Philippe Bijaoui joined Wyndham Hotels Group in 2016, as development manager EMEA for Europe, Middle East, Eurasia and Africa. He is in charge of developing the group’s 18 brands in its current 77 markets. From 2012, Philippe Bijaoui has been Vice President development Europe for IHG and Vice President business development for The Rezidor Hotel Group. He graduated with a BA in sociology from the University of Tel Aviv and an MBA from the French business school ESSEC. He has been working for more than twenty years in the international hotel sector, primarily in real estate, asset management and acquisitions.
I am in charge of Europe, Middle East, Africa and a part of Asia (India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka). It represents quite a large area when you think that it includes Russia and the associated republics and countries down to South Africa. The gap is even bigger when you think about the cultural differences. But that is precisely why it is interesting. I find it very enriching to be able to regularly share skills, points of view and experiences. I just came back from a trip to India and Sri Lanka, and my local team has a very fresh way of approaching development in these countries.
Has this cultural mix been reproduced in a project?
I took my position less than 90 days ago, and I spend a lot of time listening to my team as well as to our franchised partners. It is very important to understand the issues they deal with as well as the potential solutions. I listen to their expectations regarding our brands. We are willing to become the best partner for hotel development in the area, to create solutions that will enable our franchised partners to unlock new projects, to enrich and to grow faster with our brands. Concretely speaking, India’s currency devaluation has a short-term positive impact on current projects, but should have a positive impact in the midterm on our partners’ debt capacity.
How can an American company, which follows strict rules and standards, adapt to the diversity of situations?
It is important to continue crossexamining ourselves and adjusting to local situations. That is why, in spite of our American nationality and culture, Wyndham has chosen to work exclusively with local teams. I couldn’t think of managing such a vast territory without local partners. Our delegates live and talk with our representatives and give us feedback on vital information that allows us to adapt. This has brought a big change at Wyndham Hotel Group in recent years. You would be surprised by the opening of the group model and the variety of nationalities and cultural backgrounds working together at our headquarters - their are dozens. We have been influenced by our “sister” Wyndham Destination Network that runs the group’s timeshare division and has a very diversified presence around the world. Wyndham is already present in 77 countries worldwide.
The image of Wyndham Hotel Group, as an essentially American brand, is no longer accurate…
I don’t know where this idea comes from. Since the group got involved in partnerships and acquisitions, it has been broadly diversifying its locations. Take the example of Tryp that was bought from the Melia Group, we now work with them in Europe and Latin America. It is true that most of our brands first appeared in the USA and some of them are still located only there, but this is changing.
Regarding the vast area you responsible for, how many hotels are already established and how many do you plan to develop?
We currently have 465 entities in Europe, Middle East, Africa and the part of Asia I am managing. Most of them - around 350 hotels- are in Europe and the others are in the remaining territories. The primary countries are Germany with 94 hotels, United Kingdom with 76 hotels and Turkey with 55 hotels. We are the leading international group in India with 28 hotels. Our goal is not to become Number 1 everywhere, it would be delusive. In select countries, we wish to be viewed as a domestic operator. Moreover, we will keep working in all the capitals and major cities because this is one of our customers’ major expectations, and it is where our distribution system performs the best.
Are targeted countries kept secret?
Without revealing our strategy, I would say we are guided by the will to go where we can have a competitive advantage, with respect to the market and our brands, for largescale development. This will be the case for every major region: Europe, Africa, Middle East and Asia, in continuation of what we have already done in the countries I have already mentioned. We will work even in countries, such as Turkey: that have suffered from crises, which I hope will not last. Turkish investors continue to solicit us for openings in 2017.
Is Southern Europe still a difficult territory for brands?
In Spain, our partnership with Melia will allow new developments; in Italy, it is important to be in major cities such as: Rome, Milan, Venice where we can target an international audience.
Without committing to any figures, what potential do you see for the area?
We don’t usually announce symbolic facts and figures, but I can tell you that the potential is huge when we look at development in Africa and in some European countries… and we have just the brands ranging from the super economic Super 8 to the upscale Wyndham. There is also room for some derivative brands such as Wyndham Garden, which is a perfect fit for urban areas and resorts alike. Finally, we have the chance to be able to work with Wyndham Destination Network, RCI Network, and the timeshare stock exchange that is part of our group.
