Cristina Polo is a French expat who has been living in Dubai for the last 11 years. With close to 20 years experience in the hospitality industry in Europe and Middle East & Africa, she’s worked with global and regional multi-brand groups, including Hilton and the Rezidor Hotel Group, in the Revenue Optimization, Distribution, Sales, Digital Marketing and Room division areas.
In 2016 Cristina joined the Insights Middle East team, a hospitality and service industry focused firm specialising in consumer and business research, marketing, distribution and sales. She is a steering committee member of the Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International (HSMAI) and a Middle East Market Analyst for Phocuswright.
Cristina joined us at a Sojern hosted event this past October in Dubai, and her knowledge of and passion for the hospitality industry was palpable. We knew we had to speak with her for our latest Sojern Sit Down.
What brought you to Dubai and the Middle East and what has made you stay?
After working for years in sales, I developed a real interest for revenue management and decided that my next move would be in that direction. I didn’t get what I was looking for in Europe, but I was lucky enough to be given this opportunity at the Radisson Blu Dubai Media City. I bought a one-way ticket, packed up my husband and two kids, and here I am!
As is the case with many expats, we thought we’d stay a couple of years, but that was before realizing we had moved to the land of opportunity, if you like challenges. On a personal level, Dubai is a great place for families, and it allows my kids to grow in a multicultural environment, which is absolutely amazing.
What has been the most striking difference between the way that hoteliers operate in the Middle East and the way you’ve seen them operate in Europe or elsewhere?
I came to Dubai in 2005, in the golden age when the full focus was on offering guests an unforgettable experience. After the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the aim is still the same, but hoteliers are most cost-conscious than they used to be.
Another major difference relates to owners: most of the time, owners are real estate or holding companies in Europe. In the Middle East, hotels tend to be owned by an individual, who of course does it for the investment, but is much more visible and hands on.
In our previous reports, our data shows that the MEA region tends to have shorter booking lead times. What do you think drives that?
I would say that the main reason is cultural: planning is not the forte of the region. Many weekend travelers decide their breaks at the last minute and either book on the way, or once they actually get to the hotel, as a walk-in.
Business is more dynamic than ever with the opportunities from electronic distribution. On the other hand, geopolitics mean that travelers are sometimes on a wait-and-see mode before booking their trip, for both inbound and outbound travel.
According to Phocuswright’s Middle Eastern Online Travel Overview, the UAE dominates the Middle Eastern travel market, accounting for nearly half of the region’s gross bookings and 60% of its online sales. Have you seen this either increase, or change over the last few years?
The UAE will certainly continue to drive the online growth of travel.
In the Middle East, and the UAE in particular, it is very much a ‘mobile-first’ if not straight up ‘mobile-only’ market, but the region is also known for having a huge amount of offline bookings. Why this dichotomy?
Well, for search, mobile is certainly predominant. In regards to bookings, things are quite different with a large proportion of them being offline, and those online bookings being made through Online Travel Agencies (OTAs).
Airlines have been much more successful with online bookings.The key here is probably the lack of confidence or simply the poor mobile sites offered by many independent hotels. This is certainly evolving, and I am quite curious to see by how much this has changed in the next edition of Phocuswright Middle Eastern Online Travel Overview.
Interested in seeing more insights from the Middle East and Africa? We’ve got spring travel trends in our latest Global Travel Insights Report, get it here.
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