One-stop hospitality shop

Mitry Helwi, general manager of Haif Hospitality Furnishings, explains to Hotelier Middle East why hospitality suppliers need a strong background in hotel operations in order to be successful

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By  Sarah Gain Published  November 15, 2006

|~|Haif-B.jpg|~||~|Haif Hospitality Furnishings provides the Middle East’s hotels with everything from bathroom accessories to outdoor furniture. Head-quartered in Riyadh and with satellite branches in Jeddah and Dubai, the company deals solely in European brands, supplying a comprehensive range of furnishings and operating equipment to the four- and five-star hotel markets. “We have a 2300m² showroom in Riyadh, which opened in 2002. There, we represent around 55 brands,” says the company’s general manager, Mitry Helwi. “We then moved to Jeddah as well, and then we saw that the market in Dubai was very promising, with the number of hotels that are coming over the next five or 10 years, so we decided to come here.” Haif Hospitality launched its operations in Dubai in November 2004, at which time the company was based out of an office on Sheikh Zayed Road. Helwi always knew, however, that a showroom was essential business tool, allowing the company a convenient base from which to serve the rest of the GCC. “Selling through an office does not fit with our image. We want the clients to be able to see the product — it is much better when they can visit the showroom and inspect the goods,” he explains. “Selling from a catalogue is an old fashioned way of doing business. It’s not ideal at all — you need to be able to show off the standard of the products.” It took the Helwi around 18 months to find a suitable venue for his venture, but by the end of June this year, the company was able to open the doors to its new showroom in Bur Dubai. There were compromises to be made along the way, however, as Helwi explains. “I wanted to have the same concept across the region — a showroom in Saudi Arabia, one in Dubai, one in Qatar, one in Kuwait, each at 2500m². The problem when I started looking here in Dubai was that I could find the space but I would have had to pay around three- to four-million Dirhams (US $800,000 — $1 million) in rent, which is very expensive,” he says. “In the end, I got 400m², but that meant I couldn’t introduce all the different brands here,” he says. “Although I have about 55 different brands of operating equipment in Saudi Arabia, separated into three divisions — outdoor furniture, silverware and operating equipment — I had to choose about 15 brands to showcase in the Bur Dubai showroom,” he continues. Helwi chose to concentrate primarily on the Grupo Kettal range of outdoor furniture, which has had a strong reputation in the region’s hospitality sector for around 15 years. As the exclusive distributors for Kettal in the Middle East, around 75% of the showroom was dedicated to showcasing these products and the rest of the space was given over to Haif’s range of bathroom accessories from Aliseo and its 10-15 brands of operating equipment. “We have mainly concentrated on Kettal because outdoor furniture is a very big market for us in the UAE and the rest of the region. You cannot have a hotel without furniture on the balconies, around the pool, outdoor dining venues and so on. We have good whether here all year, so it is even more in demand here than in places like Europe, where the summer season is shorter,” Helwi says. He goes on to explain that being forced to condense the range in this way has proved to be a blessing in disguise: “This way I can concentrate better on the products we have and I can provide the best service for my customers. In our type of business, you could represent 100 brands but it’s much better to be specialised. You have to know each range inside out,” he says. ||**||From the inside, out|~||~||~|According to Helwi, his background as a hotel consultant gave him the inspiration for the Haif Hospitality concept, and the insight needed to make the venture a success. Having worked closely with hotel owners on a number of projects, he realised that a company that was able to provide a one-stop shop that could cater to all of a hotel’s operational needs would make life easier for hoteliers and would therefore quickly carve out its niche in the market. “It’s very important for suppliers to understand about hotel operations — you can sell better and give better advice to your customers if you know how things run. My experience is a huge plus point for my business,” he confirms. “By providing a complete solution for hoteliers, we are able to give relief to the hotel owners and operators.” Helwi demands that all Haif Hospitality staff also have a clear understanding of the needs of hoteliers. The company currently employs six people in its Dubai office, and Helwi is in the process of recruiting for at least another three key positions in the short term. In the long term, he also plans to add several travelling sales people, based out of Dubai, to target the rest of the region. All these new recruits will have to have a background in hotel operations, he says. “The best person to sell to hoteliers is someone who has a hotel management educational background. They have to come out of the hotel industry. This business is not like any other business — in Riyadh, for example, I worked with more than 100,00 items. You cannot simply give someone a glass and tell him to go and sell it. There are so many different types of glass for different purposes — for white wine, for red wine, water, juices, beer, cognac — the salesman needs to be someone who has been trained among those things,” Helwi emphasises. “Any businessman can open this type of business but you need to know the industry if you’re going to have any success.” However, finding people with the necessary professional experience and personal qualities for such a challenge is no easy task, according to Helwi. Recruiting and training employees to the required level is a time-consuming and strenuous process. Instead, he says, headhunting qualified staff is becoming increasingly common. “Everyone is stealing [staff] from other companies. But then, of course, you have to pay them more than they’re already getting in their current position. It is a real problem,” Helwi complains. Helwi is very aware of the importance of making the right impression on potential customers and is himself quite hands-on. He regularly goes out in the field to meet with clients personally and frequently travels around the region to visit key customers. “I have 50% of my heart in Saudi Arabia and 50% here [in Dubai]. I like to be as involved as possible, as a courtesy to the clients. In the hospitality industry, perhaps more than other industries, personal relationships are what counts,” he says. “It’s a very competitive market, and my strategy is simply to be different from the other suppliers. In our market, there are only two real ways to achieve this: the standard of the products that you sell, and the level of service that you provide.” Helwi is aiming to develop a strong identity for his products by only supplying high-end hotels. Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, Grosvenor House in Dubai Marina, and Le Royal Meridien are just some of the company’s five-star clients, according to Helwi, and he is hoping that his brands’ association with such luxury properties will be good for Haif Hospitality’s reputation. “My aim is to gain recognition for providing products of a certain standard. People might get shocked with the prices, but that’s not a problem for me,” he says. “We might get 10 people that come to the showroom, and eight might say the products are too expensive, but if two people buy, then I’m happy. Those eight people will come around — they might be able to find cheaper products elsewhere, but how long will they last? Six months? One year? Then they’ll be back here. Our products here are guaranteed for three to five years, and that’s what you pay for when you buy a quality product.” And it’s not all about making a profit, Helwi insists. Before setting up operations in Dubai, Helwi did his research, speaking to his inside sources at hotels to find out exactly what his prospective customers would be looking for in a potential supplier. “I studied the market very carefully and I heard a lot of complaints from customers about suppliers, even about big, existing companies. Since it’s a very aggressive market, everyone’s always in a rush. When a hotelier needs something, they pick up the phone and say to the supplier, ‘I need X, Y and Z and I need it yesterday’,” he says. “As a result, you have to be able to respond quickly. I noticed from the complaints that I heard from hotel managers that often, if they ordered from a catalogue, they were finding that they had to call the supplier three or four times to sort out the order, and that it always took a few days to receive the goods. This is not quick enough — suppliers’ response times are one of the biggest issues in the supplier-hotelier relationship. “Of course everyone is working to make a profit, but I am ready to sacrifice on the profit in the short term, in order to provide the best service I can. This is the reputation I want to gain, and after a year and a half I think I’ve gone a long way towards establishing that,” Helwi concludes.||**||

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