How does that synergy work?
I cannot give details regarding the current project. However, at one destination we are going to develop a Ramada Plaza Hotel and villas; part of it will be commercialized by Novasol, a Wyndham brand, and another part will be integrated in the RCI portfolio. Investors have the possibility to spread the risks and to benefit from various cash flows regarding the products while having only one representative.
Only few Wyndham Group brands are known in Europe while there are many in the portfolio, do you plan to develop new brands?
It is true that in my area we offer “only” 11 brands among which some are prioritized. We may establish new ones at any time if it is justified by demand. Our priority is to capitalize on the most famous: Days Inn, Ramada and Wyndham which already cover most of the market sectors, especially since we can adapt them to the markets. Wyndham is our eponymous brand linked to our loyalty program, Wyndham Rewards, in which we will invest a lot to develop its awareness.
When it was integrated, Wyndham gave Cendant group its name and also its management contract know-how while the group’s previous activities were only franchised; did this modify your development strategy?
Our fundamental rule is to never compete with our franchisees that have the structures to run hotels. We must be consistent, but in some territories, mostly in the Middle East, management companies are not very well established, in that case most developments happen through management contracts. The same is true for some brands such as Dolce which is developed only through management contracts.
Have you considered leasing contracts?
Most Western European countries use commercial leases since institutional investors don’t really understand management contracts. In some cases they are not allowed to hire human resources and prefer to secure safe incomes through rents. Wyndham has always been an asset-light corporation and does not intend to change its model. In leasing cases, we deal with investors able to sign leases. It is a return to the fundamental rule not to compete with our franchisees. They want us to invest in brands, technology and loyalty programs. We are currently doing so by completely transforming our distribution channel, Synexis, which is already deployed in 90% of European hotels. Soon we will invest significantly in communications about Wyndham Rewards.
Wyndham’s international development has mostly been built on partnerships and acquisitions, as was the case for Corinthia and Melia Hotels Groups, at the risk of complicating any understanding of shared brand management and conditions for development. Will you pursue that direction?
Aside from Latin America, the group’s latest acquisitions were of brands and their management companies. This is the direction we wish to continue in as it is easier to manage. I am looking for this type of opportunity in each major area in Europe, Africa or India.
In light of the growth of sharing platforms, do you sense any reluctance from investors towards supporting projects in the hospitality industry? Are they concerned about the future? Almost everything has been said about AirBnB and its consequences, but I honestly didn’t feel any slow-down or lack of interest from investors for the hospitality industry. If you remove the impact of terrorist attacks on concerned destinations, current performances are good. Customers have not turned their back on hotels. I prefer to remain optimistic and think about the message conveyed by AirBnB about new travelers due to the new accommodation opportunities offered by sharing platforms. We must think about the customers we neglected, families or groups of friends who prefer apartments, who didn’t find the product they wanted. Sharing platform customers also seek authentic and sincere discovery of a destination by living with its inhabitants. We have to take that into consideration even though Wyndham is already present in the field of apartment rentals with Wyndham Destination Network.
So it is possible to find a productive symbiosis?
Most probably, if matters of unfair competition regarding taxation or safety regulations are solved. In my opinion, this is a societal problem. AirBnB’s success is especially evident in cities lacking accommodations for their inhabitants. This type of situation creates tension and some cities have already reacted such as Berlin, Barcelona and even Paris.
Do you intend to propose new “generation” specific brands like most other groups are currently doing? Our lifestyle brand Tryp is dedicated to that client segment for the next openings.
To finish our interview, a more personal question: you have been travelling throughout Europe and the world developing hotels for a long time, are you not growing somewhat weary?
No, not at all, really not. To me it is primordial to know the culture, the lifestyle of a country or a city in order to develop a hotel on that territory. I spend part of my travels exploring, losing myself in the city to capture emotions, fragrances and meet people who live there. It is one of the most interesting parts of my job and I will never be fed up with it. Even if I return to the same destination several times, I look for new discoveries. Each trip is a new adventure.
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