At the moment, Tangram is only located in two countries. Is that correct?
Yes, there are two Tangram hotels. One is obviously located in Erbil and is our only hotel in the Middle East and North Africa Region. The other is in China. However, things are expanding very rapidly for us as a new hotel brand. There are four more hotels that have been announced which will open in China. There’s another that is planned for the Middle East, and then there are more in the works.
Is the goal to have similar hotels in both regions or to have the Tangram in Erbil as the flagship for expansion in this region and then the Tangram in China as the flagship hotel for that area?
Actually, the second option is more likely. The Tangram concept is pretty straightforward. It’s a smart hotel for business travelers. It’s a lower budget brand that doesn’t have too many luxury facilities, but does provide everything that a business traveler could ask for. However, in order to translate this concept to the Middle East, we still needed some frills. We had to add a few corners instead of cutting them. So, I think the Tangram in Erbil is going to be the flagship or showcase of the Tangram hotels in the Middle East. In other destinations, like Doha, Dubai, or even Cairo, which are perhaps a little more ready for cost-effective hotels, I think our hotels will have a more Tangram-like look. So this hotel stands somewhere in-between. Yes, we want to demonstrate what Tangram is all about, but we also want to represent the demands of the Middle Eastern market.
So, if Tangram is looking to get involved in more established markets, why do you think it chose to begin its work here in Erbil?
Tangram wanted to break into the market in a presentable manner. Erbil presented itself and was really too good to miss. So, we decided to start in Erbil. As a destination, Erbil has great potential. So, I think the choice of the destination was good and I think the timing was good.
When did you begin working as General Manager here at the Tangram?
For the past six years, my focus in the hotel industry has been on opening hotels. I always do pre-opening and then once the hotel is open, I hand it over and go look for another hole in the ground to build. In this case, however, I didn’t. I joined the team when the hotel had already been open for five months. So, I joined about four months ago.
In those five months, do you think all of the wrinkles were ironed out or are there still obstacles that the hotel has to overcome?
Firstly, I should give people the credit they deserve. Out team here did an excellent job opening the hotel. It is a certain type of hotel and it is a brand that not a lot of people are familiar with. So, it was important to establish a brand in the market. However, no hotel opens without some problems. Regardless of the brand or how established it is, there will always be difficulties. I must admit that we still have a few wrinkles to iron out. However, I am happy with that challenge. We have some challenges here operationally, and then we have some challenges with the destination as well. Basically, we’re an undefined brand in an undefined destination, and I think this sums up my main challenge.
So does that then leave it open to you to define the brand?
Yes, and I am afraid that this is both good and bad. I will follow my instincts in order to shape what I think is right. However, I also think it isn’t just up to me. The hotel should always look into the feedback of the market and of the guests. At the same time, it must strictly adhere to our corporate guidelines and standards and procedures. Between these obligations, the actual truth lies. We operate daily, and therefore have to be as flexible as possible. Being the first hotel in a chain, I think we are going to have to learn, and there is a steep learning curve in the region.
We provide everything that a business traveler could ask for.
So, you mentioned the flexibility that’s required. Are there any things that you all have had to adapt to this market?
The Tangram concept is a strict concept. It is a very much help yourself concept. It’s a plug-and-play hotel. We provide an area for you to feel comfortable, to come in and plug in your iPod, iPad, iWhatever, and feel comfortable. The internet is always efficient and fast. There is minimal staff around you and not really the silver, white-gloved sort of service. Bringing this concept to the Middle East and specifically to Erbil, where international hospitality is still being defined, was our number one challenge.
This was also our number one adaptation, because we quickly realized that we could not force this concept on the market. We had to adapt. People here are more laid back; they want to be served. Our guests still want to be able to go to their rooms and have the convenience of room service and a minibar. The original Tangram concept does not offer you that. It instead offers a very efficient, cost effective room. It doesn’t give you all these extra services, and, most importantly, it doesn’t charge you for them. So, you don’t get charged for extra attendants or for operating overhead.
