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20 April 2014 Last updated
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Michel Noblet's 50 years in the hospitality industry

Michel Pierre Jean Noblet, one of the few people in Dubai to have crossed the 50-year mark in the hospitality industry, talks to Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary about his journey

By Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary, Friday magazine
18 Dec 2012 | 01:53 pm
  • To be successful you must integrate with the local community, says Michel.

    Source:Dennis B. Mallari/ANM Image 1 of 3
  • Michel with Prince Charles and Lady Diana during the couple’s visit to Portugal.

    Source:Supplied picture Image 2 of 3
  • Michel supports a charity called Adopt an Old, which helps elderly people in India live with dignity.

    Source:Supplied picture Image 3 of 3

Fifty years of vacation is how Michel Pierre Jean Noblet, president, CEO and founding partner of Dubai-based Hospitality Management Holdings (HMH) describes his amazing career in the hospitality industry. “When I start my day, I don’t know how it will end. And that’s the beauty of our business. It’s just so unpredictable. A surprise awaits you at every step. But I love every moment of it.”

Michel, 66, has led a truly amazing life where two days are rarely the same. From hosting dinners for top executives of multinational companies, to managing the logistics of the African Summit in a hotel that wasn’t fully functional in Rwanda, to hosting Prince Charles and the late Lady Diana, to overseeing the opening of more than 50 hotels across the world, the French citizen has done it all.

In 2001 he left Le Méridien Hotels and Resorts where he was managing director (Middle East and West Asia) and decided to become an entrepreneur. Passionate about eco-friendly initiatives he believes, “Hospitality and sustainability are inseparable.

“We – Hospitality Management Holdings – are highly concerned with the optimisation of natural resources. And in 2003 we announced the creation of the Middle East’s first alcohol-free hotel chain with Coral Hotels and Resorts. We had barely drawn our breath and we were already set to launch Corp Executive Hotels in 2006, specially designed for corporate travellers. We then rolled out the Middle East’s first ecologically friendly budget chain of hotels with ECOS Hotels. In 2007 we spearheaded the creation of EWA Hotel Apartments.’’

A manager who firmly believes that if the staff are content, the guests will be looked after well, he says, “Ours is a people’s business. If the staff are not happy, they cannot make their customers happy. Technology is the enabler, but it’s people who make the difference.’’

One of his management principles includes lending an ear to your team. “You have to admit you don’t know it all. Every individual has something unique to offer. Listen without reacting.’’ And he should know – over the years he has spent in the UAE he’s mentored and managed thousands of staff and welcomed hundreds of thousands of guests.

“Hospitality is in my blood,” says Michel, recalling the days in the post-Second World War period where he spent every evening as a kid at the Bordeaux Hotel his parents ran in Saint-Gaudens, France. “I remember my mother Odette, who was hugely talented in the intricacies of French cuisine, saying, ‘Hospitality is like show business. You’ve got to pamper and please your guests, seduce them with elaborate floral decorations, good housekeeping, great gourmet, inspiring background music and pay attention to every detail.’’’

Michel went to a hospitality school in Toulouse, France. “I was 16 when I began working in a pastry house in Toulouse in 1962 and three years later joined Café la Paix – a café that has been around for more than a century, and the highlight of the place was its hospitality.’’

From there he moved to prestigious hotels in France including the Reserve de Beaulieu on the French Riviera, then to the UK to the Rubens Palace Hotel on Buckingham Palace Road in London, and finally around the world with Le Méridien group.

“I’ve always been on the lookout for new challenges,’’ says Michel. “Work without passion leads to burn-out. There have been times in my life when I have had to turn the page, but it has always led me to something more exciting and meaningful.’’

Despite spending more than 50 years in the industry, Michel still enjoys it. His philosophy is simple, “Wise leaders are wise followers. It’s important to let your strategy speak to both the head and heart, which means it must be emotional as well as practical.’’

He tells Friday how he spent some of the finest years of his life and what his dreams are.

Work

Hospitality is as much about diplomacy as it is about welcoming people. I spent my childhood in Saint-Gaudens, where I was born. My parents were hoteliers. They ran a 25-room facility called Hotel De Bordeaux, very close to the ocean.

I had the most wonderful childhood growing up with my three siblings – Alain, 70, Dominic, 56, and Catherine, 54. I was very fortunate to have a very caring and positive family environment.

