Interview | Wednesday, 09 March 2008

Winston greens business

Young and opinionated - Winston J. Zahra shares his views on politics, hunting, the environment and golf courses with DAVID DARMANIN

Setting off in 1987 with the Bugibba Holiday Complex - which the Zahra family now refers to as a ‘modest start’, the Island Hotels Group built itself a small empire in a relatively short period of time. The Zahras - founders, operators and co-owners with Vassallo Builders of the group, have over the past 21 years established themselves as leaders in the local hospitality industry.
In his office, Winston J. Zahra - the founder’s son and current Group Director of Operations, Sales and Marketing keeps a memento commemorating the “Young Hotelier of the World Award” he received in 1999, when he was 29. One couldn’t help but observe that within the group’s 12th year of operation, management was already being delegated to the second generation and that a clear succession policy was already in place.
Winston Jr now heads a team that is responsible for the operation of no less than two five star hotels, a four star hotel, as well as the largest event catering company in Malta. The Bugibba Holiday Complex, which over the years increased its bed capacity from 200 to 1,000, was sold a few weeks ago as it no longer fit in with the group’s strategy.
Winston Zahra is not an unfamiliar name. Both father and son, who bear the same namesake, are eloquent, opinionated and achievers - traits that have often garnered the attention of both the media and the public. Like father, like son – Winston J.Zahra has seldom shied away from the centre stage when it came to issues concerning hospitality or the environment.
“Both Malta’s size and infrastructure have obvious limitations,” he started, commenting on Malta’s perceived numbers-game-approach to tourism.
“We have always suffered from the seasonality problem in tourism, with a heavy load on our infrastructure during the peak months, followed by a drop in the shoulder and winter months. We should therefore focus our efforts on straightening the seasonality line. We should work on increasing our numbers during the leaner months, although there’s an obvious eventual limit there too.”
In the new administration, the Prime Minister opted not to reassign a ministry for tourism, but rather to load tourism within his portfolio and appoint a Parliamentary Secretary. Zahra is not averse to this idea, on the contrary.
In line with the stand taken by the Malta Hotels and Restaurant’s Association – of which he is former president, he said : “I do not agree with you stating that the Prime Minister has not chosen a Minister for tourism. He actually went a step further and put tourism under his wing. I don’t think there could have been a better signal for the tourism industry of government’s intentions for our industry.
“One must also appreciate that the Prime Minister’s participation in the tourism sector cannot possibly be on a day to day basis. He obviously needed a person to drive decisions within the industry on a daily basis. So the appointment of Mario de Marco as Parliamentary Secretary was also a very positive decision.
“More than that, the Prime Minister loaded the environment too within his portfolio and this is rather indicative of the priorities he wants to set in order to work on Malta’s product.”
With a concept he had dubbed ‘product-Malta’ some ten years ago, Zahra was probably the first to propose a concerted effort on branding Malta among incoming and prospective tourists – years before the Malta Tourism Authority launched the brand-Malta campaign.
“I am glad that the government has recognised the need of working on product-Malta as one of the areas that needs most help,” he said. “The fact that the Prime Minister has taken charge of this is very good news to the tourism industry in general.”
Asked whether or not Malta should start focusing on niche tourism, Zahra said : “First we have to see what we understand by niche tourism. We have been targeting diving tourists for years now, resulting in 60,000 tourists making use of diving facilities annually. Conference and incentive business is also another sector that has been worked on – with 70,000 conference and incentive visitors coming in annually with scope for much more growth. There are also people who come to Malta for religious purposes. So yes, we do attract niche tourism already. What we should be asking is whether or not we can identify more niches. I believe we can. We could target, for example, people who are specifically interested in history, culture and architecture. This is all important, but I think there are other priorities at this stage. We need to get our product more visible and known for the right reasons first.”
Mentioning that changing trends in tourism may also develop a demand for a new type of tourist, Zahra claimed : “In the past 18 months we have managed to target the individual tourist more than we have ever done before. This has come about with the introduction of low-cost carriers – whose services are mostly booked online. This has changed our segment mix significantly. Can that be called a different niche? We can debate for a very long time on this.”
Talking of trends and niches, in Europe, people are becoming more and more aware of environmental needs. Will this trend open new doors to the eco-tourism niche? Is eco-tourism just a craze of the moment, or is it a sector that should be taken more seriously?
“People are becoming more discerning and I don’t think this is just a fad. It will grow. From our experience however, people are not ready to pay that little more for an eco-friendly product.”
In 1994, Island Hotels had invested in an eco-friendly fresh water supply system for the Coastline Hotel, pioneering the reverse osmosis technology in the local hotel industry.
“Even when building the Golden Sands, 80 percent of the old building was recycled,” he added. This was another first.
“Are people ready to pay more for such initiatives? No, not yet and probably neither in the future. As time goes by, people will start expecting eco-friendly measures as a given. As much as guests now expect to see a receptionist standing behind a desk at a hotel, eventually one will start expecting green measures in a similar way. This is not a matter of applying green measures to increase competitiveness. It is a matter of including such measures as a must – rendering operators less competitive if they fail to apply them.”
