The Phoenicia Hotel is one of Lebanon’s most renowned five star hotels. Built in 1961, it catered to the era’s most glamorous crowd, with Omar Sharif and Brigitte Bardot among its famous guests. After being destroyed during Lebanon’s civil war, it reopened in March of the year 2000, and has managed to survive the various ups and downs of the Lebanese hospitality sector ever since.
Dagmar Symes was recently hired as the latest general manager, making her the first woman to serve as Phoenicia’s GM.
Executive sat down with Symes to talk about her plans for Phoenicia and her ideas for bringing the hotel’s vintage glamour and appeal to 21st century guests’ needs and lifestyles.
E What motivated you to accept the post of general manager at Phoenicia Hotel?
First of all, the Phoenicia is the Phoenicia: it’s the landmark in Beirut. I believe it has grown the hospitality roots in Lebanon, and is a fascinating hotel as such. The Phoenicia is a “Grand Hotel,” and a lot of my experience is very much linked to a refined environment; the grand hotel flair is really something I feel very comfortable in.
It’s also an amazing challenge. The Phoenicia never had a woman GM before, and not to discriminate against anybody, but we [women] have a different way of seeing teams and refinement, and we are maybe more communicative in that regard. I think this is exactly what the hotel needs right now. This is how things fell into place from all parties.
E In your role as a GM of a grand hotel, what added value do you intend to bring to the table?
General managers are general, so we are a little bit everywhere, and this is how I perceive my role.
I’m the main cheerleader of the crowd, with a lot of specialists to ideally do the task. I see the true duty of a GM as leading the team, true leadership: management is here and leadership is here (gestures higher), and if you embrace the culture and embrace the people, you will get amazing results.
So, to align the team to go in the right direction with you is the key role to play, aside from the strategic part.
E Would you say the job is 80 percent heart and 20 percent brain? Or 40 percent heart and 60 percent brain?
If I say 80 percent heart and 20 brain then InterContinental and the owners would have a problem with me! (laughs)
I would say 50/50, knowing that right now I am more on the brain side rather than the heart side because the team deserves it, and also because of these difficult times in Lebanon.
Hospitality has lost, to a certain extent, its sparkle. If you lose the spark, and you’re demotivated, you have a tendency to become maybe less quality driven. So I think to re-boost [morale] you have to spread the positive energy and pull everybody up again.
This is how I perceive the role of the GM: the first part is team-related and then of course it’s business-related and number crunching. At the end I am judged by the numbers, but if you have the right team, you get the numbers right as well because it is all filtering down properly.
E What is your vision for Phoenicia, and how will you align it with the existing vision of the owning family, given that the hotel has been in operation for a long time?
We want to use the hotel’s very historical and well-established institutional roots to bring it to the modern world.
Why now? Because things are changing a lot. Beirut is very much into arts, into fashion, into clubbing, into a huge diversification of its culinary scene. This is why we have to be far more integrated to bring all that to a grand hotel, while still looking at the luxury and refinement appeal we have as an international platform.
The other part is the integration in the local market, which is through F&B primarily, and also through weddings. This is basically how we would like to move forward.
The third pillar is HR because Phoenicia has always been, and is, the breeding ground for the hospitality industry in Lebanon. So we want to also continue our duties by giving the youngsters in hospitality a good base to grow or to start their career because the education system is so amazing here.
E Does that mean that you are investing in your HR and training with a new kind of capital expenditure, or is it only more activity?
What we need to do is to make people aware that it is an international company supporting the Phoenicia spirit, and I think honestly we have enough tools within the company that we largely exploit in a very healthy way.
Many people believe this is linked to a training manager. I don’t believe so because on-the-job training now is far more important – and takes up literally 70 percent of your training – than the theoretical classroom-style approach.
We use that style of training in certain things because you have to, but the real training is with the right leaders and right managers on the spot. We have departmental trainers in every department, and a quality manager following up on that. It does not need to have an extra capital expenditure.
However for the talented, or in other words, those that have the right aptitude and attitude, and want to, we have put aside a budget to go beyond the classics. For example, I can send a pastry chef to France for four weeks to work with a Michelin chef. We have done this in the past and we will do it again.
E You have a budget for it, but the system is not…
We have the budget and the system is in place, but it is a matter of where we focus on first. Pure gut feeling and where we stand today would be the F&B team.
This is because the F&B is selling to the local community. It doesn’t matter in which sense, if it’s à la carte or banqueting, or a wedding, it is all F&B linked. Usually, hotels have a challenge with F&B outlets, and the community has a challenge with them; because for you, you’re going into a hotel, and you think it’s not really a restaurant.
Here our competitors are the freestanding restaurants out there; we are not talking about hotels only anymore. In our vicinity there are 40 restaurants that I have to take into consideration.
E Does that mean you are planning to redefine your F&B offerings?
Given what I just said, we are redefining all the concepts to be quite honest. Eau De Vie – which is our fine dining outlet – has a huge potential from the setting alone and will have a new touch. Café Mondo was less frequented in the recent past because of the huge security barrier that blocked off the scenery for some time, but now it’s accessible again, so we need to use the terrace and get this “living” spirit into the space.
Then you have the classics that need to be implemented. A grand hotel usually has an afternoon tea for example: does it need to be the afternoon tea of yesteryear? Clearly not! But I think we have been very creative in that sense and we will revive that as well, although maybe not on a daily basis.
