Winston J. Zahra Set To Head International Hospitality Start-Up

Marie-Claire Grima - 3rd February 2018

"The start-up is a based in the UK – it has excellent foundations and significant growth potential so it is an exciting opportunity for me."

Renowned hotelier and former CEO of Island Hotels Group plc, Winston J. Zahra, has confirmed that he is set to head a new international hospitality start-up. Mr Zahra stepped down from his executive role in Malta, with nothing but glowing praise for International Hotels Investment (IHI plc – the investment arm of the Corinthia Group), the transaction process and the decision his family took on the timing to sell the business nearly three years ago.

“It was always envisaged that once the integration process of Island Hotels Group with IHI plc was complete, I would move on from an executive to a non-executive role. IHI has some excellent people in leadership positions and with the integration of Malta’s two largest hospitality companies complete, it was the right time to make this move from both a personal and the company’s perspectives. If you had to ask me if I had to go back whether I would do it all again, I would, without a shadow of a doubt. I feel a great sense of pride with what the IHG team achieved collectively over the years, first under the leadership of my father and later on together with myself as CEO.”

“I think that change is important for personal growth and I am looking forward to somewhat reinventing myself in the years ahead. The start-up is based in the UK – it has excellent foundations and significant growth potential so it is an exciting opportunity for me. Change has its risks but the risk of remaining in one’s comfort zone is greater! Meanwhile, my involvement and connection with IHI will continue through my participation on a number of boards in a non-executive capacity. I have a great deal of admiration for what the company has achieved and there is a lot of mutual respect. As long as those conditions remain, it’s a pleasure to stay on and hopefully continue to make a positive contribution in the years ahead.”

The last two years for Mr Zahra have been a continuation of a 30-year experience in the hotel industry. “You learn something new every day in our industry and, especially over the past 10 years, the way the hotel business works has changed dramatically. The hotel industry is exciting and fun, and I remain as passionate about it today as I was when I started. However, it isn’t an easy environment to work in, with long and often unsociable hours. In our industry, you cannot put things off to the next day – you have to be ready and on time 24/7, 365 days of the year, irrespective of the challenges that crop up. But when you deliver and you see the smiles on people’s faces it’s very worthwhile and rewarding.”

Recruiting is one of the greatest recent challenges the industry is facing, especially attracting millennials and even younger employees who have a vast range of opportunities in front of them in an open Europe and a booming economy, Mr Zahra reflects. “Millennials and the Z-generation have a different set of priorities in life to older workers – the emphasis on work-life balance is much, much higher than it was even a decade ago.  When I joined the workforce 30 years ago, communication was a different ball game and long-term service to a company was something to be proud of. Many younger people today view long-term service as a missed opportunity to move around and gain experience and knowledge. The more successful companies and employers harness the skills that come so naturally to millennials, such as social media, internet and access to information, and implement changes within their organisations to ensure they remain interesting and sexy for the younger generation. I must admit that the hotel industry has been a little bit slow at doing that and things like working hours don’t make it easier either.”

Before Malta became one of Europe’s low-cost airline routes, starting with Ryanair in 2006, Mr Zahra led the movement that campaigned heavily to put Malta on the map of the new way of travelling. “They used to call us the ‘low-cost at all-cost brigade’, and it was a two-year battle to convince everyone, but we were very conscious of the fact that half the people in Europe were using low-cost airlines to travel, and they were basing their decisions on the destinations that were on offer, so we needed to be on that map. It wasn’t about the cost of flying – it was about the marketing power behind those airlines, the number of destinations that they were flying to and the speed at which they were growing. We simply couldn’t afford not to open up to these airlines and if we hadn’t taken that decision, we’d be hovering at half the number of tourists we have today, if not less. The decision to partner with low-cost airlines, as well as Malta joining the EU, have both made a massive difference to our industry as well as the island as a whole. Maltese people have also benefitted greatly and today travel more frequently and to many more destinations than they did before the onset of low-cost airlines.”

