ASTANA – Philippe Mahuas is at the helm of operations of the newest luxury hotel in Astana. The long-awaited opening of the Marriott is welcome news for residents and guests of the capital. Mahuas sat down with The Astana Times for an exclusive interview to discuss the company’s plans in Kazakhstan.
How long have you been in Kazakhstan?
I’ve worked on the project for almost two years. I started working on the project in October 2012, but I moved to Astana in the middle of July last year. But before then, I had visited a few times, first with my family to understand the city before committing to move here for two, three, four or maybe even five years. Then I had regular business visits that were aimed at monitoring the progress of the project. They concerned the first phase of recruitment, making sure that we’re establishing relationships with potential suppliers and that we understand the city and how it works.
What are your impressions of Astana?
So far, so good. Actually, I’m very happy. It’s always exciting to move somewhere new. I’ve been away from home for almost 30 years. I’m a French citizen by birth but I moved from France for the first time in 1986, so for 28 years, I’ve been living abroad. When I first came here, I did not know Astana. I knew of Kazakhstan, I knew it was a big country. I knew of President [Nursultan] Nazarbayev of course, as well as of one of your sports ambassadors, [cyclist Alexander] Vinokourov. I knew of him as a cyclist, not as the boss of the Astana team like he is now. He has done a lot in putting Kazakhstan on the map. I knew it was very cold in the winter and very hot in the summer. But I can’t change that, you can’t change that, we just wear warm clothes, that’s it. So far so good, it’s an exciting city. It’s a vibrant city with a youthful feel.
Who is your main target group?
In terms of clients, the entities that we will be serving the most are corporations. This is for two reasons: we are located in the capital and Astana has a strong presence in many fields, whether its oil and gas, finance, etc. I feel that we will be dealing with customers involved in these fields for the most part. I feel that EXPO 2017 is quite far ahead in the future, but yet again, very, very soon and that the exhibition will be driving business not only during its operations. I think that since Astana won the bid for EXPO 2017, work with different countries has picked up visibly, especially with energy and environmental associations. One could say that Expo 2017 has already started. I think corporations have already been doing a lot of work related to EXPO. The other type of organisation we will be working with will be embassies. Being Marriott, being a large international hotel company, we have an international presence in most countries; we have over 4,000 properties ranging from our Courtyard brand all the way to Ritz-Carlton. This gives us an edge against our competition; people will recognise us as a hotel. Embassies, the government and various ministries will be definitely one of the markets that we will serve.
The rest will be just what we call one-shot events, whether they are regular events related to government, i.e. the Astana Economic Forum each year at the end of May, or events similar to the one which took place at the beginning of May, put on by the Asian Development Bank. We will also service the UEFA Congress in March. There are a lot of events that are taking place in Astana; there are an increasing number of events taking place each year in terms of congresses, meetings and sports. I think Astana is positioning itself as a leading destination in terms of sports; the number of ice hockey clubs,wrestlers, footballers, etc., here is growing too. These are our main segments. There will obviously be individual clients that just want to stay in a Marriott hotel for a weekend. They will come to have dinner and eat in Aroma or Vista on the 27th floor. These, I would say are our biggest segments.
What makes you different from the competition?
Yes, we have competition. I think we are very clear about who our competitors are. What makes us different? I think it’s the brand. As Marriott, we are one of the leading companies in the world, which helps us position ourselves. When travellers look at renting a room in Astana, they will see Marriott and think “Ah, there is a Marriott!” So I think the Marriott name is important. I also believe Marriott’s presence helps further put Astana on the map; it’s a give and take relationship between both us and the city in my opinion. I would say our brand is an asset, the values that our brand carries, such as high quality service and attention to detail, as well as the facilities we provide.
Our Marriott rewards loyalty programme is again a leader in its field, if not the leading programme in the world of hotel loyalty programmes. Our location in the new part of the city, the hotel’s easy access to the airport and close proximity to government ministries, which are on the left bank of the river are what make us competitive. We will seek to work with various business centres, oil and gas consortiums such as NCOC or CPC, and others, which also gives us an edge. We are the only hotel in Astana with an executive lounge, an environment for clients staying on the executive floor.
And, last but not least, I think our team, our people will give us an edge.
This isn’t the only Marriott in Kazakhstan; do you have plans to expand into other cities?
In new cities, for the time being, no. We are already represented with two Renaissance hotels in Atyrau and Aktau. We have a Marriott executive apartment in Atyrau, we have a Ritz-Carlton that opened in October last year in Almaty and then there is [here] which opened in early August. And we have the Ritz-Carlton due to open most likely in 2017. At this stage, based on my knowledge, there is no further development plans for Kazakhstan. But I believe with cities like Karaganda and Shymkent, why not in the future? These are corporate decisions that are made between the company and local investors.
Do you have anything else to add?
I would just like to say that we are delighted to be opening a Marriott in Astana. Like I previously mentioned, I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for us as a company to position ourselves in the new capital. I think it is important for the company to be located in all capitals of the world and to be associated with a city like Astana and the vision of the President. The 2020 plan is almost complete. The President’s plan lasts until 2050, so we have very much a long-term vision and I think it is important to be part of the project Astana truly is. The city is still young, the city is big, not in size, but rather because people are speaking about it everywhere I turn. Ten years ago, if I had spoken of Astana, people would be like “what]?” And now people know.
People associate Astana with events, with strength, with the capital, with sport, with Expo 2017. We are delighted to be here and I think we are helping Astana put itself on the map with being the newest hotel in the city and in offering a new style and different location. Hosting two restaurants like Aroma, which will be our all-day dining room, where you can see our Marriott breakfast and our selection of grills, fish and meat as well as a lot of French-oriented dishes (our executive chef is French) will make us a notable dining location. In the next few weeks, we will be opening Vista Bar and Lounge on the 27th floor, which offers great views of the city. We will be serving what I would say classifies as “East meets West.” So that means Asian-influenced cuisine in small portions that is easier to share when people are travelling together.
It’s an exciting time and we’re looking forward to a successful relationship with the city.