Culture change: the female GMs finding opportunity in the Middle East

31 March 2021 by
Culture change: the female GMs finding opportunity in the Middle East

Although currently only 16% of middle and senior management positions in the UAE are held by women, the culture is shifting. Three female hotel general managers in the Middle East speak to Ben Walker about what got them there, where they would like to end up, and how the pandemic has affected business.

​### Laura Eggleton, general manager at Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown

As a teenager, Laura Eggleton (pictured above) was waiting for a bus near her hometown of Copthorne in West Sussex when it started to rain. She sought shelter in the foyer of a nearby hotel – and ended up applying for a job. That spontaneous moment marked the beginning of a remarkable career in hospitality. Some 20 years later, she is in charge of Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown.

Along the way, she has been the first female general manager in the Middle East for IHG Hotels & Resorts and the first female GM in Oman.

"It's funny because people are so surprised that I'm a woman. People almost go, ‘Wow, it's a girl!' like when someone's expecting a baby and they divulge the gender," says Eggleton, who has been based in the Middle East for nearly six years.

Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown lobby
Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown lobby

The surprise is partly because the share of women in middle and senior management positions in the UAE is low – 16% compared with 35% in the UK and 41% in the US, according to the International Labour Office.

But it's not just because Eggleton is a woman. The surprise also comes from her having filled management roles since her early 20s, and she's still only 34 years old. While her youth and gender can provoke narrow-minded comments, she takes it all in her stride with a generous side-helping of humour.

"I had a guy who said, ‘But you're so young!' and I said, ‘But you're too old to be the general manager of your company!' He was horrified. I don't think anything of it, but people say to me, ‘Are you qualified? Are you educated? Who makes the decisions?' Well, I do."

Strong self-motivation and a belief in herself are what have driven Eggleton forward. "Do not wait for others to develop you. Do it yourself," she advises.

Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown
Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown

Women, though, are less likely than men to go for a promotion that they don't feel 100% qualified for, according to research by consulting firm Korn Ferry. But Eggleton's career highlights the importance of putting yourself forward and stretching yourself: if you don't ask, you don't get.

"If I want to move on, then I turn up at my boss's door and I say, ‘What's next?' And then he'll tell me, ‘We've got this, but maybe your skills gap might be this, so in the meantime, go and work on it.' I'm very self-motivated – I always have been. When the time is right, go and ask. Absolutely."

All kinds of people turn to Eggleton for advice, not just about career progression but also about working in the Middle East. "It's not just young women asking me questions, it's men too. A lot of people reach out to me because it's not easy to get over here to the UAE. It's a big, daring thing to do, to be honest."

Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown juice bar
Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown juice bar

The 269-bedroom Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown opened in October 2020. "We opened during a global pandemic, and a lot of people asked, ‘Why did you do that?' But there is no good time. How long should we have waited?

"The opening was pushed back from April, but we needed to open. You can't leave a building like this sitting still. We needed to put it into use and actually we did far better than expected. In some ways it was a bit of an advantage opening at such a difficult time because we got a lot of limelight from the media, who needed something to talk about. We've had some nice media attention."

Eggleton is especially proud of her young and predominantly female team. "More than half of the leadership team in the hotel are women, so it's a very rare find. My director of finance, revenue manager, director of marketing and director of sales are all women. However, it's important to stress that they didn't get their jobs because they were on someone's KPI or because IHG has a target to increase female leadership."

Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown design suite
Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown design suite

As for the future, Eggleton has a medium- to long-term aspiration to work in Saudi Arabia. Under the leadership of the 35-year-old crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country is becoming more liberal. There are even rumours that alcohol may be legalised.

While construction of brand-new Red Sea leisure resorts continues apace, Saudi Arabia benefits from a large feeder market in the Gulf region, but some relaxation of the country's strict alcohol rules would be the clincher to attract western tourists.

Eggleton says: "I want to be part of something really different and I don't see any other country that has the growth opportunity that Saudi Arabia does. They are building whole cities with hundreds of hotels. It's a whole country that needs to move."