While he believes that the tourism industry will continue to do well in 2018 and expects similar results to those achieved in 2017, Mr Zahra feels that Malta should not sit back and rely on the success of the past, and insists we should be thinking more innovatively of what to do next to ensure the industry remains strong. “The tourism industry normally goes through cycles, and the way it has grown year on year for the past nine years means that we’ve probably missed one, if not two, traditional dips. This is a result of a variety of reasons, from the right decisions taken by the various stakeholders, to the North African crises, the problems in Turkey, international oil prices and the favourable sterling exchange rate. It’s been something of a perfect storm for us and we have capitalised on that. However, you always have to bear in mind that things can turn around at any moment and we need to be thinking of a Plan B. Concurrently we have to be conscious that the decisions we take when everything’s bullish have to be sustainable during a downturn, whenever that may come.”

“Malta holding the Presidency of the EU in 2017 and Valletta holding the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018 are both events that put the spotlight on the island for the right reasons. The Presidency of the EU had a significant effect on the Maltese hotel industry while Valletta 2018 will help emphasise the best elements of Malta. But this time round, with Valletta 2018, it’s the leisure traveller who is being targeted, and as a rule, people travelling on their own accounts spend less on a trip and on hotel rooms. The hotel industry is not as bullish about Valletta 2018 as it was about the Presidency, with the exception, of course, of hotels located within the capital city which stand to benefit more directly.”

A question Mr Zahra often asks himself nowadays is “Where is the industry going? The marketing side has certainly been tackled effectively, so I believe the product now is the most important thing. I’ve always said that there’s a hard side and a soft side to our tourism product. The soft side of our product is the human element and we need to look after and nurture this especially as the workforce becomes much more diverse than it ever was. We cannot afford to lose our traditional Maltese hospitality, although I fear that this has deteriorated and there is a lot of work to do now. On the ‘hard side’ of the product, the environment, the roads, the beaches, the cleanliness of the islands – everything that is tangible has to be taken care of. We need to make sure we don’t become a victim of our own success and kill the goose that lays the golden egg. As much as I love Malta, there’s always more that can be done when you look around.”

He firmly believes that the €700 million investment project to upgrade Malta’s road network over the course of seven years is one of the best things that can be done, but cautions about the proliferation of building and overurbanisation, noting that three out of the four properties that the Zahra family built as IHG were old properties that were then rebuilt. “We have to find the right balance and we have to think long-term. I don’t think we put enough effort into that, and we tend to focus more on the immediate than the longer-term consequences.”

He also notes with some anxiety that some measures have been implemented which may need to be revised in the long-run, citing the additional leave days announced in the last Budget as an example. “I’m not going to go into the merits of whether it’s right or wrong – clearly it’s a good thing for employees and I do not begrudge them this at all – but the measure will cost money, and anyone who is running a business will tell you that the cost of running a business is increasing a little bit too fast. One must keep in mind that if there is a downturn, everyone will have to be mature enough and willing to revisit measures like this.”

Mr Zahra has also been focusing his energy on the Lisa Maria Foundation that was set up after the tragic death of his young cousin, Lisa Maria Zahra. “My cousin’s death was a tragedy, and how that came about was a tragedy in itself, because it could have been avoided. We had a choice to make as a family – either to go down a road which is destructive or, as hard as it is, to at least try to get something positive out of what happened. We felt that the latter was a more befitting way of creating a legacy for Lisa Maria. The Foundation’s objective is to do as much as possible to protect and keep children and young people safe, especially when they are in places where non-family members have a duty of care towards them.”

The Foundation has worked very closely with the Ministry of Education and the Malta Union of Teachers over the past years and has, among other things, managed to get 11 legal notices published, all of which pertain to the duty of care towards children. It has also been making recommendations for improvements to the access of the sex offenders’ register in Malta. “Today if a school wants to employ someone, it has to go through a lengthy, long-winded, expensive process to ensure that whoever they want to employ is not on the register. This is wrong on so many counts. We’re proposing the development of an app whereby each entity that has a duty of care towards children can access the app, enter the prospective employee’s ID card number and a green light or red light will indicate whether they’re on the register or not, without revealing who else is on the list. Internationally, this is done in an even more transparent manner, but we have to take these small steps to ensure that in Malta, people who have been convicted of such crimes are not protected more than the actual victims are.”

Mr Zahra also feels it is unacceptable for both the victim and the accused to wait for years on end to get closure, and says that Malta’s courts system is open to abuse, with various tactics such as continual appeals used to drag things out for years on end. “We continually hear about cases taking 10, 15 and even 20 years to resolve. This isn’t right, especially in today’s world. A solution has to be found that respects people’s dignity and humanity, much more than what is in place today.”

This interview originally appeared in The Business Observer


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