Let's talk about the tourism sector. You've been in Erbil for about 7 months. What are the main tourism attractions for both general and business tourism?
In general, the tourism in Erbil still has to seriously pick up. The hotels in the region and tourism facilities are more geared toward the business visitor as opposed to the tourist. If I talk about tourists in Erbil, I am talking about local tourists who come from Baghdad and Kirkuk. They form the biggest segment of visitors to Erbil but this is all domestic tourism. These people come with their families during public holidays such as Ramadan. This forms at least 80% of tourism and is during specific dates. The tourists sometimes come for shopping or a change of scenery. They also go to the outskirts of Erbil, to the Shaqlawa area and the mountains because these are good attractions, especially for families. The malls are growing in Erbil and this creates an attractive shopping experience. But for visitors from beyond the Iraq region, the number of tourists is very minimal mainly because of the lack of attractions.
Business tourism, which I consider a type of tourism, is picking up in Erbil. The facilities are being put in place and the infrastructure has been planned and put in place, starting with the airport of course. Roads and transportation are yet to be improved from where they are now. There is a huge calendar of business conferences and exhibitions spread throughout the year in Erbil that attracts a lot of business tourism from the region and beyond, including the areas around Turkey, the GCC, North Africa, and even Europe. So this is something that is worth looking at for business tourism. Hotels are being built up and when you walk through Erbil now, you can see the signs and the hoardings mushrooming up every day with brands of international hotels. I think those people know what they're doing and they're coming into the country with that knowledge. The airlines as well are increasing the number of flights into Erbil. Some of them started with one flight weekly and know they are launching the fifth per week. So business tourism is something that we have to look closely at. I don't think these people are very much into shopping and leisure but we have to set up leisure facilities for them.
What is the projection for growth in the tourism sector? Many people we have spoken to tell us that the best investment opportunities lie in the tourism sector.
Yes, I definitely believe there is a potential for growth. I don't think anyone has precise numbers on growth at the moment, but the indicators show that there is growth. When I first came here a while ago, there were only two or three airlines from the region serving Erbil International Airport. Now, that number of airlines has doubled and the airlines have doubled, tripled or even quadrupled the number of flights. If this tells me anything, it tells me those airlines are definitely not mobilizing empty airplanes. This gives us an indication that there is an inbound tourism, be it business or otherwise and that it is multiplying in numbers exponentially, not evenly but exponentially, in a very short time period. So these multiplying numbers definitely show the potential for growth.
What you don't need as a businessman staying at a hotel for two nights is exactly what you don't have in this hotel... our guests think [Tangram is] convenient, smart, has everything they need, and nothing they don't need.
If there is potential for growth in tourism in general and if we consider business tourism and conference tourism part of this, then definitely I can tell you yes. Kurdistan and Erbil should realize, and I think they do, that tourism is a sector that is extremely important for the GDP of the country because it's a sustainable industry. It also serves many sectors – apart from hotels - such as agriculture, artifacts, and local production. All of that benefits from tourism. Transportation, taxi drivers and uniform makers all benefit from tourism. So it's a sustainable industry; it doesn't wear out like oil. It keeps growing and gets better and better returns. Look at Dubai. The destination or the brand of Dubai was created around a certain number of experiences and the stability and sustainability. I think Erbil can do that as well and it is on its way to achieving this.
Let's talk about the hotels. We are in the Tangram Hotel which is a business hotel catering for business tourism. Traditionally, businessmen were going to Rotana. How is Tangram Hotel different and what sort of needs are you catering for in comparison to other hotels in the city?
Tangram is a fairly young hotel brand; it was founded only very recently. The Tangram Hotel Erbil is the first hotel of this chain in the Middle East and Africa and it revolves around the business hotel offering or concept. I don't want to say it's a no-frill brand, but it's a very simple, straightforward, business service offering which has everything that a businessman or businesswoman would look for in a hotel with sophistication, style and no unnecessary luxuries. This is where Tangram is different not only from the hotel you mentioned but from any other hotel. We are a functional hotel with functional rooms. They are not necessarily too big and you don't have to pay extra for space you don't need. You pay for what you get. The average length of stay for a businessman in Erbil so far varies from 1.5 to 2.5 nights and I think our hotel is purposely built and equipped for this.
