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Denis Sorin: Pioneering Brand Innovations Through Excellent Strategies

Adapting Hospitality Trends!

The hospitality and tourism industry plays a crucial role in global economies, driven by the need for exceptional service and unique guest experiences. This sector is constantly evolving, influenced by cultural nuances and regional specificities. Adapting to these changes is essential for success, particularly in regions like the Middle East, where hospitality and tourism are experiencing unprecedented growth. The region’s unique cultural and historical context demands a tailored approach to management and service delivery, ensuring guests and employees are satisfied and engaged.

Denis Sorin, the Board Member and President for the Middle East at AMFORHT epitomizes this adaptive leadership. His career, marked by hands-on experience and a commitment to understanding the workforce, has set him apart as a leader. From salvaging companies on the brink of bankruptcy to pioneering new hospitality concepts, Denis has consistently emphasized the importance of employee well-being and engagement. His philosophy that a content and motivated workforce is the key to sustainable profitability has been a driving force behind his leadership style.

AMFORHT, under Denis’s leadership in the Middle East, embodies these principles. As a UN-backed NGO, AMFORHT is dedicated to supporting governments worldwide in implementing sustainable tourism strategies through education and training. The organization plays a key role in nurturing growth and development in local communities by aligning with global standards of sustainable tourism. Its work in the Middle East highlights the commitment to creating inclusive and thriving hospitality sectors that benefit local populations and the global tourism industry.

Let’s explore Denis’s visionary hospitality leadership journey: 

From Ground Handling Operations to Hotel Concepts

Denis’s career path has been far from traditional and linear. He considers himself fortunate to have had the opportunity to begin his career by working on extraordinary projects. One such project was being a part of the re-creation team for the world-renowned Venice-Simplon Orient Express (VSOE).

In addition, he gained valuable experience by salvaging companies on the brink of bankruptcy, ranging from hotels to IT firms and tour operators. Although these jobs may not have been as glamorous, they were incredibly formative.

Throughout his career, Denis has taken on various roles and responsibilities. Whether it was overseeing a pioneering hotel concept or successfully managing a ground-handling operation, he made a conscious effort to observe both his colleagues and the clientele.

This allowed him to better understand the different perspectives and challenges that arose within each role. He willingly took on rank-and-file positions for extended periods to immerse himself in the lives and daily struggles of those on the frontlines.

This hands-on approach ensured that his managerial decisions were not only as strategically sound as possible but also considerate of those responsible for their implementation.

It was through these experiences that he came to realize a fundamental truth: sustainable profitability comes from content and engaged workforce rather than usual cost-cutting management.

As a rank-and-file employee, Denis repeatedly witnessed colleagues who did the absolute minimum to avoid trouble and were always the first out the door at the end of their shift. While these companies experienced success, they never truly achieved greatness for lack of employees’ engagement.

Unfortunately, many companies still adhere to a paternalistic management style reminiscent of the 19th century. While these companies may be doing well, their workforce often lacks motivation, resulting in an inability to reach their full potential.

Wherever he found himself as an executive, Denis made it a priority to implement and refine the philosophy that prioritizes the well-being and fulfillment of employees.

He firmly believed in the saying, “Take care of your employees, and they will take care of your business.”

He even put this theory into action when he led a West African hospitality group called Inaugure. The result was a team that was incredibly motivated and dedicated, allowing them to develop unique and highly successful hospitality brand concepts.

In addition to prioritizing the profitability of the company he worked for based on the principle that “happy employees ensure happy customers and happy customers ensure happy shareholders—in that order” (Simon Sinek), he strongly believes that a thriving company requires a conducive environment for growth and success.

During his time in the United Arab Emirates, he developed a strong desire to assist those nationals who were most in need. This led him to conceive the Emiratization of the Hospitality Industry program, which quickly gained official recognition and proved to be highly beneficial.

This mindset, which has been ingrained in him since a young age, ultimately led him to work for AMFORHT, an UN-backed NGO.

The primary focus of this organization is to support governments worldwide in implementing sustainable tourism through education and training in the hospitality and tourism sectors. By doing so, they contribute to the growth and development of both governments and local communities.

Adapting Business Strategies to Diverse Cultures

Denis believes that, due to its rich history, the Middle East poses distinctive challenges.

He has had the opportunity to work in various regions across the globe, excluding Far East Asia. While every region and country have its own set of difficulties, in the Middle East, it is essential to reevaluate all beliefs to achieve success.

