Ritz Carlton GM Amit Arora on reflagging, training and hotels in a social media age

Ritz Carlton GM Amit Arora on reflagging, training and hotels in a social media age

We recently interviewed Amit Arora, a valued member of the AHIC community and GM of the Ritz Carlon Al Wadi Desert Resort in Ras al Khaimah.  We covered what it means to reflag a legacy resort (the Ritz Carlton was previously RAK’s well know Banyan Tree resort), the importance of talent and training and how he thinks about running a hotel in a social media age.

This interview is brought to you in part by the International Course in Hospitality Management, available at MODUL University Dubai.  Amit is an Alumni of MODUL University and also speaks on some of the fundamentals lessons from his education that are still in use today.  The interview has also been transcribed for your convenience and edited for ease of reading.

[00:00:44] Raj Kotecha: Amit Arora welcome to the show.

[00:00:45] Amit Arora: Great to have you with us Raj.

[00:00:46] Raj: Fantastic so of course you are the GM of the Al Wadi Desert Resort here in Ras al Khaimah which is a Ritz-Carlton Partner Hotel and and one of the things that comes up constantly in our community is an issue with regards to finding talent, staffing and training. From your point of view as a GM, how real is that problem?

[00:01:14] Amit: It’s absolutely crucial to get your staffing right and Ritz-Carlton does a great job in developing talents, not only are we always on the lookout for the best talent in the market but we’re constantly training and developing our ladies and gentlemen and that’s something the company does really well. Being a part of Marriott International, we have also access to a wider talent pool, we can tap into our colleagues from sister hotels and bring them here and give them a new challenge. We’ve been very fortunate to get some very talented ladies and gentlemen in our new resort.

[00:01:42] Raj: Also as GM, as these new customers come in, a lot of these customers are social media enabled, many of them are reviewers and critics in their own right using a lot of third-party sites to do so. As you are staffing and training folks from an operations point of view, how does that affect the way you manage and lead your staff? Is it something that you consciously talk about when you’re training them?

[00:02:03] Amit: Absolutely. Every single lady and gentleman is a brand ambassador and that’s a potential opportunity to wow our guests, to capture moments and experiences throughout the hotel so all our front line ladies and gentlemen are trained on that. I personally post on a daily basis one message on Instagram that really engages our guests with things happening in the resort and customers then reply and you create relationships through social media. We’ve very active on that front.

[00:02:26] Raj: And you know this location right here is formally the Banyan Tree and you are going through a[sic] actual reflagging?

[00:02:32] Amit: Correct.

[00:02:33] Raj: What are the day-to-day challenges with that because the Banyan Tree is very much a legacy location here in Ras al Khaimah and Ritz-Carlton is a global brand?

[00:02:43] Amit: Correct.

[00:02:43] Raj: How does one think about the reflagging and repositioning?

[00:02:46] Amit: Very good question Raj, I have to say that when you open a hotel, I find that to be easier because you build a building on brand and you bring life into that building. When you take over a property. When you do a conversion, it’s more challenging because the building, the state is not necessarily on brand but you’ve got to make it a Ritz-Carlton and for us, it’s not just about putting a sign on the door. That’s not what we’re doing here.

This is a 500-hectare nature reserve that we’re managing and we’re making each and every touch point in the customer journey on brand and that’s really the challenge and that’s really the opportunity. It’s a beautiful asset and what we need to do is now to bring it up to a Ritz-Carlton level and all the changes that we’re implementing are really going to allow us to serve our customers better.

[00:03:25] Raj: Let’s dig a little bit into this location specifically. Tell us about this location. What are some of its USPs from a consumer facing point of view because we’re very grateful you gave us a tour here earlier on and we saw some magnificent wildlife and I was very impressed how it just integrates seamlessly with the visitor experience-

[00:03:42] Amit: Absolutely.

[00:03:42] Raj: -But maybe we can go a level deeper into that?

[00:03:44] Amit: You’re located in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah in a location called Al Mazraa Desert in Wadi Khadija. We’re about 40 minutes drive away from Dubai International Airport. Distance-wise, very easily accessible also by road. Ras al Khaimah has its own airport as well so plenty of air-lift to get you here. Once you arrive in the nature reserve, you’re in the midst of sand dunes. You’re surrounded by wildlife. You have daily wildlife interactions.

The setting is pristine. It’s tranquil. It’s very unique and within this whole reserve, we have a beautiful resort laid out with roughly 500-hectares or 5 square kilometers in area and we have a very, very unique setting. The challenges you were asking me earlier about is about making sure that this whole integration does not disturb nature. We are offering you a luxury experience in a nature reserve but we don’t want to interrupt with the natural things happening around us and we’re very, very mindful of that.

You will have encounters with Arabian gazelles, with orexis. You would have the opportunity to ride a horse in the sand dunes or do a camel track but without interfering with nature and that’s what we do so differently here.

[00:04:48] Raj: It’s quite a complex resort. When we were speaking earlier on today you mentioned that you’ve obviously been yourself as a professional placed in a number of different locations around the world?

[00:04:56] Amit: Yes.

[00:04:56] Raj: You graduated from Modul University in Vienna in 1997

[00:05:01] Amit: That’s right.

[00:05:01] Raj: Across all these different locations, what are some of the fundamentals you picked up in your course at that time that still hold true today?

[00:05:08] Amit: For me, a hospitality was never a job. If you see it as a job, that’s not how you’re going to succeed in this business. Hospitality is a passion and that’s what we do so well. You’ve got to be passionate about what you do. You’re creating guest experiences, you’re engaging customers in a very unique setting. If you’re not fully immersed into it, you won’t be able to get it right, especially when you’re doing a transition of this nature which involves so much more than just running a hotel.

