Follow The Leader: Puneet Chhatwal, CEO, Steigenberger Hotel Group
"I have one thing that has helped me do well in my life: I get immense pleasure in helping people grow, and they automatically help me grow."
Considering the fact that Puneet Chhatwal was appointed the CEO of the Frankfurt-headquartered Steigenberger Hotel Group only in 2012, the speed at which Chhatwal has been pushing ahead with the growth and expansion of the Steigenberger Hotel Group -one of Europe's leading hotel companies- into the rest of the world has been remarkably exciting to watch, to say the least. The Germanic brand has been making inroads into markets all around the world, and Chhatwal -who was previously the Chief Development Officer at The Rezidor Hotel Group, where he oversaw Rezidor becoming the fastest growing hotel company in the world- definitely seems to be the right person to help Steigenberger realize its global goals. "When I joined in 2012, the ambition and the vision of the company was to double the size of its portfolio," Chhatwal says. "80 hotels to 150 hotels, double the size of the EBDA at the same time, and still be recognized for quality, exporting the job and excellence. So, there's three strategic factors: expansion, in terms of the growth of the company and portfolio; the second was in terms of the margins, because the margins in our industry have been continuously declining; and [the third was] quality leadership."
This strategy thus explains Steigenberger's recent launch in the Middle East with a 365-room property at Business Bay in Dubai, UAE, which was made possible through a partnership with Twenty14 Holdings, LuLu Group International's hospitality division headed by Managing Director Adeeb Ahamed. While Twenty14 Holdings owns the five-star hotel, Steigenberger is operating it under a management agreement. From Chhatwal's perspective, this partnership has been a mutually beneficial one- he has nothing but good things to say about Ahamed and his Twenty14 team's expertise and efforts, which helped make Steigenberger's dreams of opening up in the UAE a reality. "Within the Middle East, in an ideal world, you would want to start with Dubai," Chhatwal says. "So we were very fortunate that we got into contact with Twenty14- the chemistry [between us] worked from the very first day."
According to Chhatwal, the November 2015 opening of the property was a good showcase of the partnership between Steigenberger and Twenty14. "We worked very well with Twenty14 to hire all the staff, get all the work permits, find the staff accommodation, train them, and within a period of six weeks, open the property," he says. "So, hiring [people], getting them on board, work permits, plus training, cleaning, etc. was all six weeks. You can't achieve that in a property of 365 rooms, spread over such a large space and closed for two years, if both parties [in the partnership] don't work together." Given the gains Steigenberger has achieved with its partnership with Twenty14, what are the factors Chhatwal considers to be essential for a successful collaboration between two parties? "As they say, it takes two to tango," Chhatwal notes, smiling. "The important thing in any partnership is not what I want. It's what the other part wants, and how you align your wants and needs with their wants and needs. If these genuinely meet, and you can complement each others' interests, then it could create a win-win relationship. That's the basic principle of it." Value creation for both parties is also essential if there is to be a good partnership- Chhatwal emphasizes on the importance of thinking not just about the short term, and instead focusing on rewards that can come over the longer term. "And as I have always realized in my career, there is a big place for ethics and thinking of the whole," he explains. "Eventually, that's a long-term sustainable plan. If your company has core values that go in that direction, and the other company has the same, or wants to be -even if you are not there today, but that's your ultimate goal, to get there- then it helps [in terms of a partnership that can work]. But I think the most important thing here is [to think of] not what I want, [but] what the other partner wants, aligning your needs and wants, and then doing everything to make it happen."
With Steigenberger's operations in the UAE having thus begun, the hotel group is now zooming ahead with its plans for the rest of the region and beyond. In the Middle East, new Steigenberger hotels will be opening in Qatar, Oman and the UAE again very soon, while, internationally, China is on the company's radar, as is India, where it recently tied up with the MBD Group for a joint venture that will see it open at least 20 new hotels in the country over the next 15 years. The pace that Chhatwal has set for the Steigenberger brand's growth is thus a rather speedy one, but that is very much in line with his own persona as a leader- Chhatwal says that one could call him "an impatient leader," who's very passionate about what he does, and hence leaves no stone unturned in attaining the goals he has set for himself and the brand. As for what one can expect to see from the Steigenberger Hotel Group in the coming months and years, Chhatwal looks to be quite confident about its prospects. "I would just say that Steigenberger is a company to watch," he says. "Why? As one of our latest campaigns put it, [Steigenberger may be] difficult to pronounce, but easy to love. I think we are very proud being a part of this journey we are making, and we can become the first Germanic brand in this industry to become a true global and international player."
ASK THE EXEC - Puneet Chhatwal
The Q What are your thoughts on the economic slowdown being experienced in MENA hospitality markets , like Dubai ?
The A "The fact that these markets are called emerging markets means that there is a certain amount of volatility built into the system- if there was no volatility, they would be called mature markets. But the way I have seen Dubai grow in the last 20 years: if somebody had told me this would happen, I wouldn't have believed it! Having gone through that journey myself, and given the leadership in this region, I genuinely believe that they will find the ins and outs, and ways to keep this region going."