E In the past, the Salha group seemed a little wary when they said they’ve moved from making most of their money with accommodations to F&B as the main driver of their revenue. What is your view on that?
This is absolutely true. Even last year’s strategy was rooms oriented, because profitability in the rooms’ part is far higher than F&B, and in different markets I would fully support this vision.
Having had a very challenging economic environment, you had to go with certain profitability rules to be able to have funds to invest in the hotel and everything else.
But again I believe Lebanon without food is the wrong approach, and we have to have fine balance. The food part always eats most of your share, but on the other hand, as I always tell the owning company, you wouldn’t have all those restaurateurs out there if they didn’t have a profitable operation.
E When Phoenicia reopened, it was the only venture available for a certain class of events. Now you have had a number of competitors and halls in other places in Beirut, as far as Dbayeh, and as near as The Four Seasons and The Yacht Club. So the landscape is different, and your ambition is still to be the landmark within that landscape: how do you plan to do that with other capable operators, with international backing of their own, sprouting around you?
Phoenicia has survived extremely well in a very difficult market context, and, yes, there are competitors, but you have certain market shares toward competitors.
If I compare myself with the Four Seasons, then it is the maybe more the business client and weddings rather than anything else. If I go Le Gray, it is the upscale international travelers; if I go Hilton, it’s banqueting. So you know you grab a little bit of everything, whereas I understand that the cake is getting smaller and smaller with every new competitor in the local market.
Internationally, I think you have to be smart to focus on the right markets. Here, I think Phoenicia has always been extremely international. We are making huge sales throughout the globe, starting with the European market, our region as well as going down to South America, where there is a huge Lebanese diaspora.
When there are difficult times, we are more locally focused, so we are all somehow sharing the same cake. But we have a very strong wedding segment, and this was always one of the key segments which sustained the business in tough times. Competitors also help to position you properly, and this is what I would use for our repositioning.
E But in your repositioning, do you aim to be known as the hotel that has a little bit of everything, or the wedding hotel or the meetings, incentives, conferences, exhibitions hotel etc.?
I think we have to be part of everything by nature of the market. We are international, we are aiming at the corporate and leisure segment, we have a kids club for families and we have a beautiful spa. Overall, we have to grab onto everything.
However, the fact remains that Lebanon as a country is extremely attractive for tourists from the Gulf region. Phoenicia was always known as one of the hotels attracting these clientele and that will come back, but it was never our main focus to attract only, and exclusively, this market. I think it is a mistake that Lebanon does, in that we all focus on this market only, because if the ban comes, or if it collapses – this is the reality – everything collapses.
But, you know, we have never lost our position as such, as a landmark. It is a matter of getting back into a certain society, and having maybe had a shift there. I think also it is natural because [we are dealing] with the new generation, which is different.
E Regarding this element, Generation Y’s preferences and tastes are probably not the same as their grandparents’. How do you see yourself positioning the hotel vis à vis generation Y customers?
First of all, this rejuvenation part plays a big role because Generation Y in my humble opinion is extremely visual in a way, so we will work on visual impact. We work a lot on social media; we are reaching out differently through the Facebook approach, being younger and trendier.
When I say visual it’s also everything related to images: photography and linking to old values – if you look back to traditional values such as fashion and art, most of the time you would link it to Europe – but reintroducing this in a very humble way will also automatically attract the youngsters.
E Speaking of art, you have one of the largest presences of art in your overall hotel environment, but sometimes it feels as though it is one of the most understated with regards to awareness and visibility. Are you planning on attracting more of the art crowd to the Phoenicia?
We definitely do. It’s part of our program for this year. But I think you also have to be very careful with these things, because everybody is jumping on these kind of “new trends,” and art has a certain value which you should not use and abuse in a wrong way.Phoenicia indeed has a lot of art pieces in a very discreet way – we never made something fancy out of it.
E Will this stay the same?
E The other thing you refer to is that feeling of Phoenicia being the most secure place for a traveler to come to. But on the other hand, of course, this total openness and accessibility was lost. What is your vision on hotel security?
I think you have to have a really fine balance. Personally, I wasn’t in Phoenicia in the old times, and I’m not even sure we needed this total security environment; I don’t believe so. We have a very well established and big security team, you cannot access the hotel through any funny backdoor. If we have delegations, fair enough, we get additional support from the local authorities.
For me, security has to have the right measure of prevention while maintaining guest contentment. If somebody really wants [to do harm] I think they are creative and smart enough to make it, but this you don’t stop through getting a third barrier around your building.
E What about the hard targets, the numbers? Do you have goals for 2017: annual year-on-year growth, anything that you can disclose? Will you be judged by how much increase in the year you can achieve?
It’s not necessarily increase only, but of course everything, at the end of the day, is based on numbers, on GOP, on profitability. That’s the nature of the business. I think, however, that we went into our budget in a very positive way, because we believe that this year will set a new chapter with the new president and the first signs that confirmed this. We feel it also in the booking situation. If nothing really upsets this year’s environment, we will definitely have a very, very positive year.
E Any year-on-year comparison you can give us in terms of January actual, or Q1 bookings, 2017 versus 2016 ratios?
All I can really say is that we have now already well succeeded and well passed our general forecast for January. To the extent that we revised the entire forecast again for the remaining year with the main focus on the summer months, because this is where we believe the bulk will start coming back in. And then we will see.