AWARD-WINNING hospitality hotshot Charbel Hanna has made another major step up the career ladder after being appointed deputy general manager of one of Bahrain’s premier five-star properties.
The Gulf Hotel Bahrain Convention & Spa may be celebrating its 50th anniversary but is clearly looking to the future with its ‘dream team’ appointment. Charbel works alongside dynamic GM Fares Yactine.
Both, incidentally, left the company and have made a ‘welcome return to the family’ in more senior positions and, Charbel, who started his hospitality career washing dishes, is ‘delighted’ to be playing a significant role in the battle to woo guests and diners in a highly-competitive sector.
“Whatever we do, we have to focus on how to make each and every customer happy and satisfied every single time they visit,” he said. “The game has changed. In days gone by, people often had to adapt to what we offered and how we did things … but not anymore. Nowadays, we have to continually adapt to what our customers’ desire and expect. They want to feel that we are a ‘home from home’ and that is what we must deliver.”
Charbel, 39, knew the strengths and challenges when he returned as executive assistant manager in 2017 following a five-year spell as director of food & beverage (F&B) at another property on the island. Before that he had spent four years as Gulf Hotel’s F&B manager.
Such heady senior hospitality heights were a long way from where it all started for the Bahraini of Lebanese descent and it’s a story that goes back to his early childhood.
Living in a village in the mountainous region of Akkar, he lost his father, Anthony, at the tender age of five and his mother, Hanneh, was left caring for him and his baby sister, Rania.
Known for her excellent cooking skills, to make ends meet she started supplying local restaurants and families with her ‘home food’ favourites.
Charbel always thought his beloved mum was good enough to cook at the very best restaurants and hotels and that first impression never really left his mind. When he finished high school he knew where his heart’s desire lay.
His mother wasn’t sure if it was the correct career choice and even tried to put him off but he was determined and managed to secure a place at a catering college and faced having to find part of the fees to cover the course.
Summer jobs were hard to find and the only one he managed to secure was cleaning the dishes in the restaurant of a private club.
“I had to wash all the plates and cups. I had no issue with that. This is how it went,” he said. “But one month later, someone left, and I got lucky, they moved me to the grill making burgers, so I was promoted for the first time!”
He worked every summer at the grill and when he graduated he took on the position full time to earn money whilst he looked for the first step on the hotel hospitality ladder.
An opening came when news broke that the Metropolitan Palace Hotel was going to open in Beirut and he chanced his luck by applying for a supervisory role.
It was summer time round the pool and the place was heaving with hungry folk wanting their burgers and, as he was dripping with sweat behind the grill in a cabin that didn’t even boast an AC, a call came through from the hotel.
He put on his best shirt and went for the interview. “We have a waiter’s position available, I was told. You have to start somewhere. It’s up to you if you want to take up the challenge,” recalled Charbel.
“I didn’t want time to think about it, I knew what people would say, ‘you’re a college graduate, why would you take such a position? But I said ‘yes’ on the spot.
“This is how it started. It was like seven months before I was promoted to the captain’s job (head waiter). Then I was always asking, what would be the best way to move faster career-wise.”
But life is never that simple. He was told by an assistant F&B manager that the best course was through a management training scheme. A less than helpful HR department told him there was little chance because the company no longer ran the programme.
A confrontation with a pretty and recently promoted F&B development manager didn’t improve his mood when she asked him for advice and suggestions to how to improve the operation and he made his unhappiness clearly obvious.
A call came from Walter Wouters, the director of operations – a tough, no comprise, sharp and strong-minded character. Charbel always admired him from a distance but trembled when he was suddenly summoned to his office.
Charbel expected to be shown the door and was surprised when Walter’s normally Rottweiler of a secretary was warm and friendly. The big boss even listened to his story.
Instead of having his employment terminated Charbel was offered management training … with terms and conditions applied. “Listen to me,” he was told, “‘you have to be like the camel.”
Charbel didn’t get the hump.
“I like you, I like your character, I like your personality and I will give you this opportunity,” Walter said. “Being a camel means that you will work hard and it means that you will not reach your goal fast.
“Are you willing to work 16 hours a day?” he added. “I said ‘yes’,” replied Charbel.
“Are you willing to wear a suit during the day and in the evening, when I call you and say I need you to be the captain or the waiter - will you be ready and willing?” Walter asked.
“I told him ‘yes’,” said Charbel.
And, Walter finished with the question: “And, if needed, are you willing to wash the plates?”
Charbel replied: “Yes, I’ve cleaned them before!”
Fast forward to today in Bahrain, he knows all aspects of the sector and is determined to concentrate on bringing the team on board with the Gulf Hotel’s vision for the future.
“In my life, in my career, I have always focussed on my goal,” he said. “I know what I need to do and how to achieve it. I really appreciate the company’s acknowledgment and their trust in my ability.
“It is a trust thing, and I will ensure that I will fulfil their expectations. I see it as an opportunity to continue to improve things as well as to improve myself.
“But you can’t make improvements if you don’t have the right people, the right mind-set and the right culture around you. They are the ones that make a difference – and the team remains very committed.”
Like Fares, he knows the Gulf Hotel’s ace card is that people living in Bahrain have an emotional attachment to the property and the task is to ensure every day the workforce remains focused on creating more happy memories for new and regular guests and visitors.
Fares says he is delighted for his right-hand man and that he ‘thoroughly deserved’ the promotion.
Only last year Charbel received the inaugural CEO’s Award at the Gulf Hotels Group annual staff party, a new recognition programme launched by the Gulf Hotels Group’s chief executive officer, Garfield Jones.
The award has been introduced to recognise one employee each year, at any level of the company, in any hotel or division, who has made an outstanding contribution towards the success of the company.
Garfield said although there were many worthy recipients for the inaugural award Charbel was the ‘standout nominee’ and that he was also ‘instrumental’ in the Gulf Hotel winning a two-year catering contract at Bahrain International Circuit.
The group continues to back its dynamic duo and has invested heavily in refurbishing restaurants, the stunning state-of-the-art ballroom and other facilities ... and the work continues.
Whilst Charbel’s career is riding high, his home-life and passion for horses is proving just as rewarding. Married to Georgette, the couple has two children, Anthony, eight, and Cyrine, six, and live in Barbar. Their five-year-old Arabian mare, Deft, four weeks ago gave birth to a colt called Valentino.
Stanley Louis Szecowka
Editor/Journalist & Blogger, Restaurant & Motors Reviewer, FinTech Writer, Manager, Trainer.
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