So, by removing the luxury amenities, you can then reduce the prices for the consumers?
Yes, and for that reason we don’t even have a pool. Our statistics show that the average length of stay of our target market, the business travelers, is 1.2 to 2.2 nights. So, if you’re staying for one or two nights and you’re staying for business, you probably don’t have time to see if there’s even a pool at the hotel. However, that guest is still, somehow, paying for the hotel having a pool. They have to pay for me to photograph the pool, stick it on a brochure, and then shove it in their face. Somehow, someway, they’re paying for that. Tangram doesn’t give you that. It gives you a very efficient room in a very efficient hotel. Smart. Straightforward. In the Middle East, this can be seen as a little bit hostile. The mentality is a still, “I want to be served.” The foreign traveler coming to the Middle East and being accustomed to the hotels in Beirut, Cairo, or Dubai, is used to a certain level of service in this region. This is an undeniable fact. So, we have to stand somewhere in-between.
So, with competition coming in, is there a desire to establish the idea of Tangram now in preparation for those later arrivals?
It is very important to establish the Tangram brand now in Erbil. However, to establish the basic concept of the hotel, I think that we need some time. We can do this more easily in more mature markets where there are established and defined classes of hotels: the three, four, and five star hotels, as well as the budget providers. If you think about it, the first international budget hotel was Easy Hotel and it was a big deal! Not because of the price, but because no one knew about a hotel like that. Now, those markets are mature enough to accept that kind of idea. The seven-star luxury Emirates Palace and the Easy Hotel brand are both now accepted by the public. This ranking system is not yet quite clear here in Erbil, so I don’t think the Tangram brand, the real concept, can be established here. Not right now, at least. For now, we want to complement the market and see what exactly it wants, and then try to offer that within our standards.
To go back to an earlier point you made about finding things that are necessary, like a larger business center instead of a pool. It seems like it’s a decision born out of logic rather than superficial niceties. It seems to me that that’s also how 360 Club came to be. Is that fair to say?
Sure. 360 Club is the only outlet that exists in this hotel that isn’t actually necessary. We don’t fundamentally need it as a function to serve our business guests. However, we had this rooftop area on the twelfth floor and it was supposed to be a restaurant of some kind. However, for the purposes of our hotel, we didn’t need to have seven or eight themed restaurants, because, again, that wasn’t something we figured our guests needed. So, we had this space and we thought of renting it out, but that didn’t really fit what we wanted. Meanwhile, we had this fabulous Colombian band that was performing in our lobby. So we just decided to send them upstairs and see how it would work. Over time, the area evolved into more of a bar area than a restaurant. I mean, as of the second day, it started to boom, and I think I know why. 360 is the youngest and newest nightspot in Erbil, and people in the Middle East always like to try something new. Then there’s the fact that we keep the entire place very, very clean. We go by the book, by the rules, by the laws. We enforce age restrictions and really try to keep it available only for couples or mixed groups. It’s very difficult to maintain these rules here in this destination. So, we go through a lot of trouble in order to keep it fun, clean, and clear. I think these two things were key to 360’s success. People liked it and they flocked to it. Salsa music is not something that exists in Erbil yet, so it was a novelty. In my opinion, if you manage to get novel ideas to spread, then they eventually win out; 360 seems to be a winner.
So, who would you say are Tangram’s target customers?
Anyone who will appreciate our concept, and certainly business travelers in particular. We are not catering to leisure travelers at all. We offer the services that we see as fundamental. We have one of the biggest, most beautiful gyms in Erbil. However, I don’t consider it a leisure facility: I consider it an essential component of a business hotel. You have to have a bed, you have to have a bathroom, and you have to have a gym. Most likely, business travelers won’t need to experience luxury dining areas, but they will need to use the gym. So, 100% my target market is business travelers from within the Middle East and from Europe or the U.S. as well.