An alumnus from the Hotel School of Venezuela, Gamal obtained his bachelor’s degree in hospitality management in 1992 followed by a master’s degree from the University of Angers (France) and post-graduate studies at The Hague Hotel School (Netherlands) and Cornell University (USA). With over 30 years’ experience in the industry, Gamal has lived and worked in 10 different countries with some of the best hotel companies in the world including Hyatt, Hilton, Accor, Four Seasons, LHW and more recently with Marriott International, first as EAM i/c of F&B at the iconic Ritz-Carlton Riyadh and currently as Regional Director of Operations for Europe, Middle East and Africa; overseeing a portfolio of 50 hotels in Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and Turkey.
Gamal is an award-winning author with his book “The Forgotten Recipes from Venezuelan Andes”, winner on the 2011’s edition of the Gourmand Awards for Best Cookbook in the World in Paris. He also contributed with a chapter on craft-based learning in the book “Education strategies for the next generation leaders in hospitality management” published by IGI Global in 2015. He gained valuable academic experience at the Institute of Tourism and Hospitality of Quebec (Montreal, Canada) and as Program Manager at Les Roches International School of Hotel Management (Switzerland).
2020 and 2021 were challenging years for the hospitality industry. In your opinion, how will travel trends change in 2022?
I think travelers will focus on what is more important in life. Travel is transformational now and has become a canvas for self-exploration and growth. Guests are seeking real experiences, personal happiness, simplicity, quality, comfort, elegance and aesthetic harmony, while achieving self-actualization through personal journeys with a sense of purpose.
Guests want to connect to a brand and what it represents and emotionally engage at every touch point. Our challenge as hoteliers is -more than ever before-, to offer unique, exclusive, highly personalized, life-enhancing, and transformative experiences to guests, while at the same time letting all new technologies take care of the transactional part of our business.
Building the right team is crucial for a property’s success. What are the key skills you look for when hiring new employees?
Always look for attitude instead of aptitude. Skills and competencies can be taught, and they are easy to measure, track and adjust as needed. Behaviors are more intangible and difficult to mold, so it is crucial to hire people that have the passion to serve and please others, go-getters willing to go the extra mile and create memories for guests.
Flexibility is also key, as hoteliers nowadays need to be much more ready to pivot and change direction whenever the market conditions require them to do so. I look for people that will quickly take ownership and accountability for their departments and run it like it is their personal business; true entrepreneurs that understand and run their hotels from an owner’s perspective, not only from an operator’s standpoint.
How important is it for a hotel to have a solid gastronomic offering?
This depends on which part of the world a hotel is located. Some destinations are much more food and beverage driven than others. Look at the Middle East for example where food and beverage plays a predominant role in the hospitality industry with many hotels generating more revenues from their culinary offerings than from rooms or events.
Food is always a great driver of experiences and therefore it is very important to offer a large array of options that relates to your target market and positions your property ahead of the competitors. Great restaurants drive traffic, that in turn drives actual covers and revenues.
Was a career in hospitality something you always dreamt of? What is your advice to aspiring hoteliers?
I was born and raised in Venezuela in a mixed Syrian-Venezuelan family and from an early age I was passionate about the hospitality industry. My career choice was totally natural as my family always had a very intense social life where Arabian and Venezuelan hospitality regularly met at home at parties and gatherings and the passion to serve and entertain guests was constantly part of our daily lives.
When I was 13 years old, I took a tourism guide course and immediately started working during the tourist seasons in my hometown, showing visitors from all over the world the charm of the Venezuelan Andes. In those years, Venezuela invested heavily in tourism and in collaboration with the Hotel School The Hague (Holland) they opened in Mérida, my hometown. It was the first Hotel-School in Latin America following the curriculum and format of international schools, which included a boarding school and six-month internships in luxury hotels all over the world. I had no hesitation in joining this school to study hospitality and it has been a wonderful journey!
To young people looking to be in this profession, I would say there is no industry like hospitality where every day is different, full of energy and new discoveries allowing them to constantly grow. It is essential to remain flexible and change the work environment often, the city, the country, or the continent as it is the best way to build your skills and diversify your experience. While you travel the world, ensure that you constantly build, strengthen and leverage your network of colleagues as this is a crucial career asset that will fuel your professional development.
