Just when Jerusalem was experiencing a peak in tourism, the pandemic hit and it was a game-changer. In a city that relies on foreign tourists (at some hotels more than 90% of all guests), hoteliers had to reinvent themselves and try to convince the Israeli public to vacation in the Holy City instead of Eilat.
And it's not easy. For the past seven years, Rony Timsit has been Inbal Hotel general manager in Jerusalem. He has 38 years of experience, including dealing with past crises, but can't recall one like this.
The Inbal Hotel is privately owned by two families, one residing in Israel, the other in the US. Unlike most Israeli hotels, it is not part of a chain and therefore Timsit’s experience in the role of general manager is different.
"Unlike a chain hotel, where the general manager’s role is mostly operational, at the Inbal, I manage everything from sales to finances. I am in constant contact with the owners’ representatives but the entire responsibility is on me, for better or worse. It demands that I improve from day to day - and that’s not a cliché. I get most of my information about improving service from our guests. "
The Israeli market:
"Currently there’s domestic tourism only. Before the crisis, our hotel operated on 90% foreign tourism of which 75% came from the US. On the one hand, this difficult new challenge forced us - from one day to the next - to work on rebranding a hotel that wasn’t well-known by Israelis. On the other hand, this opened up an opportunity, as we’d already considered it was worthwhile diversifying our guest segmentation.
"We decided to open the hotel before everyone else, in mid-June, in order to maximize visibility. We launched an advertising campaign on Channel 12, something we’d never done before, we worked on marketing content on social networks so that people would know the hotel and understand what stands behind the name ‘Inbal’ which is a deluxe hotel. Our guests today are families and couples aged 35-50 who come in the middle of the week without children. Maybe because the pool has no music or entertainment staff. They find we offer peace and quiet. Jerusalem is one of the world’s tourist destinations. The hotel is located in the city center like an oasis within the tumult of Jerusalem. "
The life itself:
"If there’s one industry that’s been critically affected by the crisis it’s tourism, specifically the hotel industry. But I was mentally prepared for such a situation. Anyone who is an industry veteran has gone through things: wars, military operations and intifadas. On the other hand, this crisis is unlike anything we’d known before. We put about 400 employees on unpaid leave and it was very difficult. We dropped from 90% occupancy to zero. It was like switching an ‘On" button to ‘Off’. Fortunately, we came into the crisis in a solid, orderly state, which lowered stress levels for us. So far, we’ve brought 180 people back from furlough, but when August ends, a large part of those workers will have to be furloughed again. "
"Jerusalem has a hard time attracting and increasing domestic tourism, especially in August, when Israeli vacationers want a seaside holiday where they can hang around the hotel in a bikini. Luckily, we’re full these days thanks to the Israeli need to go on vacation, while travel abroad is shut down, but I can’t say there’s a mad dash. As long as there’s still capacity in Eilat, and hotels in the northern region and Dead Sea aren’t full, there won’t be a tourism boom either for Tel Aviv or Jerusalem."
"You must understand that a hotel room, like an airline seat or a rental car, is a product that is a loss for every day it isn’t sold. But do we cut the price at the last minute? Not a 5-star hotel. At 3-star hotels in Paris and London, you can find ridiculous prices on rooms sold a day ahead of time. At a luxury hotel, that can damage branding. If people knew that two days beforehand, you could get half price, everyone would wait, and that would hurt revenue. Our expenses are different. Opening a room at a 5-star hotel costs more than at a 3-star hotel."
About the Israeli guest:
"That was a big surprise for me. I’d worked at the Dead Sea and Eilat and I know the Israeli market very well. Despite my long tour in hotels abroad, I’m still pleasantly surprised by the Israeli consumer’s knowledge. Israelis are exposed to hotels abroad that are not all-inclusive. They've been to hotels in Paris, London and New York, where you don’t have the expansive breakfast we know here. This worldliness is expressed in people’s conduct and their appreciation is something I hadn’t experienced before. I like to stand at breakfast and talk to people, to understand what they like and what they don’t like. These days we get great compliments, which should not be taken for granted."
"We have a challenge when it comes to service because, unlike foreign tourists, Israelis hardly leave the hotel. To that end, we’ve expanded our poolside menu service. Fortunately, our dining rooms are spacious and easily meet the (Israeli Health Ministry's) Purple Badge standard.
"The Israeli consumer always haggles over the price. We try to upgrade rooms and pamper those guests who haven’t booked through an agent or another type of broker, but booked directly through us."