If you are staying 1.5 nights, I don't think you would really miss a swimming pool. But if we have a swimming pool, then we have to spend on the maintenance. What you don't need as a businessman staying at a hotel for two nights is exactly what you don't have in this hotel. So I think this is how we are different; we don't pass on these unnecessary costs to our guests. You don't have to pay for services you don't need. This is the concept of Tangram in general and in Erbil in particular. Since it's our first hotel we are showcasing that with a little bit of style of course and not luxury, but convenience, is the best description. I think this is feedback we get from our guests. They think it's convenient, smart, has everything they need, and nothing they don't need.
What is your development strategy in the short-term and long-term for Tangram Hotel?
We are a fairly small hotel with 118 rooms. We are aggressively targeting the business sector from outside and not really the domestic sector. I am referring to our regional and international business visitors. So our strategy would be securing market share within this segment and also serving this segment better than anyone else. At the moment we are still in the introductory phase as we just opened a few months ago. We are spreading the word and educating the market about our new hotel which is a little bit farther out in the city from the conference center and sharing what it is about. Our strategy is education within the growth phase and then once we start our later growth phases, we will be trying to secure the market share we earned and become the hotel of choice for businessmen in Erbil.
What are the major challenges that you have to overcome to achieve your goals? Is it because the Tangram brand itself is not so well known yet or that the Arabic way is more towards luxury?
We have identified a large number of challenges. The biggest one revolves around the education of people. The general public still doesn't really understand that Kurdistan doesn't generally suffer from what Iraq suffers from in terms of instability and security issues. When people have a meeting in Kurdistan, they would rather have it somewhere else or not come. So we suffer because of that and we are now trying, hand in hand with the tourism board and other groups in Kurdistan, to educate the general public that Kurdistan is safe and that security is not an issue here.
The second challenge, on the same side but from the back on the business end, is attracting talent and staff to Erbil. This is equally challenging for the same reason. They think that instead of coming to Erbil or Kurdistan or Iraq, they can probably go somewhere else and they want to check Dubai first. So you have to educate those people. Attracting talent is very difficult in Erbil.
The third challenge is educating and cultivating our own talent here domestically. This includes identifying Kurdish talent in Erbil, educating them, training them, and convincing them they can make a career here. There is a bit of a language and cultural barrier. Working in a service sector is also something that many people aren't accustomed to so that is also another challenge.
Other challenges would be competition in the market and I always state that very positively. Personally, I worked in the hotel industry in Dubai for over 12-13 years and I have seen competition growing. I have always taken this as a good sign because the more international brands come into the destination, the more general marketing and advertising they do for the destination. This is always for the benefit of the destination and no one else. So once all the other hotels open, I am sure that as Tangram Hotel, we are going to see a benefit from that by the general marketing of this destination. It might be a bit of a challenge but I take it positively, too.
You didn't mention the mattresses at Tangram Hotel.
No, but I can assure you our mattresses are the best mattresses in all of Erbil.
It's one of the places where you can have a good night out which I enjoy as a business tourist after a hard day of work.
What I also consider good about this hotel is that it offers one of the best night spots in Erbil, if I can claim that. If someone is coming on a business trip and is here only for one or two nights and he so happens to be staying at the hotel where the night spot of Erbil is, at Tangram, which is the 360 Club upstairs on the 12th floor, I think it's an attraction, it's a plus, and it's extremely convenient. Tangram prides itself on having the 360 Club and it's also exponentially taking off.
You also have live music and the rooftop is very nice. Can you tell us how the club is different?
The club is fairly new but it has very successfully and very quickly established itself as the number one nightspot in Erbil for the elite. It's very sophisticated, very picky, and it has a very good selection of food and beverage that we put a lot of study and effort into to get the best mix for people to enjoy. We also have the live duo from Columbia; pretty soon they are going to be a trio. They are a live band that plays upstairs every night and I think they are becoming famous in Erbil. Wherever they go, people know them. There are indoor and outdoor areas so you can choose whatever you like. It's a sophisticated club and it's clean, fun and good for groups. It's really the fun place to be in Erbil at night.
Living in Erbil as a resident, how have you found living in Kurdistan for the past seven months?
Since I came here to try to put this hotel together, it totally absorbed all my time and I haven't had a chance to look around very much. I can say that Erbil is still missing a lot of things, especially for women. I would like to see more shopping facilities and more beauty facilities. But I also think it is a very family-oriented destination. Wherever you go there are places for kids and I am waiting for the time when my kids will join me on their vacation and they will tour the city because it is a family-friendly destination. I feel very safe here and the people are extremely friendly. The language is a bit of a barrier and the city is still waiting for some facilities to be added, which I'm sure will happen soon.