Which cities are your favorites for: 1) food 2) history 3) fashion?
For food and history will be Damascus! It is a fascinating city full of mystery and discoveries and it is truly exciting to walk around the most ancient capital in the world where so many cultures and civilizations were a part of it and each one left their mark behind. I still remember my summer vacations while I was a child walking the alleys at Souk AlHamediyi looking for hand-crafted pistachio ice creams.
For fashion, no city can beat Paris.
What are some of the new measures your team has put into place to deal with the post-COVID-19 situation?
Beyond all precautions taken (like any hotel company) during the pandemic in terms of social distancing, protective equipment, protocols, etc., I believe that the biggest lesson learned from COVID-19 was the importance to be ready for changes in a very short time-frame.
It is unpredictable when or waht our next crisis will be, where it will come from and how or whom it will impact. The only sure thing is that it will happen because crises are a normal part of life. The only measures we can take is to strengthen ourselves with each experience we have, to always continue learning and growing, not to settle for the status quo of our lives or our professional careers. You must know how to pivot, change course, and readily adapt; as well as always be able to identify opportunities during difficult situations and come out of them with flying colors.
One can never be fully prepared for anything. Life is a continuous evolution and there will always be something new to learn, a new technology that will allow us to do things differently or that will allow us to save time, reduce costs, etc. The professionals best prepared to acquire new skills and adjust to new realities will be the most successful. There was a lot of fear in the late 1980s-90s that technology would replace man in industries like ours; but it has been quite the opposite. Technology has allowed us to automate processes and transactions so that we can dedicate more time to the guest and personalize each experience. This was also a great learning from the Covid crisis.
What would you do if you weren’t a hotelier?
I will always choose a job that takes me to places and helps me discover new lives and new cultures. The world is a fascinating playground and sometimes I wish I was 20 years old to start all over again so I would probably become a nomad, moving from country to country, taking all the time needed to savor each village, each house, each kitchen, each gathering.
When are you happiest? At work, which is your most challenging activity and why?
The greatest satisfaction is seeing former employees grow and develop in the industry to reach senior positions. Being able to make a mark on someone’s life is the best reward for the hard work we do every day. The biggest challenge is to ensure we offer a work environment where our people can be the best version of themselves and where we do not lose focus on the pleasure of serving others and having fun at work.
What makes Marriott International stand out from other brands you’ve worked with?
Our company values, as they are not only just a slide on a new hires’ orientation session but are truly enlivened day-in and day-out at each one of our close to 8,000 properties around the world. I love the fact that we can cater to a variety of customers as we have so many brands that appeal to all traveler profiles. I enjoy our focus on sustainability and every effort we do to make a better world for each one of the communities where we are present.
You’ve had such a successful career – what would you say has been your career highlight?
When I finished my studies in 1992, I spent about ten years going back and forth between Venezuela and France, continuing culinary studies and a master’s degree in hotel management from the University of Angers; as well as occasional jobs as a cooking instructor, training manager with Hilton Hotels and countless ‘stages’ in luxury hotels and MICHELIN restaurants in France. In 1998 I did a specialization in Food and Beverage Management at the Hotel School -The Hague and Cornell University and from there, I was recruited for what would be my first experience in the Middle East with Hyatt Hotels.
Since then, I have experienced in my career 10 countries, 20 cities and 30 hotels with some of the most renowned hotel companies in the industry, as well as two academic stints in Canada and Switzerland, where I had the opportunity to redesign and direct the training programs of two world-renowned hospitality management schools.
During my years in the academic world, I had the opportunity to publish two books, one of them ‘The forgotten recipes of the Venezuelan Andes’ was the winner in the Gourmand Awards for Best Cookbook in the World that took place in Paris in 2011.
In 2015, I began my career with Marriott International at the iconic Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and since 2018 I have served as Regional Director of Operations for almost 50 hotels in Qatar, Turkey, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, and Lebanon where I presently overlook a portfolio of almost 50 hotels all brands included.
My career has been focused mainly on the food and beverage arena, general management and the academic world, and has permitted me to discovering the world through the lens of tourism and hospitality. Me, my wife and our sons are now citizens of the world and we do not know with certainty where we belong to; what is for sure is that we will be happy anywhere on earth where there are amazing hotels and the opportunity to serve !