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Red Sea Global's strong presence at the Arabian Travel Market allowed us to catch up with Tony Coveney, general manager for two Marriott island properties.


Red Sea Global's strong presence at the Arabian Travel Market allowed us to catch up with Tony Coveney, general manager for two Marriott island properties.

Category: Middle East - Saudi Arabia - Industry economy - Careers - Hotel opening Recruitment / Job / Training - Interviews
Interview made by Sonia Taourghi on 2024-05-23

Tony Coveney at the Arabian Travel Market in front of Nujuma, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve

Tony Coveney at the Arabian Travel Market in front of Nujuma, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve
Photo credit © Sonia Taourghi / Journal des Palaces

Tony Coveney is an artist. How has this creative mind climbed luxury hospitality's echelons to now being the multi-property general manager for The St. Regis Red Sea Resort and Nujuma, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve? When you meet Tony, his charm, openness and genuine passion for service and excellence clearly stand out as the founding grounds for his 25 years of experience in luxury hospitality. An Irish native from Cork, Tony Coveney still remembers spending time in a hotel to watch the St Patrick's parade; a treat for the family of nine that could only afford to go camping. These are stories of tight knight families that create a sense of togetherness, community, sharing, and caring, with a house always full, and Tony being the designated cook. Something was definitely brewing.

So, when the young artist, who had secured a place at a prestigious Art College, needed to settle doubts about his future, his mom had the wiser words. "Tony, do whatever you feel makes you happy. If you want my advice, though, go into a business that involves people and communication". Because moms know best, that's what ended up happening. The constant chaos of a family house seems farfetched from the expectations of luxury hospitality, and Tony admits that his attention to order, aesthetics, and being so particular about every detail pushed him towards luxury hospitality specifically. A hotelier was born. From a BA in Hotel & Catering Management, Tony Coveney went on to have 14 successful years at Four Seasons, culminating with the management of the Fours Seasons Riyadh. Joining Ritz-Carlton in 2019, he managed hotels in Kazakhstan and Moscow, before taking on the management of the two properties in Saudi Arabia.
Through our seat down during the Arabian Travel Market, he revisits his journey, shares the extent of his experience, what it is like to lead properties in the new hot spot that is Saudi Arabia's Red Sea, and what to expect from the up-and-coming area.†

How did you start your luxury hospitality journey?

My first job in a Michelin-Star restaurant taught me how to dress in the morning, how to set a table nicely, and the sort of courtesies and language you need to use around wealthy customers and people with high expectations.†
The day-to-day pursuit of excellence really started when I started working. I think you have to do to learn rather than just read to master a skill.† My first kind of international career move was to join Four Seasons, when we opened in Dublin in 2001. I joined just after the opening in the Sales team. I had a little bit of operational experience leading up to that and wanted to understand the broader tourism product that we had in Ireland but also abroad, so I travelled through the UK and America, meeting all sorts of customers.
That gives you a good perspective on what the expectations of customers are and how to fulfill those. Because I always wanted to be a General Manager though, I had to make a transition to operations, so I moved to being front office manager. I knew absolutely nothing, and I had all these really competent receptionists around me who knew how to do everything on the computer. I had to immerse myself in the technical side of the job and had lots of failures along the way.† Fortunately, I had a very supportive team around me.†

You had interesting moves throughout your career. How did they shape you?

I spent the first 10 years of my career in Dublin at the Four Seasons, during which time I also got married and went on to have three sons. Although it worked well for us, I felt that if I was to realise my potential as a hotelier, I'd need to travel and see the world, so I accepted a transfer to the Four Seasons in Sydney, which at the time was the biggest Four Seasons in the portfolio as Director of rooms. It was a monster of a machine, and it taught me a lot about planning and being organised, also having a reliable team and very good communication.
Two years on, I had the opportunity to move to Riyadh for the first time, as hotel manager for the Four Seasons Riyadh. It was a bit of a culture shock at the beginning; we had 750 staff, and probably 99% were Arabs from the region. They embraced us as a family though, and at the same time, it helped me realise that Iím quite an adaptable person, fairly open-minded. That is possibly the Irish blood in me. We tend to get on with people; it's a skill that is often underestimated, the ability to get on with people and not hold grudges or prejudge people. That stood me well over time.†
Interestingly, Saudi Vision 2030 was launched in my hotel way back in 2017, and I still remember the PowerPoint presentation. I didn't know then how invested in the project I would become.

How did this period influence your life?

At that point, I was well into my career and looking at two things: after 15 years in the same company, seeing different perspectives, and moving to a more familiar environment. I ended up accepting a General Manager role at the Ritz-Carlton Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan! A place I knew nothing about, with a very strong culture. Maybe I like to go to places where Iím very much out of my comfort zone. I went from a climate that was like plus 30, plus 40 to minus 40 degrees, left my family behind this time, and eight months in, the pandemic hit.
My family has always said that Iím the ultimate optimist, and on balance, it is a good thing. Iíve had a few harsh lessons in life as well, and you come back stronger. It was a very creative time in my life, just trying to keep the business alive and look after everybody. We talk about genuine care a lot and certainly during that time we took care of each other, and it was very important. We didnít make any redundancies, and then eventually the borders reopened, with this kind of revenge travel from the people. As a reward for my resilience, I was sent to Moscow to open the Ritz-Carlton there in the fall of 2021. It is a fabulous city. Unfortunately, five months later, the conflict started, and I had to leaveÖ

How did your multi-property journey come by?†

Since I had worked in Saudi before, and was part of a lot of the transformations that have happened, the leadership thought I'd be a good fit. To come back, actually bring an entire team together, and see it through is quite rewarding. The human component is amazing. We now have almost 500 staff on two islands, and another hundred to go, along with a third project coming, which is going to add another 300 or 400 people in the area.

