How Hilton is changing perceptions of hospitality in the Middle East

Written by
Karam Filfilan

12 Sep 2017

12 Sep 2017 • by Karam Filfilan

The Hilton portfolio of hotels makes up one of the world’s largest hospitality companies, with more than 5,000 properties across 103 countries. Providing 14 unique brands, including Waldorf Astoria and Conrad at the luxury end of the scale and Canopy mid-scale, the chain employs more than 166,000 employees worldwide – and is set to grow even bigger. 

Hilton plans to expand aggressively in the region, opening 143 new hotels across the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey in the next few years, 30 of these in Saudi Arabia alone. As senior director for human resources in the MEA & Turkey region, Koray Genckul is managing this expansion from a people perspective. 

“For me, each new hotel represents an opportunity to broaden our team,” he explains. “When it comes to finding new talent, we have bespoke strategies for each location we operate in. I would estimate that 70-80% of my time is taken up with preparing for these new openings.” 
With 16 years’ service at Hilton, and experience working in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE and Jordan, the Turkey-born HR leader is well-versed in the intricacies of recruitment in the region, and the traditionally negative view of the hospitality industry, especially in Saudi Arabia.

“Hospitality, particularly 20 years ago, was not seen as a good place to work,” admits Genckul. “One of our biggest challenges was convincing parents, who are such an influence over young people’s careers. Back then, 99% of parents thought working in a hotel meant being a waiter or receptionist. Their thinking was limited to these two roles.” 

To combat this – and prepare for the coming expansion in Saudi Arabia – Genckul’s team has developed a long-term, active approach aimed at enticing Saudi youth into hospitality careers. 

Tailoring recruitment

Hilton began by tailoring its recruitment to the local market, creating recruitment websites in English and Arabic, discussing the varied careers open to young people in hospitality. Complemented by Hilton’s annual careers event in the Kingdom, this allowed the chain to impress upon eager graduates the varied roles available to them with the brand. 

By targeting graduates in finance, sales and technical areas, Hilton was able to broaden its appeal and change Saudi impressions of the hospitality industry. 

“In a typical hotel, there are more than 100 positions in departments as varied as commercial, finance and IT,” says Genckul. “It’s not just food and beverages and room management, so it was key to engage with possible employees and showcase the opportunities.” 

Graduate programmes for future leaders

Alongside this, Hilton runs specific graduate programmes for national future leaders. It partners with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage on the ‘Your Job, Your Scholarship’ scheme, committing to employing Master’s graduates who have completed overseas studies in a particular field. According to Genckul, Hilton has already agreed to recruit six Saudi nationals to its future leaders programme through this scheme, with plans to get further involved. 

Genckul is also heavily involved in Hilton’s own future leaders programme for Saudi nationals, called Mudeer Al Mostaqbal (future manager). Opening this up to a select group of Saudi graduates who are expected to become departmental managers, Hilton allows members to do work experience in various operational departments, before specialising in a field that suits their experience, education and aims. 

The programme runs for 12-16 months and is designed to increase national representation at a managerial level. 

Starting from a base of six recruits at the Hilton Makkah in 2013, the scheme extended to an intake of 12 this year, including female candidates for the first time. 

“Like young people anywhere in the world, Saudi youth want to understand what a job will offer not just today, but tomorrow too,” says Genckul. 

“The aim of the programme is to give them experience in all operational departments of the hotel. This allows them to see the opportunities they might have, the development they will get and how they can grow.” 

This concerted, long-term effort to attract Saudi nationals into careers at Hilton is working.

“Twenty years ago, we had great hotels (in the Kingdom) but only a handful of Saudi nationals working for us,” he reports. “Today, a third of team members are Saudis, with one in three of those female. I can only see this increasing.” 

How has Saudi Arabia’s National Transformation Programme, which is changing recruitment processes in private businesses across the Kingdom, impacted on Genckul’s team’s onboarding? 

“Tourism is one of the major pillars of Vision 2030 and hospitality is key,” he replies. “It is important for us to do our part, but from every perspective, it makes sense to have local talent running local hotels. 

“My personal experience is that it is vital to understand your region, market and culture. Wherever you do business, you are part of that community and culture, so it is you who must adapt.” 

With tourism high on Saudi’s post-oil agenda, and so many hotels opening, Genckul is sure to be busy for the foreseeable future. But does he the hospitality industry still speak to him after so many years? 

“It is dynamic, diverse and most importantly, it is rewarding,” he says. “It’s allowed me to see the world and become a global citizen.”