When Denis relocated to the region in 2000, his long-standing approach to business and its environment proved to be beneficial. He invested time in observing and comprehending the regional and local mindset, researching beyond commonplace stereotypes, and learning from historical context.

The Middle East, and more precisely, the Gulf region, owing to its unique geographical location, has historically attracted individuals from neighboring Arab countries to the Subcontinent and beyond in search of employment opportunities.

With recent developments such as Dubai’s initial vision and Saudi Arabia’s grand-scale so-called Vision 2030, the region is now drawing workers from around the world.

The hospitality and tourism sector, especially in Saudi Arabia, is experiencing significant growth, with the construction of over 300 hotels in 2024 alone.

However, this does not imply that the sector can simply implement management techniques applied elsewhere. Such an approach would fail in the Gulf region.

Taking cultural specificities into consideration, it is crucial to adapt brands and management styles to meet the expectations of guests and employees, particularly from entry-level to middle management positions. Additionally, it is important to acknowledge that the region is home to Islam’s two major holy cities, each with its own distinctive business model and exclusive policies.

Running a business in the region presents unique challenges that set it apart from anywhere else in the world.

As a firm believer in ensuring the happiness of his entire workforce, Denis makes it a priority to adapt his management style to accommodate the diverse cultures that make up their melting pot of employees.

This includes everything from the food they serve in the staff cafeteria to the way they communicate and interact with one another.

Respecting and valuing their team members are a fundamental aspect of effective leadership, and this holds true regardless of cultural background.

However, in the Middle East, there is a noticeable and constant cultural gap between management and staff that must be acknowledged and addressed.

Having lived and worked on various continents and countries, Denis has become adept at adapting to local cultures. In the Middle East, this means not just adapting to one or two cultures but potentially dozens.

In addition to the diverse expectations of their workforce, they must also navigate the local dominant culture and mindset, which extends beyond just their employees to hotel-owning companies as well as businesses they deal with or local authorities.

Respecting and embracing the centuries-old traditions of hospitality and welcome is crucial to their success in this region.

By demonstrating genuine respect for these traditions and the way business is conducted, they can develop and implement a successful strategy.

While the strategy itself may not differ significantly from elsewhere (apart from the cities of Makkah and Madinah), it is their work style and approach that truly set them apart.

Developing a Resilient Tourism Sector through Education

AMFORHT was established in 1969. Shortly after the UNWTO (now known as UN Travel) became an inter-governmental organization in 1975, AMFORHT received its affiliation with this UN agency. In 2021, AMFORHT was granted special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

AMFORHT received recognition from both United Nations agencies due to its specific mission of assisting governments worldwide in implementing successful sustainable tourism strategies through hospitality and tourism education and training.

According to Zurab Pololikashvili, the UN Tourism Secretary General, “Education is a key priority for UN tourism. By equipping individuals with the necessary skills and knowledge, we can create a more resilient, sustainable sector and enhance tourism’s impact on our economies and societies.”

He emphasized that “our sector gives local populations the chance to make a living. To earn not just a wage but also dignity and equality. Tourism jobs also empower people and provide a chance to have a stake in their own societies—often for the first time.”

In Denis’s opinion, UN Travel expects AMFORHT to ensure that both governments and local communities benefit from the hospitality and tourism industry. This entails transitioning from unsustainable mass tourism to a more sustainable approach that respects local populations, their environment, culture, and way of life.

As AMFORHT operates in 80 countries, working to align with and implement UN Travel policies and objectives in the realm of hospitality and tourism education and training makes a lot of sense. For instance, recently, the organization entered a partnership with the Ivory Coast government to support the implementation of its sustainable tourism strategy, Sublime Côte d’Ivoire.

Additionally, collaborations have been established with countries such as Morocco, Canada, and China, just to name a few.

In the Middle East, AMFORHT is actively engaged in forming partnerships aimed at providing training and education for local communities in various hospitality and tourism roles.

Revolutionizing Hospitality

When Denis was living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), he was able to spearhead the establishment of the initial Emiratization program even before receiving official backing from the Emirates of Dubai. This groundbreaking program eventually gained momentum and expanded across the region.

The idea for this program first came to him during a visit to the Northern Emirates of the UAE, where he discovered a significant portion of the local population was experiencing poverty and lacked proper education. It is important to note that the UAE comprises independent states (Emirates), each with its own governing body, laws, and policies, much like the United States in structure.

