How a 103-year-old hospitality brand stays ahead of the curve

How a 103-year-old hospitality brand stays ahead of the curve
This year, big openings include the first Hilton on the Palm Jumeirah, the first Waldorf astoria in Kuwait, the first Waldorf astoria in Qatar, and the first Conrad in Morocco. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 12 May 2022

How a 103-year-old hospitality brand stays ahead of the curve

How a 103-year-old hospitality brand stays ahead of the curve
  • Hilton’s regional president shares his plan to open 110 new hotels in the Middle East and North Africa in five years
  • 81% of travelers in a survey of 30,000 respondents said that sustainable travel is important to them

DUBAI: There is something reassuring about a hotel brand that has lasted and flourished for over 100 years. Besides weathering cataclysmic events during this period, the Hilton Group has endured the universal pandemic and emerged full of learning and strength.

“One of the reasons we have been in business for 103 years and doing that very well is anticipating trends and having great staff,” said Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, president, Middle East, Africa & Turkey, Hilton, in an interview with Arab News.

“I started my current role the year COVID-19 hit, and let’s say you get to know your team very well in a crisis. I got to see what people are made of, how they held hands to shoulder responsibility.” 




Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, president, Middle East, Africa & Turkey, Hilton.

The pandemic also changed the course of things to come. Current travel trends that help the brand stay ahead of the curve include focusing on sustainability, digital offerings, and the simplicity of a great bed and shower pressure.

“This is what people want. Sustainability is front and center: People had seen the globe differently when travel stopped and are very eco-conscious now,” he said. “It’s everything from offering farm-to-table local produce, reducing plastic water bottle usage, and planting local trees.”

Along the green trail

According to a 2022 report by Booking.com, 81 percent of travelers confirmed that sustainable travel is essential to them, with 50 percent saying that recent news about climate change has influenced them to make more sustainable travel choices.

The research is based on insights gathered from more than 30,000 travelers across 32 countries and territories, with 71 percent of global travelers wanting to travel more sustainably over the coming 12 months — a 10 percent increase year on year.

Sleiffer has worked in the hospitality industry for 30 years, starting his career at Hilton Amsterdam in 1990. Today, he oversees Hilton’s operations in the region, including 85 existing properties and 110 new ones that will open in the Middle East and North Africa in the next five years.

“We are growing our portfolio in the Middle East and North Africa by 130 percent,” said the hotelier.

“We increased revenue per available room 121 percent this year, up 8 percent compared to 2019 in our region. We are excited about new openings ahead — it’s a year of firsts for us.”

This year, big openings include the first Hilton on the Palm Jumeirah, the first Waldorf Astoria in Kuwait, the first Waldorf Astoria in Qatar, and the first Conrad in Morocco. Hilton currently operates 16 hotels in Saudi Arabia and has 45 in the pipeline.

“We see tremendous growth all over the region, but if I have to call out some countries, I would call out Saudi Arabia,” said Sleiffer. “It is a huge growth area for us with Vision 2030 We are fully aligned with the Ministry of Tourism. Saudi has mythical new openings that will allow us to be part of building a great story.”

On the home front

A trend arose during COVID-19 of an increase in domestic travelers discovering their own country; Sleiffer believes this will continue. Bloomberg reported late last year that the Kingdom expects 50 million visitors in 2022 — 45 percent of which are Saudi residents.

“That is one of the positives of COVID-19, that Saudis have rediscovered their own country as well,” he said. “All hotel operators are looking at Saudi now, but we have been in the Kingdom for a long, long time, and we already have a big presence in Makkah and Madinah. So our relationship with the Ministry of Tourism is very strong. Looking at the megaprojects, we want to be in all of those, too.”

While leisure travel has been a core part of growth over the last few years, Sleiffer said business travel is witnessing a renaissance.

“The leisure staycation business has helped us after the pandemic, but we also see big meetings; people want to reconnect with their teams,” he said. “We see it with people visiting from head office and team-building activities. It makes sense because colleagues have spent two years on virtual calls.”

For business and leisure travelers, the top source market for the Middle East and North Africa hotels in the first quarter of 2022 were actually residents enjoying staycations. Guests flying in from the UK comprised the second top source market. Hilton’s focus is an international, consistent standard with a local flavor in each country.

“Developing local talent is high on our agenda,” Sleiffer said. “We want to hire locally as much as we can to reflect local communities.”


UAE fintech Wafeq secures $3m to double down on Saudi presence and expand to Egypt

UAE fintech Wafeq secures $3m to double down on Saudi presence and expand to Egypt
Updated 27 January 2023

UAE fintech Wafeq secures $3m to double down on Saudi presence and expand to Egypt

UAE fintech Wafeq secures $3m to double down on Saudi presence and expand to Egypt

CAIRO: Wafeq, a UAE-based financial software company for small and medium enterprises, raised $3 million in a seed funding round led by Raed Ventures with participation from Wamda Capital to double down on its Saudi presence as well as expand to Egypt. 