I don't see any other country that has the growth opportunity that Saudi Arabia does

Saudi Arabia is considered a controversial destination by many, but Eggleton is dismissive of the armchair critics. "People say to me, ‘Laura, why would you be so stupid? They do this and that to people over there!' And I say, ‘Have you been? No? Well, it's nothing like you make out.'"

Anna-Marie Dowling, area general manager at IHG Oman, and general manager at InterContinental Muscat

Anna-Marie Dowling
Anna-Marie Dowling

Compared to multicultural London, expats in the Middle East need to be mindful of the local culture and of their position as guests in another country, says Anna-Marie Dowling, who was a general manager in London for 12 years before moving to the region.

"Oman is incredibly patriotic," she points out. "They have a great love for the former sultan, Qaboos bin Said; they are very family-orientated, and they take their religion, as most Muslim countries do, very seriously."

A big difference between being a GM in London and being one in Oman lies in the amount of pastoral care extended to employees. "Here, you are 100% responsible for your staff's welfare, while in London, outside the workplace they do their own thing. Half of my team here are expats, and I am responsible for where they live and what they eat. It's almost like having another hotel in the background. I have to be just as mindful of the pandemic and the cleanliness and sterilisation of the staff accommodation as I am for the hotel," she says.

InterContinental Muscat
InterContinental Muscat

Omani Women's Day on 17 October has celebrated the achievements of local women every year for the past 11 years, which is something Dowling admires. "Women are really singled out for recognition, which is quite unusual in this region. You see more and more Omani women in senior business roles.

"This is a great time for women to consider coming to this region because all of the global hotel companies here want to increase their female leadership and all of the countries are much more open to it," she adds. "The cultural change in Saudi Arabia, for example, is opening up massive opportunities for women to step into senior roles."

The cultural change in Saudi Arabia is opening up massive opportunities for women to step into senior roles

As part of a specific IHG programme to nurture women with leadership potential, Dowling is mentoring Lauren Bracken, another British expat, and director of sales at Hotel Indigo Dubai Downtown.

With Dowling having responsibility for seven hotels in Oman, the pandemic has meant she has had to keep the teams motivated and engaged while constantly looking for the next creative way to make top-line revenue.

"The beaches are closed now, so we find higher demand for day passes to use the pool, to buy a room for day-use and to have lunch. You are always looking at different areas of your hotel and different promotions. Obviously value becomes the big driver."

As in most parts of the world, the pandemic has created an unpredictable stop-start rhythm to life. "The restaurants were holding up pretty well, but they'll be closing at 8pm for two weeks [4 March to 20 March]. This week is half-term and we've had a bit of a surge in demand, which is quite tough on the staffing. I'm going to help housekeeping this afternoon. It's only for three or four days and then we'll go back down to a lower occupancy again."

The majority of expat workers were unable to return home to visit their families last year, and the outlook on travel remains uncertain. "We're still not on 100% pay, but everybody is giving 100% to keep these businesses afloat. When people are in that situation, recognition, appreciation and thanks are a big part of how you do the job. Most, like me, are grateful. Even if the job is tough, even if the salary is cut, you just have to be grateful that you are still employed, because there are hundreds of thousands who are not."

InterContinental Muscat
InterContinental Muscat

Looking ahead, Dowling says: "The only thing you can really focus on is leading your hotels out of this pandemic and making sure that you're completely ready for recovery when it comes. I always tell my teams that every rial [Omani currency] you put in the till really makes a difference. We're constantly in this balance between what we can afford against the revenues coming in."

Career-wise, she adds: "I have never had any desire to go into a corporate head office. I'm very passionate about being a general manager, and that's where I want to stay. I really like leading teams, mentoring people and driving the results of the hotels."