The demand for agritourism is also on the increase internationally. In this sector, holidaymakers spend most of their vacation time with farmers and viticulturists, gaining first-hand experience in the production of wine or certain types of food, while enjoying nature and life in the countryside that different agritourism destinations have to offer. Some contend that this type of tourism will soon grow into one of the largest sectors in tourism. Where does Malta stand on this, being a winegrowing region? Who are we in competition with? Is there potential?
“The destinations closest to us, Italy and Sicily, seem to be surging in this area,” Zahra said.
“If we had to compare, Malta hasn’t even started, with the exception of a handful of services. Is there potential? Certainly, but it’s limited. To succeed we must first see how we can manage to offer a unique type of service in this area always bearing in mind the limited resources that we have by way of land availability.”
In the run up to general elections, Zahra was one of the thirteen endorsers of a Birdlife appeal to government and opposition to forbid hunting during spring, prior to the impending ruling of the European courts over the matter. Why was Zahra interested in endorsing the campaign?
“Let me clarify my position on my participation in the Birdlife campaign against spring hunting. The reasons I joined were two-fold.
“First, it seemed very clear that the decision was being taken out of the country’s hands. I would have preferred if local politicians – and by this I mean both government and opposition, had the conviction to decide together. I was opposed to the fact that we decided to play politics and make a political football out of the hunting issue and then throw the decision in the EU’s hands. Responsibility should have been taken at a local level.
“Secondly, from direct feedback we get from tourists, because of the way a number of hunters go about the practice, people strolling in the countryside are often scared and intimidated. I must also clarify that I believe that a lot of hunters do not break the law, but some do and it is important not to portray everyone in the same light. It is also a fact that a lot of tourists do not perceive hunting as a hobby or a sport – and we know this from feedback we directly receive from our guests.”
His stand, taken a few weeks before general elections, may have been perceived as unconventional, as he admits.
“A lot of people have called me crazy for joining the Birdlife campaign and I have been told many times that I shouldn’t have done it because it was ‘dangerous’. On the other hand I believe that I am entitled to an opinion and to freely express that opinion. My opinion differs from that of hunters, but I can’t see why this is such a big deal. Some people, through websites and articles try to take it on a personal level, but I prefer not to react and to rise above that.”
He was referring to a press statement issued by Lino Farrugia, who besides fronting the pro-hunting lobby is also a hotelier. Days after Birdlife launched the campaign, Farrugia had released a press statement accusing Zahra of “living in cuckoo-land”. Farrugia had harshly stated : “As for tourism, Mr Zahra, a hotelier, ought to know that it is bad service, bad food, exorbitant prices, grumpy hotel staff, timeshare louts (sic), and airline monopolies that undermine tourism.”
“I have known Lino for years now and I would never take what he did against him,” Zahra said. “He is entitled to his opinions. When he said what he said I did not feel the need to rebut, nor do I feel such need now. I understand that he is in a difficult position at the moment, as much as I am sure that he will eventually look back and realise that what he said was out of panic. I have no hard feelings towards him though. Life is too short.”
Zahra’s enthusiasm for the environment has at times been perceived as uncommon, or as he more descriptively admits : “I’m personally very passionate about applying eco-friendly measures. My wife and I are trying to develop a residence that is totally self-sufficient. People sometimes think I’m a nut case, but I still maintain that everyone should hold some of the environmental responsibility.”
And yet, in 2005 Zahra did not oppose the controversial proposal for the development of a golf course at Xaghra l-Hamra, in close proximity to one of the group’s hotels. Needless to mention, he was criticised for going against the grain.
“Well, this issue may have gone against the grain with the environmental lobby but I still scratch my head when I see golf courses being frowned upon so badly by this lobby. With golf courses, it’s really not a matter of whether or not they are developed. It’s a matter of how they are developed that will make them more eco-friendly or less. There is no doubt that golf courses will improve the local economy. They will also improve the island’s perception with high-spend tourists. The problem is that in Malta people dig their heels in and fight instead of sitting round a table to discuss with the aim of finding a solution. I don’t think that when the environmental lobby discussed this issue internally, it accepted that golf courses will be of benefit to Malta’s economy, and that in itself - is a given. Ideally the key-players involved should together discuss how golf courses may be developed in such a way that the ecology of the area is also enhanced and promoted. This of course is a complex matter as it depends on the size of the golf course, the site chosen, the location and existing buildings in the area and the willingness of people to find a workable solution.”
But is one right to assume that construction of ancillary real estate is to be made if the investment needed to develop a golf course is to be covered? Wouldn’t that be detrimental to the environment anyway?
“Yes, the assumption is correct. Again, the need for discussion is a must. The environmental lobby, the government and the tourism sector need to talk about this issue to find the best way forward that does not compromise the environment that we depend so much on. Of course, all this might be wishful thinking as you know how it works in Malta – people are far too entrenched in their position, holding them back from sensible and open discussion.”

09 April 2008

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