Launched in 2019, Wafeq is a fintech startup that provides easy-to-use software to empower accounting and finance operations for SMEs. 

In an exclusive interview with Arab News, Nadim Alamddine, Founder and CEO at Wafeq, said that Saudi Arabia is the largest and most important market for the company. 

“As such, we will double down on our growth here to continue offering our solutions to SMEs in the Kingdom. We already count some of the most successful SMEs and startups as our customers, and as we grow here, we will continue to help businesses become compliant with accounting regulations,” he stated. 

Empowering SMEs 

Built for the finance and accounting needs of SMEs in the region, Wafeq’s software is trusted by over 5,000 business owners and professional accountants processing over $117 million in monthly invoices. 

“Our platform is used by leading startups and SMEs from a diverse range of industries, including contracting, food and beverage, ecommerce, retail, and more,” Alameddine explained. 

SMEs comprise over 98 percent of all companies in Saudi Arabia, 90 percent in Egypt, and 94 percent in the UAE which provides Wafeq with a large market to fuel its operations. 

Moreover, digitization of accounting practices in all three markets is undergoing significant shifts with the introduction of mandatory e-invoicing and digital reporting. 

“Saudi Arabia has one of the most transparent and business-friendly accounting practices in the region, put in place by the Zakat, Tax and Customs Authority, also known as ZATCA,” Alameddine stated. 

In December 2021, ZATCA announced that all taxpayers will have to issue electronic invoices with a compatible government system and divided the implementation into two phases. 

In the first phase, taxpayers were required to issue e-invoices as well as get familiar with the implementation of the new system. In the second phase, which is set to be implemented in July 2023, taxpayers with VATable income exceeding SR 500 million will be obliged to integrate their e-invoices systems with the governmental FATOORAH platform. 

“SMEs still follow manual processes or use legacy software that are not compatible with local accounting requirements. Our strategy in Saudi Arabia will be to build more localised features, ensure the successful implementation of ZATCA phase 2, and bring our e-invoicing API solutions to more businesses here,” he added. 

Wafeq initially focused on startups and acquired customers in category-leading businesses such as UAE fintech Tabby, Saudi fintech Lean Technologies, Dubai fintech DAPI, UAE mobility-tech Fenix, and Saudi fintech PiFlow among many more. 

Egyptian Opportunities 

The company plans to utilize its funding to expand its current presence in Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as fuel its entry to Egypt. 

Alameddine explained that as Egypt stands with the highest percentage of SMEs, businesses have very limited access to tech solutions that can support their operations. 

“From a policy standpoint, Egypt is bringing in requirements like e-invoicing and soon e-receipts for businesses and this is where Wafeq will have a positive impact. As we enter Egypt, we will not only look to acquire new customers but also create jobs locally,” he added. 

Wafeq’s standalone e-invoicing API will play a huge role in its expansion to Egypt which allows startups and businesses to set up reliable third-party e-invoicing as well as stay compliant with regulations. 

“Together with the backing of Raed Ventures and Wamda Capital, we are excited about our entry into Egypt while growing our presence in Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” Alameddine said. 

Talal Alasmari, founding oartner at Raed Ventures, said that Wafeq is solving a problem that impacts thousands of businesses in the region. 

“The digitalisation of accounting practices will truly transform how SMEs here operate, increasing operational transparency, creating efficiencies and contributing to economic growth,” Alasmari added. 

 The company operates a Software as a Service business model which complements its strategy to be easy and affordable for businesses to use its software. 

“Signing up for Wafeq is free, and customers starting a business can choose to use our basic package. For customers with more complex requirements, we have a range of pricing options that considers their needs, volume of invoicing and other factors,” Alameddine explained. 

Raed Ventures is a venture capital firm that was founded in 2015 in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, which focuses on early-stage startups and has invested in notable companies like SWVL, Tabby, and Trella. 

Founded in the UAE in 2014, Wamda Capital is one of the leading venture capital firms in the region with a portfolio of investments in over 70 companies including Careem and Nana.


Global Markets: Asian equities hit 9-month high as recession fears wane

Global Markets: Asian equities hit 9-month high as recession fears wane
Updated 27 January 2023

Global Markets: Asian equities hit 9-month high as recession fears wane

Global Markets: Asian equities hit 9-month high as recession fears wane

SINGAPORE: Asian stocks rose on Friday and were poised for their fifth straight week of gains after data highlighted a resilient US economy, boosting investor sentiment ahead of next week’s slate of central bank policy meetings.

MSCI’s broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan rose as much as 0.55 percent to hit an almost nine-month high of 562.10, and was last at 559.39.

