Mary Gostelow attends the biennial Preferred meeting

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The biennial gathering of Preferred Hotels & Resorts convened Wednesday 12 October 2016, at Palazzo Versace Dubai. And what a suitable spot: four years ago it was The Leela Palace Delhi, two years ago it was Pebble Beach in California, and now here, the Emirate’s latest opulent hotel, with crystal toothmugs and Versace designs for everything from bedspreads to breakfast waiters’ shirts.

That first night was an outside opening cocktail, for the 180 delegates, who included CEOs, and owners, say Walter Hickel Jr, whose father built the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage over 50 years ago. Thursday then started, sharp at nine, with an introduction to Dubai. As always, the Ueberroth family, the passionate professionals who are the heart and soul of the company, are here in strong evidence.

They sat in the front row of the conference room, father John Ueberroth, whose enormously wide experiences includes Ask Mr Foster; mother Gail Ueberroth, one of the world’s two most famous flight attendant alumni, the other being the mother of The Duchess of Cambridge; and their children Lindsey Ueberroth, President and CEO of Preferred, and Casey, the Chief Marketing Officer.

This was definitely a luxury gathering. Where else had breakfast coffee been poured by enthusiastic youngsters in green floral Versace shirts into Versace decorated Rosenthal cups? Where else does the ballroom, where we met for the 9am business start, have plush carpeting based on Versace scarf designs and each place setting, at the navy fabric-covered tables, have cut-glass glasses, fresh rosebuds and really tasty Mint Mints (loved the pomegranate acai flavour)?

The opening speech was a welcome from the Australian GM of the 215-room Palazzo Versace Resort, Sandra Tikal. She willingly shared that she had actually been involved with this hotel project from its 2005 start, under Emirates Sunland, but then it was mothballed. Now the hotel, right at creek-side in Culture Village, is owned by ENSHAA, chaired by Sheikh Tariq Bin Faisal Al Qassimi of Sharjah and, with a team that seems to be heavily from China, it is obvious Sandra Tikal has put a lot of emphasis on training (when my desk light started flickering, I called down and an electrician from Nepal, who had last worked on Qatar’s Banana Island, arrived in five minutes and reprogrammed my room).

The conference was themed Dubai By Design and there were two related talks. The charismatic Issam Kazim, CEO of Dubai Corporation for Tourism & Commerce Marketing DCTCM, who seemed to glide rather than walk rather round the stage, owning the audience every second of his presentation. Yes, Dubai is building itself as a multi-generational destination, putting in pillars to take tourism numbers up to the planned 20 million by 2020 (he was such a good speaker that I wondered how he learned theatrical presentation during his AMP course at University of Navarra’s IESE Business School). Also, entirely relevant to the subject for this forum for leaders of luxury hotels was the talk by Tommy Weir, Founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Centre EMLC, who teaches at Hult International Business School, which has a campus in Dubai. He brilliantly explained why Dubai, motivated by its leaders, soars ahead and overcomes any challenge or hiccup.

In retrospect, I see that the education side of the event had four main impacts, namely the serious challenge of cyber security; how even the most successful hotelier can take a product even higher; the importance of philanthropy; and, of course, networking. As we all know, hospitality people are great networkers, and put nearly 200 of them in a friendly environment like this and you make new acquaintances who turn into friends before the end of the four-day event.

The session on cyber security was, honestly, scary, and it could affect every operation. It seemed somehow incongruous, at a peaceful hotel in the UAE, where every hotel is constantly monitored by literally hundreds of cameras, to be talking security. Thanks to a really well-planned presentation by a specialist, Paul Samadani, VP Information Technology at Pentair Ltd, and by an owner, Metropolitan Hotels’ Henry Wu, one of whose own hotels in Canada was hacked six years ago, brought the subject right to the front of everyone’s attention. When that hotel was hacked, with details of 100,000 credit cards taken, the owner’s stress level soared – the card company shut down cards and cardholders – his own sales people could not use their cards when travelling – and he could not get access to the loan on the property. And yes, there are fines, big fines: for allowing its system to be hacked, later, Wyndham settled with the Federal Trade Commission in the USA, with no sum mentioned.

Kevin Roberts – CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi until his resignation on 1 September 2016 – gave arguably the most relevant inspirational talk the hotel industry has ever had. Never be content with your success and take it higher. As a decades-long rugby enthusiast, he helped world champions All Blacks retain the current title for New Zealand, but now he is changing their goal from ‘to be the best rugby team that ever played the game’ to ‘to be recognised as the best team that ever played any game’. He also stressed that leadership requires empowerment: to him, Steve Jobs was not a leader, and nor is Richard Branson, who instead inspires disciples rather than passing leadership on to others.

Finally, philanthropy. The last speaker was a non-stop one man charity, Doc Hendley, an American bartender who has set up Wine to Water, that allows millions access to pure water in disaster areas. But Preferred has its own community initiative, GIFTTS. Over 50 properties entered, in total representing 10,000 hours of community service, and $11 million raised. The winner was Banyan Tree Mayakoba, where 70 per cent of the 460 employees are involved in some kind of project, highlighted by a Seedlings programme: a dollar a day from guests is matched by the hotel, to support teenagers who otherwise would drop out of school, and currently nine are interning, with mentors, in the hotel, and a restaurant, completely run by Seedlings teenagers, officially opens January.

Then, at the magnificent final gala, more awards were announced including best hotel in the world, the De Santis family’s Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Lake Como; top hotelier, Michael Davern of K Club, Co. Kildare, and lifetime achiever, The Jefferson, Washington DC’s Philip Wood, thus crowning a week that had seen his hotel garner a Michelin star for its superb Plume restaurant. And, with that, this meeting of luxury hoteliers came to an end – it was the best-ever, said one owner, who has not missed a gathering in three decades.

Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com

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