Regions like Dubai and Abu Dhabi do not suffer from the same levels of poverty and educational disparities found in the Northern Emirates at the time. To swiftly address these challenges, a local supermarket adjoining his office collaborated with them to offer complimentary English classes—a crucial skill in Dubai. This was followed by essential cashier training for eventual employment at the supermarket.

Simultaneously, his team introduced specialized training sessions for individuals interested in pursuing careers in the hospitality industry. Upon successful completion of English proficiency assessments, participants could train for roles such as front-desk clerks, reservation agents, bellmen, and more. Meanwhile, they could earn an income by working at the supermarket while undergoing longer hospitality training.

The initiative’s success prompted the Dubai government to assume control of the program, ensuring its continuity and expansion. Thanks to a later partnership with the Dubai government and Accor, their team experienced significant growth, allowing scholars to join them and collaborate with industry professionals to establish a highly efficient program that can be replicated effortlessly in any location.

This comprehensive program combines classroom education with practical on-the-job training, enabling them to educate and train individuals in vocational positions all the way to hotel general management.

The successful outcome of this program ultimately led to the Northern Emirates transforming their business models and emerging as successful tourist destinations in their own right.

The program also garnered interest from neighboring countries, extending all the way to Egypt. (According to Denis, it is worth noting that Egypt faces different challenges compared to the Gulf countries, as they already have a thriving tourism industry but struggle with a subpar hospitality and tourism education system).

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the first country to request the implementation of this program outside of the UAE. With the Kingdom, they were able to test the scalability of their program by moving from a country, the UAE, where only 1% of the population is local, to close to 60% in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the program’s scalability facilitated its seamless expansion to other regions.

Aligned with today’s Saudi government’s Vision 2030, the country is experiencing a significant transformation, aiming to position Saudi Arabia as one of the world’s main destinations by 2030, if not the top destination, with an expected annual entry of over 100+ million overnight visitors.

To achieve this vision, a greater number of Saudi nationals must join the hospitality and tourism industries to fulfill the diverse range of positions available in hotels, theme parks, historical sites, sports destinations, and more.

This program is set to continue running until 2030 and beyond, serving as a means for the realization of Saudi Arabia’s ambitious goals.

Rapid Changes Towards Green Policies

In Denis’s view, sustainability can be understood in many different ways. There is the traditional ‘save the planet’ approach, and there is ensuring that populations enjoy a sustainable life as much as possible. This means, first and foremost, ensuring that the environment they live in is clean and pleasant and provides all that is needed for a well-balanced life (jobs, hospitals, schools, shops, etc.).

A good environment should not be polluted by mass tourism—think Venice, Djerba, or, worst of all, Thailand—but should thrive on responsible tourism respectful of local populations’ ways of life, traditions, history, and culture. Costa Rica, Bhutan, or the Azores come to mind when talking about sustainable tourism.

In the Gulf region, things are different, as these countries are new to the international tourism scene. Until very recently, sustainability, under any of its understandings, was foreign to their leaders and populations. Nevertheless, things are changing rapidly, with governments now competing to be the green leader with the best proposals and actions (cf. Dubai COP28).

Long before these new green policies, Denis implemented a sustainable environmental scheme to improve local populations’ lives. On the other hand, due to the great number of expatriates occupying low positions in this part of the world, he made it a point of honor for them to always have decent places to live as well as quality food from their countries of origin, a sign of respect for their countries of origin, culture, and way of life.

Prioritizing Unique and Memorable Guest Experiences

When Denis was presiding over the destiny of Amsa Hospitality, a Saudi-grown startup, the decision was made to create their own brand originated from what they saw as a necessity to address a gap they identified in the market:

  • All regions around the world have hospitality brands that embody their respective cultures and traditions.
  • Besides the great number of European and North American brands, there are also notable ones like Noom and Seen in Africa and Shangri-La and GreenTree Inns in Asia, among others.

However, the Middle East lacks a similar representation. Even regionally established brands like Jumeirah or Rotana are Western-styled brands with minimal local influences.

Therefore, Amsa Hospitality decided to develop a brand that caters to all, hence the midscale segment, showcasing the ancient Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality and care with modern amenities and service that meet the expectations of today’s most discerning guests.

Their strategy attracted substantial attention from stakeholders in the hospitality industry, designers, investors, and media well beyond the Middle East. Today, Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia, often dominate tourism headlines.

Their endeavor involved the challenge of reinterpreting ‘traditional Arabian hospitality’ in a modern context, avoiding clichés such as a ‘1,001 Nights’ theme. Their innovative approach swiftly gained widespread media coverage, aiming to authentically incorporate and harmonize the cultural and traditional essences of each Gulf country into their unique brand.

