Shortly after the 21st edition of HORECA, Lebanon’s largest food and beverage conference, Executive sat down with Joummana Dammous Salame, Managing Director at Hospitality Services sarl to discuss HORECA, the hospitality sector over the past three years and upcoming trends.
Could you briefly describe the highlights and major events of HORECA 2014?
It was a beautiful show! We had a bit fewer exhibitors than we did last year — around 335 in total — but in the same size space so it was more spread out and comfortable.
We had more events and competitions this year though, with 19 competition categories at the Hospitality Salon Culinaire including the Live Lebanese Sweets, Live Pastry and the Junior Chef competitions for the students of the culinary and hospitality universities in Lebanon.
There were some new additions to the competitions this year such as the Lebanese Barista Competition, the Best Burger Competition (which is a rising trend in hospitality in Lebanon) and a competition among the chefs from the Lebanese Army sporting clubs.
Another new event this year was the Wineries Day in collaboration with the Union Vinicole du Liban. We invited wine journalists and writers to blind taste wine from all the local wineries that were exhibiting and to give their feedback and opinion. The objective here was not to reward the wineries but to educate visitors and experts on Lebanese wines.
This year, the theme for the Lebanese Food Industries National Day, an annual full program for professionals in the industry organized by the Syndicate of Lebanese Food Industries, was around innovation and creativity because of its importance in moving forward. The industry had a very good year in terms of exporting to other countries
We also had the Industry Lounge this year in collaboration with ELCIM (Euro-Lebanese Center for Industrial Modernization) and other organizations that held a series of short presentations relevant to the sector.
Aside from these major events, we had the usual book signings and the Chairmania Design Event, which gave Lebanese designers the opportunity to share their latest chair design creations with hospitality professionals.
What was the response and feedback you got from the visitors? How would you describe the mood in HORECA this year?
This is what I am happy about. We have been holding our breath this past year not knowing what outcome to expect. The feedback was absolutely fabulous because the visitors also did not know what to expect.
Everybody in the hospitality sector was toiling away in their own isolated corner for this past year operating in a pure survival mode and at HORECA people met! They saw each other, and they interacted, and when you do that and you network, something positive is bound to occur.
This is the magic that came from this HORECA specifically: there was such positive energy and vibes as people went out of their way to communicate with each other. The thank you’s we received on the visitors’ feedback form this year were more than ever.
To your knowledge, did any of the exhibitors at HORECA sell this year?
No exhibitor will give you straight figures on this but quite a few exhibitors told me they had sold out their stock.
Hospitality Services currently organizes three other HORECAs in the region: in Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait and now in Jordan. How would you compare the four?
HORECA Beirut has another flavor! It is the biggest by far and the most attended.
Hospitality is naturally in our blood in Lebanon. In the region, we are the capital of good taste, food and gastronomy.
It is fair to say we are the leaders in this industry, taking everything into consideration. We have more than 45 hospitality schools, university programs and technical degrees in Lebanon, more than in any Arab country.
Looking back at the past two years in Lebanon, how would you evaluate the performance of the hospitality and tourism sector?
We cannot deny that it has been a tough two years for the industry and it is has been severely hit. But the Lebanese are strong and have been through similar situations in the past. If you think about it, we have more bad years than good years overall and so we are used to operating in this environment.
Still it is not easy: The F&B industry has been badly hit and so have the hotels; though I cannot give you names [of hotels] some are going to close down this summer. It is truly a time when you either swim and stay afloat or drown.
What are some of the coping strategies those in the hospitality business can adopt to stay afloat?
There are techniques to survive this critical period: you have to minimize your costs and expenses, and also export concepts abroad.
You see more and more people in the industry going into franchises abroad now, mostly to Dubai. Maybe it is a good opportunity because ultimately things will calm down here and they can continue to grow their business locally while also having established themselves in another market.
How do you foresee summer 2014 in Lebanon?
There is a glimmer of hope in summer 2014. The new Minister of Tourism is working with enthusiasm and has adopted a plan that would make a difference.
We only need security, nothing else. The country is well loved in the region and tourists will return as soon as they sense stability. Also, there are many initiatives such as the one recently organized by the Traders Association in Saudi Arabia which highlights willingness to be open and receptive.
It seems there is an agreement to provide us with some stability to be able to breathe, so let us take advantage of that and do the best we can within this framework we are in.
What are some of the trends in hospitality in Lebanon this year?
We are working on promoting local tourism through the Travel Lebanon show where we encourage Lebanese to explore the country: our country needs us and we need to travel around it. In Lebanon Traveller, Hospitality Service’s latest magazine, we are promoting rural tourism.
There are a million things we can do in Lebanon, from hikes to culinary and wine tours to art events, but we are not used to that and usually venture out of Beirut only for Sunday lunches, though we should explore different activities. We took our international judges on a street food trip and to Burj Hammoud which they loved! At the recent “Museums at Night” event, there was a cue outside the National Museum. There are many things happening but you need to hear about them.
Though this [local tourism] will not make up for the lack of international tourists, let us build on it at least and promote our domestic tourism among each other, especially since it appeals to expats.
We have to save ourselves hand in hand as no one will do it for us.
What are the latest trends in the F&B sector?
This was a good year for street food, snacking and burgers. There is a global trend towards going back to one’s roots and traditions that has made its way to Lebanon, and so you find more Lebanese restaurants in heritage homes.
People are also looking for authenticity in their food and you can feel this. Again, we have to lobby for it and get more people involved in rural tourism because there are beautiful projects to be discovered.
Any final words?
This year was harder than last year for all the industry. We are part of the industry and feel their pain, and we felt that this year we made a difference: we put double the effort but it was part of our commitment to our industry and they felt it — and this was the magic we needed.