By Rob L. Wagner
5 June 2016
Jeddah – When all else fails, adapt.
European hotels learned perhaps the hard way that if they are going to maintain a list of repeat guests during the peak season then maybe museums, art galleries, pristine lakes and snow-capped mountains are not enough for Arab visitors. Sometimes touches of home go a long way towards getting families to return to the same hotel year after year.
Aziz Awlya, 34, who manages a hotel in Mecca, thinks of it as cultural ambiance to banish homesickness and offer Arab guests services that remind them of home.
“It’s important to receive guests a certain way and Arab guests can be particularly demanding,” Awlya said. “It is more and more important that hotels train their staff to understand the cultural differences of their guests and respond accordingly.”
By understanding cultural differences, Awlya said he expects hotel management to respond to the cultural and religious preferences of Arab guests. The preparation of halal food is imperative to ensuring that Arab guests are comfortable and the hotel management has made their stay a success. If hotels understand the nuances of the culture — such as offering Arabic coffee and dates on arrival at the reception desk — he said, then that guest will return.
European hotels have seen a surge in Arab guests, particularly from Saudi Arabia, as middle-class families have taken advantage of low airfares and special travel packages. The standard among many hotel operators was simply to offer guests a room, good service and good food in their restaurants in a one-size-fits-all scheme.
That has changed in the past two years as Swiss hotels in particular have seen a tremendous increase in the numbers of Arab guests. More than any other foreign traveller, visitors to Europe from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates spend the most money on their holidays — about $3,200 per visit — and generally take the longest trips of about two weeks, according to a study of Arab tourists in 2015 by ITB Travel Trends report, which tracks global tourism. Middle East tourist traffic to Europe increased 9% in the first eight months of 2015, according to the report.
Awlya said European hotels have discovered that guests from the Middle East are a different sort of tourist with priorities on nice weather. Visiting museums and culture centres are far down the list of things to do. A special emphasis is placed on satisfying religious needs and to respond to customs and traditions of foreign guests that range from extended families booking multiple rooms to making sure the direction of the Qibla is clearly marked in each room.
As a result, European hotel managers had to rethink their marketing strategy to respond better to their guests’ wants and needs. They recognised that tourists from the Gulf Cooperation Council place high value on the comforts of home to make their stay in a foreign country enjoyable.
Today, most hotels in Switzerland, for example, market halal-friendly services and provide cultural amenities. Arab guests account for nearly 10% of all guests occupying hotels during the peak season, according to the Switzerland Tourism Office.
Daniela Manteuffel, assistant marketing and events coordinator for Hotel Metropole in Interlaken, said the hotel offers “halal food served separately in its restaurant and in the dining hall during Ramadan”.
She said that halal food is served for iftar during Ramadan and meals are also served before Fajr prayer shortly before sunrise. Always available to Arab guests are cultural amenities, such as Arabic coffee, tea and dates, prayer rugs and a separate prayer room. The front desk provides directions to the Interlaken’s only mosque.
To further make their guests comfortable, some hotels partition barbershops to separate men and women customers. Most Swiss hotels in Zurich and Lucerne offer amenities including separate spa facilities for men and women, Arabic-speaking staff and special offers for local tours for Arab guests.
Awlya said that Saudis usually prefer to rent furnished apartments that offer a degree of privacy but it is not always practical in Europe where hotels are in far more abundance. “The Arab traveller expects a certain level service that reflects their culture, and hotels, if they want to appeal to a certain demographic or niche, must provide that service if they want repeat business,” he said.