I was sent to a hospitality school in Toulouse, France, where I was studying as well as working after class. After Toulouse, I came to Paris where I joined the Café la Paix, a legendary café. My focus was on developing my skills and working my way to the top. You can say I was bit by the travel bug because I realised I enjoyed visiting new places and meeting different people. Along the way I shifted from catering to the front office and reception, keen to expand my skills, and here I embarked upon the journey of developing myself.

One of the first places that seduced me was Africa and I accepted an assignment to be a hotel manager of Le Méridien Senegal in 1971 and so began the Méridien era where I spent a glorious three decades. In this period I opened at least 55 hotels across Europe, Africa, Asia (including Japan, Singapore, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, India); Asia Pacific (Tahiti, Bora Bora, New Caledonia, Isle of Pines); Australia and the Middle East. It was great fun as I got to see so many cultures.

I learnt a lot during those years: for one, to be successful you must integrate with the local community. You don’t change the community, you adapt yourself to be tolerant, appreciative of the culture and closer to the people. You also need to practise diplomacy and protect the image of your organisation. You need to make it profitable and ensure the hotel will get complete return of investment.

In 1975 I had the opportunity to organise a very special dinner at Le Méridien Paris for the multinational electronics giant Philips Europe. It was attended by the company’s top six executives in the world. Philips booked the entire conference hall, which could accommodate 2,000 people for that evening for just six people! Retro projection screens were set up around the table that was placed in the centre of the room. Behind the screens were 70 technicians. Catering was provided by the famous Gaston Lenotre, the top chef in France. Between each course there was a very special show to entertain those top executives. It turned out to be the most expensive dinner in those days with a cost of $3,000 (Dh11,000) per person.”

A challenging moment was when we were hosting the African Summit in 1979 at the Le Méridien in Rwanda when the hotel was not yet fully operational. The executive team was asked by the government of Rwanda to take care of the logistics for the conference including accommodation, food and travel. The dinner was to be attended by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who was the President of France along with 200 other dignitaries. The challenge was to train the staff who had no prior experience in serving dignitaries. It went very well.

In 1988, I had the honour of welcoming Prince Charles and Lady Diana at the Le Méridien Porto in Portugal. The couple booked the entire floor and stayed at the Royal Suite for a week. I found them to be extremely humble and friendly. Our other guests were absolutely wowed by their presence as was the entire team at the hotel.

To be successful you have to combine the curiosity of a child with the instincts of a businessman. That is what I did when I decided to start my second innings in hospitality in 2003 with HMH, a group that is into building and managing hotels. Our goal was not to build the greatest hotel of all time, but simply to create an experience that offers something different from the status quo, such as alcohol-free hotels, for instance.

Play

As I said, I have been bitten by the travel bug. The more I travel, the more I want to travel. I do not like taking conventional holidays. I have a connection with India as I opened six hotels there and have lived intermittently in India. I found out about this amazing project called Adopt an Old, in the village of Sherkot, district of Bijnore in India from some of my Indian friends about two years ago and travelled there.
I pay a fixed sum every month to the charity, which makes arrangements to take care of the basic needs of elderly people, such as food, medicine, clothing and housing.

Adopt an Old helps these people to live with dignity. Sometimes I give a little more if they require medical expenses such as a cataract operation. For as little as $25 one can take care of an old person in India. During the times I visit them, I often wear the same attire as they do, and live just the way they do and eat exactly the same food they eat.

Dream

One of my dreams is to travel to Lhasa in Tibet. Marco Polo travelled the Silk Route and I would like to do something similar, travel to Lhasa, visit all the countries on the way, go to the Great Wall of China, and see the places I have yet to travel to.

I love golf and want to improve my drive and play more matches. I want to simplify my life, do Tai Chi, eat simple food and modify my life so I require less and less to subsist.

Professionally speaking, in the future we could have hotels for bachelors, only for women, or for athletes. We could live like Tarzan or Batman. Perhaps there could soon be hotels, which are a combination of hotel and hospital where people can recuperate after an operation.

Apart from managing hotels, I also take time out from my schedule to offer a helping hand to people, particularly kids, in need. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing a smile on a child’s face.

By Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary, Friday magazine

By Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary, Friday magazine