local suppliers, supporting small businesses and considerations for sustainable solutions. Working with local suppliers allows us to bolster regional economies as well as integrate cultural authenticity in our properties. Our goal is to maintain the highest quality and continue delivering on our brand promise of ‘treasured time’ for all our guests, while making a positive impact on the environment.

Your president and CEO, Guy Hutchinson, is moving to Hilton next year, do you know who will take his place?

For the time being, Rotana’s co-founder Selim El Zyr will increase his involvement in company operations while a successor is identified. We wish Guy Hutchinson all the best and thank him for his nearly 10 years of leadership and contributions to the group’s regional growth. 

How would you encapsulate Rotana’s overall development strategy?

We anticipate that 2024 will be a pivotal year for Rotana with new properties gearing up to open across the region and beyond. Our global expansion remains a key priority and we continue to add to our ever-growing portfolio. As we celebrate our 30th anniversary, we look forward to welcoming guests from all over the world.