The index, which fell nearly 20 percent last year, is up nearly 11 percent so far this month and is on course for its best-ever January performance. Japan’s Nikkei rose 0.05 percent.

European stock futures indicated that stocks were set to rise, with the Eurostoxx 50 futures up 0.3 percent, German DAX futures 0.28 percent ahead and FTSE futures up 0.16 percent.

The US economy grew faster than expected in the fourth quarter as consumers boosted spending on goods, data showed, but it could be the last quarter of solid GDP growth before the lagged effects of the Federal Reserve’s jumbo interest rate hikes are fully felt.

A separate report showed that labor market remains tight and could lead the Fed to keep interest rates higher for longer.

Ashwin Alankar, head of Global Asset Allocation at Janus Henderson Investors, said the headline GDP suggested robust economic activity and if a recession were to materialize it would be a shallower one.

“Overall GDP data was a ‘tale-of-two cities’ – good overall growth stemming from less-than-ideal drivers and prices mitigating but at a rate that is worrisome.”

Thursday’s set of data has raised investor hopes of a soft landing — a scenario in which inflation eases against a backdrop of slowing but still resilient economic growth.

Futures are pricing in a 94.7 percent probability of a 25-basis-point hike next Wednesday and see the Fed’s overnight rate at 4.45 percent by next December, or lower than the 5.1 percent rate Fed officials have projected into next year.

Data on US personal consumption expenditures due at 1330 GMT will provide further clues on inflation.

“The disinflation impulse is likely to stretch further, as has been evident from CPI releases lately, likely continuing to build a case for a 25 basis point rate hike by the Fed next week,” Saxo strategists said.

Next week will also feature Bank of England and European Central Bank meetings that will indicate the monetary policy path those central banks are likely to take.

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index was little changed after surging more than 2 percent on Thursday. Mainland China markets are due to resume trading on Monday after the Lunar New Year holiday.

Elsewhere in Japan, core consumer prices in Tokyo, a leading indicator of nationwide trends, rose 4.3 percent in January from a year earlier, marking the fastest annual gain in nearly 42 years.

The Japanese yen strengthened 0.1 percent to 134.04 per dollar as the data reinforced market expectations that quickening inflation could nudge the Bank of Japan to move away from its ultra-easy policy.

“We still think the policy change is a long way off,” ING regional head of research Robert Carnell said. “The spring salary negotiations are key to watch as wage growth is a prerequisite for sustainable inflation.”

The dollar index, which measures the US currency against six other peers, rose 0.23 percent, while the euro fell 0.22 percent to $1.0866.

Sterling was last trading at $1.23805, down 0.25 percent on the day.

Oil prices rose on expectations of a boost to demand from China’s reopening and after the strong US data. US West Texas Intermediate crude rose 0.41 percent to $81.34 per barrel and Brent was at $87.83, also up 0.41 percent on the day.


Oil Update: Prices firm on upbeat US economic data

Oil Update: Prices firm on upbeat US economic data
Updated 32 min 59 sec ago

Oil Update: Prices firm on upbeat US economic data

Oil Update: Prices firm on upbeat US economic data

LONDON: Oil prices rose for a second session on Friday, buoyed by better than expected US economic growth, strong middle distillate refining margins and hopes of a rapid recovery in Chinese demand.

Brent futures gained $1.17, or 1.34 percent, to trade at $88.64 a barrel by 1332 GMT. US crude was up $1.17, or 1.44 percent, at $82.18 and on track for its highest daily jump in percentage terms for two weeks.

Both benchmarks advanced by more than 1 percent on Thursday and are heading for a third straight week of gains.

Brent’s backwardation has strengthened to about $2.73 from less than a dollar at the start of the month.

Backwardation is a market structure in which front-month contracts are more expensive than those for later loading, indicating tight current supply.

Delegates from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, known as OPEC+, meet next week to review crude production levels, with sources from the oil producer group expecting no change to current output policy.

The US Federal Reserve’s next decision on interest rates will be made at meeting over Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 against a backdrop of a dip to inflation and gross domestic product that grew by a faster than expected 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter.

“The positive batch of data gave oil prices a lift,” said PVM analyst Stephen Brennock.

Gains on US crude were capped by a 4.2 million barrel build in stocks at Cushing, the pricing hub for NYMEX oil futures, this week.

“We believe soaring middle-distillate prices and cracks are mostly behind crude’s bullish price action,” JPMorgan said in a note, pointing to heavy refinery maintenance and outages, plus the European ban on Russian refined products from Feb. 5.

In China, critically ill COVID-19 cases are down 72 percent from a peak early this month while daily deaths among COVID-19 patients in hospitals have dropped by 79 percent from their peak, pointing to a normalization of the Chinese economy and boosting expectations of a recovery in oil demand. 