What’s happening right now:
"We’ve made changes to adapt to the Israeli customer, for example in food seasoning, in our menus. We introduced the option of ordering a half-board deal. But we haven’t yet decoded the Israeli guest’s DNA completely, as these are meals served to diners, not on the buffet.
"We have currently opened 75% of rooms, to avoid overcrowding. As regards [the upcoming holiday of] Sukkot, it’s unclear whether foreigners will come. As soon as flights resume, things will be confusing because we’ll probably know about it two days before, just like when instructions about pools and gyms were issued at the last minute.
"All of the hotels in Jerusalem have groups booked until the end of next year. The dilemma: should we sell the rooms to Israelis for Sukkot if skies stay closed? This is an industry that risks over-booking in a structured manner, and bases management of cancellations and re-bookings on statistics. There are seasons where orders routinely comprise 180% of actual occupancy, and reality balances that out. It’s an industry with lots of adrenaline."
A marketing maneuver you’re proud of:
"Although the process appeared easy, for us to leave our comfort zone and market the hotel by sponsoring various television programs on Channel 12 was something we’d never done before. It was a risky move because we did it when no one else was advertising, and everyone was taking cover at the height of the coronavirus crisis. We invested lots of money without knowing whether the government restrictions would be tightened and we’d lose it all. To my delight, it was very successful and awareness of our product, which Israelis hadn’t known about, increased. We saw a crazy rise in visits to the hotel website."
A move you’d wish you hadn’t made:
"In this new digital age of advertising via influencers on Instagram and Facebook, you sometimes make mistakes in selecting, hosting, and guiding the personages who are supposed to be our mouthpiece. We were successful with 90% of those people, but for 10%, we would have done it differently."
The Political Aspect
"Apart from partially financing workers' unpaid leave, there is no government assistance due in part to irregularities regarding the size of the hotel. But the issue of unpaid leave itself is problematic. After August, we will work mainly on weekends and people don’t want to come back from furlough just to work three times a week. They tell me, 'The government gives me 80% of the salary promised to me through toJune 2021 and you’re offering me 60%. So, why should I come back', and they’re right. If they would make furlough flexible, that would enable me to pay an employee for three days a week, the National Insurance would supplement their salary, everyone would have fewer expenses, and more income."
The Personal Side
"From the age of 14 I wanted to be a chef but my good French-Jewish parents convinced me that I should be a dentist. I studied dentistry for two years and couldn’t take any more. I define myself as a 'super Zionist'. From the age of 12 I’d wanted to immigrate to Israel from Paris. I made aliya by myself at age 20. To reconnect with Jewish culture, I went to the Center for Jewish Studies and Yeshiva [Machon Meir at Merkaz HaRav Kook Yeshiva] to connect with Hebrew texts and better understand this country. I was not religious; at the yeshiva I wore a kippah and blended in. I studied Hebrew and after a year at yeshiva, I started working in the hotel industry, at the Moriah Hotel and the then-Sheraton Hotel. From there I moved to the Jerusalem Hyatt for 10 years where I rose to VP, from there to the Dead Sea Hyatt as VP, and then another four years as general manager of the Jerusalem Hyatt.
"At the height of the [Second] Intifada, Hyatt decided to exit Israel, and I was offered to run their hotel in Brussels. After two and a half years, I moved to Paris to run the Hyatt Madeleine. When my son enlisted in an elite IDF unit, I returned to Israel. Then, for a period of four years I commuted between Jerusalem and Paris, managing a group of hotels. Seven years ago, I returned to run the Inbal Hotel and have been here ever since.
"The field of hospitality always spoke to me, I wanted to do good for others, and share good times with people and the managerial aspect, of course, and working 80% of the time with people, employees and guests."
"Michel Jauslin one of the directors of the Hyatt chain. He is the best hotelier I know. He was the first general manager of Hyatt Jerusalem and was later appointed Hyatt VP for Western Europe. A model for quiet, kind, pleasant but very focused leadership. He taught me that you don't have to be hard to be good."
- Position: General manager of the Inbal Hotel
- Age: 61
- Residence: Jerusalem
- Marital status: Married + three (Maya 35, Dan 33, Anael 28) and one granddaughter, "My main hobby"
- Hotel staff: 400
- Number of rooms: 331
- Annual turnover: NIS 120 million
- Current price range: NIS 950 to NIS 3,000 per night
- Guest profile: Diverse, 50% most as individual guests, not as part of a group
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 23, 2020 © Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020