Caroline Trichet, general manager at Sofitel Dubai Downtown

Caroline Trichet
Caroline Trichet

Back in 2001 Caroline Trichet jumped on her custom Suzuki 650 motorbike in her native France and roared off to the UK. The plan was to spend a few months learning the language, but she secured a job as a commis chef de rang at the Vineyard at Stockcross in Newbury, Berkshire, and ended up staying much longer. After four years, she had been promoted to restaurant manager at the Relais & Château property and was ready for new challenges.

The Vineyard's managing director Andrew McKenzie helped her move from F&B to hotel management. She says: "Andrew was a very good mentor to me, and we are still in touch. Sometimes you meet great people who inspire you and give you some chances."

Sofitel Dubai Downtown Royal Suite
Sofitel Dubai Downtown Royal Suite

After several years at Donnington Valley hotel, also in Newbury, and the Barns hotel, Bedford, Trichet moved on, working in Vietnam, China and Thailand before arriving in the UAE three years ago to be general manager of Accor's Sofitel Dubai Downtown.

"When I arrived, there were just a few female general managers in the region, and it has been increasing a bit more," she says. "Dubai is known for being progressive, and the diversity agenda is much more well-received compared to a few years ago."

Sofitel Dubai Downtown
Sofitel Dubai Downtown

Accor's gender equality and diversity network, known as Riise, has 29,000 members and 2,000 employees on its mentoring programme. Riise is very active in the region and Dubai was the location of a high-profile conference attended by, among others, Accor's chief executive Sébastien Bazin and the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

On spreading the diversity message, Trichet says: "This training should not be misperceived. We're not saying we need only women. It's about getting the best balance."

We're not saying we need only women. It's about getting the best balance

Trichet describes keeping the 350-bedroom Sofitel Dubai Downtown open throughout the pandemic as "intense". Although Dubai never required it, many hotels closed completely. "We remained one of those rare hotels that didn't close, purely because we had some long-stay apartments and long-stay guests," Trichet says. However, with single-figure occupancy, much of the hotel was mothballed.

"For two-and-a-half months, there were only 36 people working here, compared with 250 normally. We were responsible for the 24-hour security, maintenance and being resource-conscious, but at the same time keeping the standards of a five-star hotel.

Sofitel Dubai Downtown
Sofitel Dubai Downtown

"It has been intense, because you have to work harder and think three times as much, and adapt to the changing regulations, so regardless of whether you have experience, it is completely challenging."

Summarising her position, Trichet says: "I really like where I am. I have great support from the owners. There is a lot of potential, and I'm looking at a few apartment projects at the moment."

Looking further ahead, her ambition is to become vice-president of operations for Accor. "Probably the next step is to be a cluster manager," she explains. "The Middle East and Africa are key regions for Sofitel and Accor. There is a lot of development in Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other exciting projects at an international level."

In her free time, she likes to satisfy her love of adventure, in pursuit of which she has hurtled at 90 miles an hour down the longest zipline in the world. The two-mile cable run starts at the top of the Jebel Jais, the highest mountain in the UAE, around two hours north of Dubai. Next up for Trichet: desert safari camping and skydiving.

Recovery under way in Dubai


"Dubai has ranked among the world's top-performing hotel markets over the past six months," says Philip Wooller, area director for hotel data company STR. Domestic demand remains the primary driver, but the market saw significant international pickup in December and into the new year. The Dubai-Heathrow route was the busiest in the world at the time, and STR reported average occupancy at 71% for December as a whole and 82% for New Year's Eve.

An increase in coronavirus cases has since put new restrictions in place until the start of Ramadan in mid-April. The limitations include 70% maximum hotel occupancy, 50% maximum capacity for indoor cinemas and sports venues, and cafés and restaurants to close at 1am. STR reported 66% occupancy in January and 58% in February.

"Assuming an improved pandemic situation and a solid tourism rebound helped by Expo 2020 [the postponed world trade fair now scheduled to run from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022], we are forecasting Dubai's recovery to kick into a higher gear during the fourth quarter," Wooller says.

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