11 agreements signed during global medical biotechnology summit in Saudi Arabia

11 agreements signed during global medical biotechnology summit in Saudi Arabia
Updated 27 January 2023

11 agreements signed during global medical biotechnology summit in Saudi Arabia

11 agreements signed during global medical biotechnology summit in Saudi Arabia
  • Delegates at the two-day event discussed biotech developments with the aim of shaping a modern and innovative healthy industry, organizers said
  • The speakers included international experts who highlighted the importance of global collaboration and industrial-academic cooperation to overcome health sector challenges

RIYADH: Eleven agreements were signed during the Riyadh Global Medical Biotechnology Summit 2023, which concluded in the Saudi capital on Thursday.

Delegates discussed a number of topics, ideas and ambitions related to the biotech sector during the two-day event, with the aim of helping to develop the field and enhance industrial and investment trends to build a modern and innovative healthy industry, organizers said.

The speakers included local and international experts and specialist researchers who explored topics that highlighted the importance of international collaboration and global industrial-academic cooperation to overcome unprecedented challenges in the health sector.

They stressed that investment in biotechnology will help to develop new products and achieve economic growth through global health solutions that advance scientific progress and innovation in industrial technology.

Eleven memorandums of understanding and cooperation agreements were signed during the summit between leading figures in the medical biotech sector, government agencies, and international and national companies.

An exhibition took place on the sidelines of the event, featuring local and international drug and vaccine manufacturers, along with research agencies and universities in the Kingdom. The participants showcased their latest research and innovations relating to drugs and vaccines, and their goals for enhancing drug security.

The summit was organized by the Ministry of National Guard Health Affairs, King Abdullah International Medical Research Center, and King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, in cooperation with the Ministry of Investment. It took place under the auspices of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and was inaugurated on his behalf by Minister of the National Guard Prince Abdullah bin Bandar.

Organizers said the aim of the two-day event was to highlight the importance of integration between ministries and other government organizations to improve quality in fields related to medical biotechnology.


Philippines 2022 GDP growth quickest in over 4 decades, but outlook challenging

Philippines 2022 GDP growth quickest in over 4 decades, but outlook challenging
Updated 26 January 2023

Philippines 2022 GDP growth quickest in over 4 decades, but outlook challenging

Philippines 2022 GDP growth quickest in over 4 decades, but outlook challenging
  • Pent-up demand, reopening, spur growth — planning secretary
  • Says China reopening to provide boost

MANILA: The Philippine economy ended 2022 with the fastest growth in over four decades underpinned by a robust final quarter, but analysts and policymakers warn that a global slowdown and soaring inflation will make for a difficult year ahead.
Manila’s fourth quarter forecast-beating annual growth of 7.2 percent reported by the statistics agency compared with the 6.5 percent pace expected in a Reuters poll, and brought full-year expansion to 7.6 percent, the fastest since 1976 and above the government’s target of 6.5 to 7.5 percent.
Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan attributed the stellar fourth-quarter performance to strong domestic demand, rise in jobs, and “revenge” spending following the lifting of pandemic curbs and full reopening in the last three months of the year.
“We are confident that we will remain in our high growth trajectory,” Baliscan told a media briefing on Thursday.
He said China’s reopening will be a boon for the Philippine economy, while protecting the purchasing power of Filipinos and ensuring food security would remain priorities for the government as the public grapples with high inflation.
On a quarter-on-quarter basis, GDP growth came in at 2.4 percent in October-December, compared with expectations for a 1.5 percent rise and the previous quarter’s upwardly revised 3.3 percent expansion. Balisacan said the government was sticking with its 6.0-7.0 percent growth target for 2023, but that is not without risks, with the global economy expected to slow further this year roiled by the Ukraine conflict while rising inflation could lead to further policy tightening.
Like the rest of the world, the Philippines is battling red-hot inflation, currently running at 14-year highs, which if not tamed could crimp domestic consumption, a major driver of growth.
Government data showed household spending slowed for a third straight quarter in the October-December period, growing at an annual rate of 7.0 percent from 8.0 percent in the third quarter.
“We expect a difficult year ahead for the Philippines,” Capital Economics said in a note, citing the impact of high inflation and tighter monetary policy on domestic spending. For 2023, Capital Economics is expecting growth of 5.5 percent.
Elevated inflation, plus the need to maintain interest rate differentials between the US and the Philippines, have forced the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) to embark on an aggressive tightening cycle last year.
Its governor hinted on Thursday of further policy actions depending on what the US Federal Reserve does.
Speaking at an economic briefing in London, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Felipe Medalla reiterated the central bank stood ready to act to bring inflation, which hit 8.1 percent in December, back to its 2 percent-4 percent target this year.