In your opinion, what sets the Red Sea aside?

If you are trying to create a legacy, and want to leave a mark somewhere, then come to the Red Sea, as you are going to leave a mark here. It might be two or three years, but for any inspiring hotel manager or general manager, you have to put these building blocks into your career along the way. When you look at somebody's CV and you see that they have done some challenging things, you are much more likely to want to work with that person because you know theyíve come through some adversity. And they came out the other side intact.
Like every country that is going through a transformation, itís the young people that are leading the way. Itís a very easy place to work nowadays.
It is an adjustment at first for everyone, both the international communities and the locals are coming together well.†

How are you able to maintain the heritage while expanding?

I would never like it to get to a place where you donít feel like youíre in Saudi Arabia, or you donít feel like youíre in an Islamic culture. I would hate it for it to become generic. No more than I would have when I was in Kazakhstan or Australia or any of the countries I lived in. It is important to have a sense of identity. I think this is where the balancing act is being very well navigated by the government.†

What's been your recruitment strategy for the area?†

It is interesting how recruitment happens as once you get one or two really strong leaders to join you, people follow them and then momentum ensues. Before we know, you have a fantastic leadership team together. That's what happened for St Regis Red Sea and Nujuma, Ritz-Carlton.
We then started scouting for local talent and visited some of the colleges. Most of our Saudi talent has come from the universities or the educational institutions. There is a particular college in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), Bunyan Academy, launched three years ago and co-sponsored by the Ecole HŰteliŤre de Lausanne. It is a two-year program including English language skills, followed by technical skills. It is all very vocational, it is not a masterís in hospitality, but more about working in front office, housekeeping, culinary management, and engineering faculty also. However, we didnít just go and pick 100 people, we actually spent time with them. We did workshops and working groups around different disciplines, like a culinary class with our chefs. We initially selected 70, and then another 30. Theyíve been amazing, brilliant. They are genuinely excited about being in the hospitality business. Some of them have left other careers to go and do this training to join the hospitality world. Weíve also taken several students from Les Roches. In that case, they tend to be more masterís graduates. Itís a higher level of certification that is still valued a lot here.
Ultimately, itís all about the attitude you can have.

How did you and the wider team adapt your leadership?

Luxury hospitality is tough. Itís about standards and consistency, but also about cultural luxury, and character. Allowing people to be themselves and bring their talents and their character to the job, whilst also getting the basics right. For example, we had to sort of rebrand the butler service so that Saudi talents would embrace it. Nujuma comes from the word "stars", so, we have Najims and Najmas (male and female): they are professional advisors to the customer, mastering their craft, knowing everything that there is to know about the hotel, and sharing that knowledge with the customer. They create such a strong bond that there are a lot of emotions when the guests leave. That is the mark of a successful experience.
Also, I think the best leaders are the ones that study leadership a lot, as there's always something to be learned. In the case of St Regis, we have a house briefing that we do each morning with our team. In the case of Ritz-Carlton, itís daily line-ups that we have with our teams. And it is the same throughout all of our portfolio hotels. And it's consistent: same day, same theme for all hotels. In the same way you have a hygiene routine, it takes consistency to have a strong team culture. You got to take care of people, every day. You have to be on the lookout for people's emotional intelligence and emotional well-being. Somebody might be struggling on a particular day at something, and you must be able to spot it and say: ďHey, are you OK?Ē, without imposing yourself on people. Everybody is giving and receiving, because if you stop giving, you stop receiving. This is our mindset, which I think has been very helpful.
We had to make exceptions to bring harmony to the team: remember that we are two small islands in the Red Sea, which means communities, not just hotels. We have 500 people on staff to look after. A lot of Saudi ladies for example make the decision to leave home for the first time in most cases, and theyíre leaving a large family, travelling up to the island, and they are homesick and struggle to make friends at the beginning. But when we are not working, we are still together. So, when you finish your dayís work, and you still have all these people around you, and youíre eating in the canteen together, and you see the bonds that people start to make.†

As a leader, you must be on the lookout for teamsí mental health, relationships, and things that go on in communities that are on small islands.†

What's your advice to someone looking to pursue a career in luxury hospitality?

You can be as qualified as you like, but if youíre not interested in taking care of people, youíre not going to survive in our business. It comes naturally to some people, some you can teach them, and some people will never know. Those are in the wrong business.
There are always times of adversity, and any aspiring hotelier is going to face hardships: economic cycles that affect you or geopolitical things.† These tough projects build your resilience, your emotional intelligence, and even your wisdom, perhaps.

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About the author

A lover of human interactions, Sonia started her journalism career in various media outlets before moving to London and shifting to the digital industry. Listening to her calling, she's picking up her pen to share the passion and ambitions of luxury hospitality.

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