And the man behind this regional hospitality behemoth is Ali Hamad Lakhraim Alzaabi, an Emirati businessman and a visionary investor. The iconic luxury hospitality projects that dot the region and afar stand testimony to his vision.
Alzaabi is now recognised as one of the most powerful and influential Arab business leaders of our time and has won numerous awards for his contributions to the hospitality industry, including the coveted ‘Outstanding Contribution to the Industry Award 2019’ at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference.
The business mogul has also founded several investment and service-related companies – and looking into the future, there’s clearly no stopping him.
Alzaabi, the Founder and President of Millennium Hotels & Resorts Middle East and Africa, wears many hats, and he does so with aplomb and humility.
“I started out as an employee of ADIA (Abu Dhabi Investment Authority) circa 1993, part of the real estate team looking after the US portfolio for Abu Dhabi government. I have had very humble beginnings,” Alzaabi shares in an in-depth interview with Arabian Knight.
“After a few years, I moved to Abu Dhabi National Hotels and managed the transportation division for them and then took over the role of managing the hotel division as well. When I parted ways with Abu Dhabi National Hotels, I had risen through the ranks to become the acting CEO of the company,” he reminisces.
An engineer by profession, Alzaabi landed in the hospitality sector quite by chance and ended up developing such a passion for it, he hasn’t looked back since.
“I remember at the time I met a Hong Kong banker and he introduced me to the Millennium Hotels brand and told me how the brand was looking for expansion in the Middle East and Africa region. And this is when the seed was sown for the Millennium brand in the MEA region. I think it must have been 2001, when it all started,” Alzaabi recalls.
He started with a hotel in Abu Dhabi and signed another one in Sharjah. “Then we got the Millennium Airport Hotel Dubai with the help of a good man called Michel Noblet. I used to know him during his Le Meridien years. He was instrumental in helping to get the Airport Hotel for us.”
From a single property in Abu Dhabi, Millennium Hotels & Resorts, Middle East & Africa has expanded into various neighbouring destinations and is now recognised as one of the fastest-growing regional hotel management companies in the Middle East & Africa. Millennium Hotels & Resorts currently operates 41 hotels and 35 hotels are in the pipeline across the region, 13 of which are due to open this year.
“We have a good pipeline. We have built a good name in the region. We are now one of the fastest growing hotel operators in Dubai and we aim to be the largest in Dubai. We are also expanding rapidly in Saudi Arabia and have been able to cover different cities between Makkah, Madinah and Riyadh and other smaller cities as well. We are establishing our presence in Saudi Arabia with an office there,” he explains.
Playing the big boys
Alzaabi is known to set the bar very high in the market, which is full of big international brands.
“It’s a competitive market and there are a lot of good companies around – we are trying every day to enhance our service to guests and our service to the owners as well because that’s really important
“We tend to operate the hotels and also asset manage them. We try to wear two different hats at the same time, being the owner and being the operator at the same time because of our ownership structure. We have a lot of hotels that the company owns, so the culture of our company is driven more towards how do I do better for my owners?” continues Alzaabi.
“This distinguishes us from other hotel operators out there, who only see things from the perspective of an operator, and not from the perspective of the owner. We are not the largest hotel operator by far, but we have been competing really well with all the big players within our region.”
Speaking further on his strategies, Alzaabi says: “Maybe it’s not a good thing to try to challenge yourself all the time and set new targets, but we always put new challenges in front of ourselves.
“I would like to leave the expansion news that we announced behind and move on to something bigger. We are already working on a bigger project and will have something to announce very soon,” he reveals.
“I think as investors, we need to be more business-driven and less emotionally driven because a lot of people in our industry, a lot of owners get too emotional about their projects and end up spending unnecessarily on projects.
“I also advise hotel owners not to give in to all the demands of the operators because sometimes operators want owners to invest in the most expensive products to reinforce their brands, especially in our region.
“If you look at these brands elsewhere outside the Middle East, you will see them having much lower standards than the operators are asking for,” Alzaabi observes.
The hospitality industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world and like any rapidly growing sector, the industry faces its fair share of challenges “such as increased competition, globalisation, changing market trends, political, economic changes etc.”
Alzaabi says: “Being a customer-facing, experience-driven industry, there is always an underlying pressure to meet and exceed customer expectations.
“However, if I had to narrow it down to what would be one of the challenges that is trending at the moment, I would say is the advancement of technology, which has played a significant role in improving operational efficiency and customer experience and, yet at the same time, created bottlenecks that impede expected growth.
“Another growing challenge is diversification of the market. We don’t just have hotels that we need to compete with these days, but also other hospitality accommodations like AirBnB.
“However, these challenges can be addressed by being more flexible in our approach to our product and service offerings, for example, introducing more boutique hotel brands to meet the growing needs of a diverse market,” adds Alzaabi.
