Bahrain Confidential interviews Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, the President of Middle East, Africa & Turkey for Hilton.
Tell us about your career journey to become Hilton’s President in the Middle East, Africa & Turkey region?
When I was about seven, we stayed in a hotel and I remember writing an essay about what I wanted to become. In the essay, I said I will go to a Swiss hotel school, buy a hotel, chefs, maids and ask my friends to spend the weekend. I was very young but I knew that I wanted to work in hotels. At 15, I was washing dishes at a local restaurant. I didn’t get accepted in a hotel school so I went to study facility management and did my internship at Hilton in 1989.
When I started at Hilton, I only worked eight months where I’m from and moved to Brussels where I had different operational jobs. I moved as a general manager in Athens for four years and soon in London for three different properties. After a while, I became the regional manager for France. I then got my first vice-president operations job for Central Europe which was 21 hotels at the time. In four years, I was running Eastern and Western Europe which was around 120 hotels. I moved to Dubai in the 1st of January last year and started running 167 hotels in the Middle East, Africa and Turkey.
When I started in 2020, we had a difficult start with the handover and the Covid-19 pandemic. The rest was history.
Why are you bringing the Conrad brand to Bahrain and not Hilton Hotels & Resorts?
We needed to have hotels here because we had none. It was sort of an empty spot in our map. Typically, when we develop hotels we’re a bit dependent on the owners. When the owners build a hotel and we see which brand best fits it. Ideally, I think the city would like at least one of all of our brands here.
We’re bringing three brands to Bahrain. The first one that’s going to open is the Hilton Garden Inn Bahrain Bay in Q2 this year. It is situated next to the Avenues Mall, making it the ideal location for a business trip or weekend shopping break and each of its 192 rooms will enjoy unspoiled views over the bay. Hilton Garden Inn is a midscale brand which has helped open up that segment of the market in other parts of the region (such as Dubai and Saudi Arabia) and we are confident it will be a success here too.
The next one is the Hilton Bahrain Juffair with 350 rooms – from studios to three-bedroom apartments.
Meanwhile, the Conrad in Bahrain will be the first Conrad Residence in the Middle East. It will have 98 luxury apartments.
How big is the Conrad Residences Bahrain Financial Harbour going to be? What are its USPs?
The size of the rooms will be significantly larger than any other residence and the materials used are topnotch. It will have a fully-fitted kitchen and other quality facilities. Furthermore, the Conrad Residences will have an all-day dining restaurant as well as a fantastic rooftop pool lounge and grill. It will offer a fully equipped gym, outdoor pool and a boardroom.
You can go for a walk and think: this property ticks a lot of boxes.
There is an increased supply of hotels but a lack of demand for them, especially in Bahrain. Share your insights on this.
I think Bahrain doesn’t have enough quality rooms today. It’s good to bring in some of the big brands. It feels a bit empty now but as soon as the borders will open, I think people will travel to Bahrain again.
What I’ve been impressed about with the three owners of the three different hotels, is that everybody has the same vision of creating something special here. They want to build enough attractions in Bahrain for people to actually come here.
Everybody always looks at Dubai. Dubai has a lot of good things but Bahrain has a lot of things to offer as well.
It’s no secret that the travel and hospitality industry have been struggling for the past months. What have been the silver linings to come from this time?
This crisis brought my team and the people we’re working with together – the team members, owners, and the community in which we operate.
The culture has been really holding us together as a team because it has been very tough. Everywhere you read now, people are having a tough time and burnouts and mental health problems. We, as a company, are really looking it into detail. If people say, they’re fine, we ask them if they’re really fine. I think the culture has really brought us even stronger together than we actually were.
Second thing is the owners. We’ve seen owners really going through a very difficult time. However, we really stuck together with our owners and we worked together with them; how we can make sure that we preserve cash and how we can make sure they get through this in a good way.
The third one is the communities in which we operate. This was also our time to show the communities that we’re not just the international operator. We always advise our general managers to be locally relevant. We have a global month of service every year in October and November where we promote educational development of young people. People that don’t have the same the same life as we have.
I think all indicators show that we have a good business model.