We are taking care of animals here, we look after the stables, we’ve got all these nature walks to do, we’ve got tree plantations going on throughout the nature reserves. It’s a very, very complex job and it’s very different to anything I’ve done in the past, but Modul is the reason I’m here because Modul actually prepares you for these challenges. Hospitality in the olden days was all about going into an internship, working in the back of house and learning it by doing it.

But when you visit ICHM, you get the fundamentals, you get the basics, you get the tricks of the trade that are taught to you by professors that have been there and done the job themselves. You learn first hand and if you’re able to absorb that and then implement it into your day-to-day routine, there’s no reason why you can’t succeed.

[00:06:14] Raj: When you’re dealing with location of this size and you’ve got so many different moving parts, from nature to activities, to the actual resort and stay itself, you’ve got a lot of stuff to communicate and I’m sure that the way that you market this venue is quite a big conversation unit around the boardroom table. How would you define strategic marketing which is one modules that ICHM offers and what parts of a business does it touch on a day-to-day basis?

[00:06:42] Amit: Actually, one of the reasons I’m here today, is also probably because of my commercial background. Because we’re not just taking over a property, we’re repositioning the resort, we’re repositioning the nature reserve and one of the things which Carlton is doing very differently, is we’re talking about the Al Wadi experiences. If you sell a room it’s like selling a commodity.

Here in our communication, we don’t sell rooms. Rooms is a byproduct of what we do. We have 101 tented villas with private pools here, but you would never see that mentioned in our communication. What we are talking about is the Al Wadi experience, that’s strategic marketing. The driver, the catalyst of this, is that you want to come here because you want to experience these moments that you cannot find anywhere else.

You are going to drive from wherever you are in Dubai 45, 50 minutes to come to Al Wadi because we give you experiences that no one else can. That’s the differentiator. Once you’re here, of course, you’re going to eat in our restaurants, you’re going to use the spa, you might stay overnight, but the experiences is not something that anyone else in this market can duplicate and that’s what sets us apart.

[00:07:36] Raj: When people think about the marketing industry, they generally think about an area where creative people can flourish. How do you identify somebody, though, as a potential strategic marketer, is it necessarily that cliche creative individual or what other skills do you look for particularly when you hire into these roles?

[00:07:54] Amit: I think it’s more than that. It’s also the strategy piece that really needs to be dialed up. You need to be able to understand and read trends. A lot of it is now about data, data mining and data analyzing. A good marketeer would know the Geo-source, where is the business coming from, what’s happening around me, what is my circle of influence, how can I interact with my community and what can I do to engage my community?

It’s a lot more than the creative side. Creativity helps you to build campaigns. I’ve been a marketeer myself and done some amazing campaigns, but if the strategy piece is not missing, then you always rely it on third party agencies to come and tell you what to do. A good marketeer would have very solid mind, a strategic mind, and then the ability to convert that strategy into a tactical campaign.

[00:08:36] Raj: Well, looking specifically at the course, I’ve taken down some of the modules here as well, you’ve got managing and leading people, hospitality management essentials and quality and customer experience. When you do these elements within the module, ICHM course, what advantage do you feel like that gave you in terms of having a holistic view as you’ve developed such a long career in this industry?

[00:08:58] Amit: ICHM first of all, gives you that foundation that you need. Without that foundation, it would take you probably a lot longer to get where you want to be in the industry. A lot of people that join the hotel school want that foundation. Nowadays, when you look for jobs they say, “All right, which hotel school have you been to?” That wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

When I chose hospitality as a career, it was very early days. The hotel schools were only just getting started. Today every senior executive in the hospitality business that you talk to, has done one or two hospitality courses or has been to a hospitality university. It’s evolved over the years. They give you that foundation. The other piece was the internship, learning by doing.

We were deployed in various hotels around Vienna, we would go into a summer internship in a property then we would go and work in the mountains, then we would do a banqueting in the Viennese ball. We were really exposed to the practical side of it. That put together really gets you ready for any situation. Then when you go in the real world, you say, “All right, I’ve heard about that. I know what food cost means because I sat in that session and I understood how food cost is calculated.” You’re not starting from scratch, you have that foundation, and then you can build on it.

[00:09:58] Raj: Let’s wind back in closing to when you were in that 20-year-old age bracket or let’s say on your graduation day if you could go back and give a young Amit Arora a key piece of advice. What would that piece of advice be on your graduation day from Modul?

[00:10:12] Amit: Expect the unexpected. Be ready for any challenge and don’t settle for anything that’s in your comfort zone. A lot of hoteliers say I’m not going to do this job because it’s outside of my comfort zone. I don’t want to be going to Africa or I’m not going to be able to survive in the Middle East. I came out to the Middle East in very early days and made a career out of it.

There was always like no you can only work in certain hotels. I would say take the risk. Step out of your comfort level. Go and try those weird jobs because those weird jobs, working in stewarding or going and cleaning rooms actually gets you ready for the big job. A lot of hotel school graduates believe that they done hotel school, they’re ready to be a general manager.

That’s not the case. You’ve got to go and get your hands dirty. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves. You’ve got to serve people. You’ve got to clean plates. And that– if you’ve done that, then one day when you manage people, you’ll know exactly how to manage them because you’ve been in their shoes. And that’s the learning I had from Modul.

[00:11:05] Raj: Thank you so much. We appreciate the invite down here and of course our gratitude to Modul University for arranging this interview. Please subscribe at wherever you see this video. We’ll speak to you again. Thank you again Amit.

[00:11:16] Amit: Thank you Raj. Great to have you with us. Appreciate it.