Millennium Hotels & Resorts recently introduced two new boutique propositions in the Middle East – Studio M and Millennium Place. While Studio M is a three-star, lifestyle hotel concept, offering smart, savvy travellers designer chic and contemporary functionality; Millennium Place, opened in Dubai Marina, offers the world’s first TV-to-plate concept – MasterChef.
In terms of technology, the best way to gain an edge over the competition is through continuously staying up to date with the latest trends and making sure that the implementation process is done with clear standards of procedure in place.
Alzaabi says: “In order to stay relevant and be a top player in the market, the need for more use of technology has become inevitable to be successful.
“Consumers today are extremely tech savvy, whether it is booking a room or checking in online through social media.
“Technology is something that is evolving at a very fast pace and we need to definitely step up our game to stand out among the competition. As a group, we always try and keep up to date with new advancements in the technology industry by leveraging new technologies and turning them into opportunities while simultaneously creating standards of procedures to make sure that the implementation process runs smoothly.”
Alzaabi has always believed in innovation and has had an eye on capitalising new trends, leading him to own several successful enterprises in the hospitality, real estate, food and beverage, and investments in service-related outfits.
He is the Chairman and Founder of the Lakhraim Business Group of Companies; Founder and Chairman of hotel ownership concern Tetra Hospitality Investments; Founder and Chairman of Zain Capital, a leading UAE property development and investment company; Chairman of Zone Parking Solutions LLC, UAE-based parking solutions company; and Chairman of Arady Properties (PSC), a private joint stock company focused on private equity in real estate in the GCC countries.
“All my businesses complement each other through their offerings such as the need for real estate for a hotel and the need for food and beverage in the hospitality industry.
“However, most importantly, one of the key points to note is that the businesses I own are mainly people- and service-centric industries, which is the common binding factor of the industries I operate in.”
“As chairman and founder of Lakhraim Business Group, a dynamic and highly respected group of companies with investments and ventures in various market segments across the Middle East, I am proud to say that our group has already grown significantly since its inception and holds a diverse range of interests.
As Founder and President of Millennium Hotels & Resorts Middle East and Africa, Alzaabi has been responsible for bringing the international hotel group to the Middle East and has cultivated partnerships with reputable owners to build a portfolio of 40+ operational properties. Millennium has firmly established itself as one of the fastest-growing hotel management companies in the region.
“However, my involvement in the MEA hospitality sector extends beyond Millennium Hotels & Resorts, with a number of investment companies operating across the hospitality market spectrum, with such landmark properties as The Ritz-Carlton Dubai International Financial Centre, and Crown Plaza Dubai Sheikh Zayed Road, amongst others.”
In today’s fast-paced life, finding the right work-life balance is becoming increasingly difficult but Alzaabi understands the importance of family and how it acts as an anchor. “My passion in life is my family; I like to spend time with my kids and also, as much time with my mother as possible. In fact, my mother comes at the top of the list for me.
“I have tried to reduce all the travelling now, but whenever I do travel for short trips and I try to take the kids with me, so I can spend more quality time with them,” he says.
“My biggest regret in life is that my father passed away in February 2000 and I didn’t have enough time to spend with him. I went to school in the US as I was the only son in the family and when I came back, I got busy with work for Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, with a lot of travel to the US again, and so the only regret in life is that I did not have the time to spend with my father. Unfortunately, he passed away before he saw his son’s achievements.
“Other than that, everything is replaceable and can be done all over again,” he adds philosophically.
For the next generation, Alzaabi says he tries to give them some independence “but I am a little bit tough with them as well, so they can learn it the hard way.
“There is no easy way in life and I think it’s better to work your way through than to have something you can always rely on.”
Alzaabi is a self-made man and he would like his future generations to have the same sense of achievement, self-satisfaction and confidence that only hard work and adversity can bring. He believes that time management is one key requirement for success.
“The most valuable thing in people’s live is time. There is nothing like time. You cannot get it back again. No, money is not important. Success, however, is what you should aim for because success brings everything with it, be it money, happiness and recognition.
“The best advice I ever got was how to use my time efficiently. There are lots of people who work very hard but don’t achieve much. Picture this: two people have the same amount of time, but one achieves so much more than the other. The difference is usually time management – you can work hard but that doesn’t mean you are working smart as well,” adds Alzaabi.
Alzaabi is proud to be Emirati and his biggest inspiration to succeed has always been – and will be for years to come – the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, former President of the UAE.
“My biggest inspiration comes from the late Sheikh Zayed, may God bless his soul. He was a great leader, a great man, a visionary and a school by himself. We have been blessed to grow up in his era – people who have not experienced that, they have really missed something.
“What he did for this country is incredible. Nobody has achieved so much in such a short time. This tells you that nothing is impossible. We’ve seen leaders who have destroyed entire nations that have existed for thousands of years.
“It’s the people who make the difference. Any businessman who understands this will always be destined for success,” he concludes.
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