Taking inspiration from brands like Shangri-La, they focused on maintaining operational efficiency with the latest tools while prioritizing a guest experience that is genuinely unique and memorable.

Just as Shangri-La’s excellence lies in the guest experience, Amsa Hospitality’s brand strives to deliver an authentic and unparalleled traditional Arabian guest experience using innovative tools and technologies and a quality of service above all else.

Bridging Cultural Gaps in the Workplace

Balancing the promotion of local culture and heritage with the demands of modern tourism is a delicate yet crucial task. Recognizing this balance, Denis believes that promoting local culture and heritage should not be an added effort; it should be a given.

This is particularly true in the Middle East, where countries and their local populations are young and take great pride in their flags, culture, and traditions while also embracing modernity. The key is to provide the usual hospitality and tourism training and education to these local populations to ensure that they are well-versed in the ins and outs of the field.

In line with these principles, the approach garnered significant interest from the hospitality industry, designers, investors, and the media far beyond the borders of the Middle East.

Denis shares, “With a significant expatriate population, which can make up a substantial percentage of the overall population in Gulf countries (an average of 52%, ranging from 37% in Saudi Arabia to 89% in Qatar), it is natural that many expatriates are employed in the hospitality and tourism industries in these nations. On average, about 75% of workers in this sector are expatriates. These workers come from various parts of the world, with a significant number coming from neighboring Arab countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as the Philippines, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.”

Most of these individuals already have a background in hospitality and tourism, requiring only continuous training to stay up to date with best practices. However, it is somehow important for this expatriate population to receive training in local culture and traditions.

Arabs from neighboring countries, due to historical reasons and shared cultural ties, primarily need training on local specificities. The historical exchanges between the Subcontinent and Gulf countries have resulted in many commonalities, from food to lifestyle. While a minimum level of training may be necessary, it is important to recognize and build upon these existing similarities.  

On the other hand, individuals from the Philippines have a completely different culture and way of life. Extensive cultural training and education are essential for them to better understand their cultural environment and foster understanding among colleagues and clients.  

Surprisingly, it is frequently advised to provide training for Arabs and colleagues from the Subcontinent on comprehending individuals from the Philippines to prevent conflicts that may arise due to misunderstandings regarding cultural differences and even culinary traditions,” adds Denis.

A Guide for Aspiring Professionals

Denis advises aspiring leaders in the hospitality and tourism industries who wish to make a significant impact in their careers to transition from being mere managers to genuine leaders. Leadership is a complex role that requires the consistent demonstration of a variety of essential qualities.

Although these traits may not be revolutionary, they are critical for effective leadership and are frequently emphasized across numerous platforms on the Internet:

  • Being a people person
  • Being a master problem solver
  • Inspiring and motivating
  • Embracing change and innovation
  • Seeking guidance from mentors and offering mentorship
  • Prioritizing sustainability
  • Advocating for diversity and inclusivity

The essential components of successful leadership encompass foundational skills and knowledge, which are critical for excelling in one’s career. However, to achieve the highest levels of success, an additional, more challenging dimension must be considered. As the renowned saying implies, “If you can dream it, you can do it,” it underscores the importance of having a vision and strong self-belief. Effective leadership requires a harmonious balance of pragmatism, focus, and technical proficiency. This raises an intriguing question: “How can a leader also be a dreamer?” 

Denis shares, “The answer lies in the pursuit of a goal, no matter how modest it may seem. To overcome obstacles and setbacks, one must possess the motivation to persist and try again. 

Navigating a career path is burdened with failures and setbacks. The key is to persevere and keep trying until success is achieved. This resilience is fueled by a strong belief in one’s dreams and the determination to overcome any challenges that may arise.” 

He states, “It is important to acknowledge that there will be individuals who may attempt to block one’s progress and ruin your success. Overcoming these obstacles can be overwhelming, but resolute faith in one’s dreams provides the strength needed to push back. A crucial point to remember is that once a dream is realized, a new one must be pursued.”

This continuous pursuit of greatness is essential for personal fulfillment, keeping in mind that not everyone should wish to become Julius Caesar! Striving for greatness is akin to climbing a hill—not necessarily Mount Everest, but a challenge that fulfills our innermost desires.

Additionally, “following a career-oriented path may lead to financial success, but true greatness often stems from chasing dreams. Let history show that the most impactful leaders (from heads of state to business moguls) all started with a dream,” he concludes.