The holy city does not admit non-Muslims, but that has not quelled developers’ appetites to join the market’s building boom.
MAKKAH—Although Makkah-tul-Mukarrama, or Mecca, does not admit non-Muslims, hotel brands and developers are finding inroads to capitalize on the holy city’s building boom.
Makkah, which is located in Saudi Arabia, is regarded as one of the holiest cities for Muslims and is growing to become a destination city for Muslim pilgrimages.
Christie + Co., for example, counts approximately 13,000 branded rooms among 30 new properties scheduled to open by 2015. Headlining hotel development is the Makkah-based Jabal Omar Development Company’s 26-hotel, multiphase project being built on 24 million square feet of land. Four U.S.-based interior design firms are involved in the JODC project.
Equinox Hospitality Group
“Of course there are challenges due to the restrictions in place in Makkah. However, there is ample Muslim talent available in the (Middle East) region, and most of the consultants working on the project are aware and have hired appropriate personnel,” said Firoz Moti, GM of Equinox Hospitality Group, which is overseeing the JODC project.
Accor—which is in the process of finalizing its own management agreements and the construction of two Sofitels, one Novotel and one Adagio Serviced Apartments within the JODC project—has bypassed the restrictions of hiring only Muslims by training local talent in all areas of development.
“Accor is the only international operator which has a local head office situated in Jeddah with all needed resources to cope with, all our Accor associates in this head office are allowed to visit holy cities,” said Olivier Granet, director of development for Accor Middle East.
Hilton Worldwide, meanwhile, is leveraging its 17-year presence in Saudi Arabia to nurture local Muslim talent. The group also maintains a trusted relationship with JODC to cover all development needs and is opening six hotels in the development area. “We have established strong roots in the holy city with our two hotels and with a vice president of projects based in (Saudi Arabia), our pipeline has moved forward smoothly,” said Essam Abouda, VP of operations, Arabian Peninsula and Indian Ocean.
On the construction side, there have been some changes, according to Moti. The project, divided in two zones, namely the north and south zone, were earlier assigned to two of the largest construction companies of the region, Saudi Oger and Saudi Binladin.
“However, due to some disputes, they are no longer a part of the project, and the project (has now) been divided in to five phases, with phase one being built by Nesma & Partners,” he said.
For Moti, the challenge in the earlier stages of development was the mountainous topography of the site. “The project of this magnitude has to be self-sufficient in all respects. Therefore, there will be a number of shared facilities between the hotels, which will include a district cooling plant, a central laundry, an advanced garbage collection and disposal system, security systems, and utilities and other plants to meet the requirement of the project.”
With a large influx of rooms comes the need for a large influx in skilled labor—something which the Makkah market has in short supply. Assuming a staff to room ratio of 1.5 for new hotels, more than 15,000 staff would have to be hired and trained during the next few years, the vast majority of which would have to be expatriate workers, said Adrian Jonklaas, associate director at PKF The Consulting House.
Because Makkah is a holy city that only admits Muslims, it adds a further wrinkle. Operators are turning to countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Algeria and other large Muslim feeders that are versed in tourism to provide a significant number of staff.
“Additional human resource challenges include attracting Saudi nationals to the hospitality industry and elevating the level of service quality delivered. However, more concerning for existing hotels in Makkah, Jeddah and even the rest of the (Saudi) Kingdom is that the new hotels will attempt to poach staff from them,” Jonklaas said.
International operators are well aware of the challenge, supporting nationalization policies and hospitality training initiatives. Accor, which has a 12-year presence in Makkah, operates approximately 2,200 rooms with more than 1,200 Muslim staff from different nationalities, including 30% Saudi nationals.
Hilton has partnered with a number of local educational establishments to promote hospitality careers and assisted JODC with setting up six hotel management schools in Makkah to attract and develop Saudi talent to meet the needs within the JODC development.
“Simultaneously, we are also investing in training and development and have established a KSA-based Learning and Development team as a platform for all new staff that are to be hired once the new properties are operating,” Abouda said.
Hilton is aiming to recruit 5,000 new team members during the next few years to staff its new hotels. “All new team members working in Makkah will need to be Muslim, but we are well prepared to attract the numbers we require,” he said.