Lebanese born and raised, George Ojeil was the hotel manager at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman, Jordan, when he was offered the position of general manager (GM) of Le Gray Beirut, which he describes as a “very sexy product which any hotelier would love to run.” What further facilitated the decision to accept Le Gray’s offer was that Ojeil’s wife was pregnant with their first child back then, and the couple thought it would be good to be close to family during that period.
So, on October 15, 2015, Ojeil became the GM of Le Gray Beirut at a time when the country was facing a waste management crisis and a dismal tourism and hospitality season. The four years that followed saw Ojeil leading the hotel through what was still a challenging period for tourism (despite a pick up in tourism numbers), and through an extension project that saw an addition of guest rooms, conference rooms, and a ballroom.
As Ojeil prepares to leave Le Gray (effective end of July 2019) to become GM of Ritz Carlton, Abu Dhabi, he reflects on his time with Le Gray and shares his insights on the hospitality sector.
E I imagine it wasn’t an easy decision to take, joining Le Grey, considering the situation of the country at the time?
I resigned from my previous position in Amman and signed the contract with Le Gray 20 days prior to the waste management crisis and the demonstrations that accompanied it right at the doorstep of the hotel (on October 7 the façade of Le Gray was vandalized). So I had to call Le Gray and see if they were still interested in having me and the reply was yes, things are under control.
When I arrived in Lebanon a few days later, the hotel’s façade was broken and some of the doors had no glass, business was very low, and there was a curfew in the area around the hotel. To be honest, I did have fears at that time and wondered if I had made a big mistake coming back to Beirut. But I remained positive and tried to make the best out of it, and I believe we managed well with the team.
E What were your priorities upon assuming your post at Le Gray?
There were a lot of things to be tackled on my list, but the most important thing was looking into my colleagues’ mindset and managing it.
My colleagues were really impacted by the events [of that year], and I felt great demotivation among the team, so I had to work on reengaging them and making them believe that the property will shine once again, despite what we have been through, because you know we are in the people industry where having a positive attitude is very important.
E How did you manage this period of crisis that the hospitality industry passed through financially? Were you able to retain your team?
We never looked into reducing our payroll or manpower just to save a few dollars—I don’t believe in that at all.
We decided to retain our team because they are our best asset. In hospitality in Lebanon, there will always be good and bad days, but as an employer of choice, we need to prove to them that we are there for them during tough days and that we will support them so that they will support us during the good days.
Still, we managed to put many strategies together at that time to reduce our payroll by, for example, managing a natural attrition: When there were people leaving, due to personal choices, we did not replace them, and we had to make do with what we had. In parallel, because we were working on boosting the motivation and morale of the remaining team, this enhanced their productivity while reducing headcounts. When someone is engaged and motivated, he or she can replace two or three headcounts. When I took over, we were 231 employees with only 87 rooms and occupancy was very low; today, business is at a peak, we have additional conferences and events facilities, more rooms, and the additional lobby—and we are at 165 employees.
E What were some other measures you took to reduce costs?
Aside from looking at payroll, we looked into energy. We transferred our lighting to LED technology, we looked at operating our generators at peak hours to reduce our electricity cost. So we have taken a lot of cost-saving initiatives when it comes to energy, and when you save on energy it’s automatically pure profit. These two measures supported us in reducing our expenditure and optimizing our profit without impacting the quality of the product.
E The extension project was completed in July 2017. How has it impacted business at the hotel since?
The extension project allowed Le Gray to provide full service, so we managed to attract residential seminars, MICE business, and so on—and this is of capital importance. Prior to the extension, we only attracted frequent international travelers staying at the property, but now it’s a different ballgame.
During tough times, hotels focus on the local dynamics where you can at least generate revenues to cover your costs. If you don’t have these conference and events facilities, it’s a handicap.
E Let’s talk about 2019, and how the year has been so far for hospitality and tourism in general and Le Gray specifically.
2018 was a record year for the hotel, and so far in 2019 (July) we are witnessing a year-to-year increase of 3 percent on a record year. The first half of the year was fantastic and, in ratio, we have already generated 65 percent of 2018’s profit.
E Is that related to the lift of the travel restrictions from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon?
This is supporting it, definitely. The lift of the travel ban accentuated the demand, and once we had more demand on the market, this supported driving average rates upward. Once the demand is bigger than the offer in the market, you feel the rates gradually increasing. We witnessed an increase year-over-year in our average rates by 12 to 13 percent of the average rate.
E But what happens if the demand suddenly decreases due to security incidents such as the one witnessed in Aley/the southern highway on July 6?
If, God forbid, there is a drop in demand, you start seeing a sort of price war between hotels. Hotels will have to drop their rates to get more business, and if the competition drops their rate, we may have to follow at a certain stage. Le Gray has a competitive advantage in that we have a diversified business mix, so demand from different continents would support driving occupancy continuously.
E From your experience, how have you seen the government supporting hospitality in Lebanon, and what more could be done?
I personally believe that Mr. Guidanian [the tourism minister] is doing a fantastic job in diversifying the demand and bringing more demand from different areas. What he has done through participating in different fairs on different continents was very smart and allowed hotels to be present under the umbrella of the Ministry of Tourism, thereby saving costs and encouraging wider participation.
Regrettably, in the 2019 budget, it looks like there will be a cut in the ministry’s budget, which means it won’t be able to participate in the majority of these fairs anymore.
In a wider sense, the government can support the hospitality sector in numerous ways. With energy, the government can subsidize or support hotels with a lower energy fee.
On another note, we need to support our youth and grow talent. We are not developing our youth or nurturing the hotelier of tomorrow.
E Can you elaborate on this? And whose responsibility do you think this should be?
I think [the government] needs to focus more on developing the youth toward service departments, to have highly skilled and developed waiters, cooks, and captains, for example, which is something we don’t see often. These are respectable, well-paying jobs where the starting salaries for entry jobs in the kitchen and restaurants are around $800 for example. These jobs also offer the opportunity to learn the basics of the hotel business and grow from within; there is no elevator to success, you need to climb the ladder.
The Ministry of Education and Higher Education needs to once again support technical education. There will always be people who go to universities to get their degrees [in hotel management], but there will be other people where, instead of having zero education, they go to these technical schools and learn something that would support them in their journey in hospitality.
If we have a situation where everybody wants to go into hospitality management programs, at a certain stage, there will be an overflow of managers and not enough entry level employees, and at the end [of the day], when you go to a hotel, you are not served by the general manager. It ends up that people who are doing these entry-level jobs have never been in any kind of hospitality schools, and so you have to spend real money on training them and doing orientation.
E Why have you taken the decision to move on in your career?
From a professional perspective, we hoteliers have to broaden our scope every four to five years, otherwise we fall into our comfort zone, which is not healthy.
Also, I have aspirations and dreams that, regrettably, I feel won’t be fulfilled if I stay in Lebanon. If we look at how many five star hotels are in Lebanon, they are only a handful: The industry is not growing and demand on the destination is not growing, and so if we need a career at the international level in hospitality, we need to leave.