Maria Bou Eid is one of a new wave of women leading hotels in Saudi Arabia, an exciting time as the Kingdom is in the midst of Saudi Vision 2030, a massive economic development program designed to diversify away from fossil fuels with the aim to make tourism account for 10 percent of the GDP by 2030.
A hospitality professional who joined the industry over 15 years ago after getting a degree in hotel management, Maria has held a range of roles with small, family businesses as well as big hospitality chains in Lebanon, Qatar, and the Gulf. In her current role with Kerten Hospitality, as General Manager of The House Hotel Jeddah City Yard, Maria oversees the organization’s lifestyle destination, which includes a 114-room hotel and 14 food and beverage outlets, and has become a hub for the community since its opening in September 2021. A key player in a league of women elevating each other and the hospitality space in Saudi Arabia, we chat with Maria about her fascinating career and the shifting role of women in the Gulf.
When you were a girl in Lebanon, was it expected that women would go to college and have careers outside of the home? Did your mom work outside the family home?
Lebanon is a very multicultural country that has different people and cultures who have different perceptions and beliefs. A woman's contribution to the socio-economic landscape was based on her family's expectations. There were two viewpoints on this: on one side of the spectrum would be those who expect women to be equal to any other man in society and on the other, would be those who expect her to be a housewife raising the future generations, which is an amazing responsibility.
I was lucky to be raised in such a diverse community and to have the chance to choose whether I wanted to have a career outside of the family nest or not. Thanks to my family I have received the best education with my parents ensuring that I become independent and educated. And yes, my mom was a role model and she used to work.
What drew you to hospitality and when did you realize you wanted hotel management to be your career?
It’s a story I like to share: I grew up in hotels. Since I was a little girl and for as far as I can remember, I was living in hotels with my family. Like father like daughter. My father was in the hospitality business too. Being a live-in GM, we used to move from one property to another whenever he had a new opportunity. So, hospitality was a big part of my life growing up. After graduating from high school, hospitality was the only major I wanted to pursue. And this is how it all started. I enrolled in a hospitality management program and started side jobs in parallel to my studies. I had a chance to learn a lot and gained experience everywhere and from everyone I could.
Do you think hospitality is a ‘gene’ or it can be learned?
This is a common question, and I always have the same answer: hospitality is PASSION! It comes as a built-in option in people. Either they have it or they don’t. Theories and principles can be taught in universities, schools, or institutions but dedication, commitment, and excitement cannot be learned. You must love hospitality to succeed. It’s not just a job, it’s a calling. You become part of a journey. Caring for guest satisfaction will not be a simple tick in the box on your checklist but it will become your main motivational tool.
Hospitality is not just a job, it’s a calling. You become part of a journey. Caring for guest satisfaction will not be a simple tick in the box on your checklist but it will become your main motivational tool.
After graduating from university in hotel management in Lebanon, some years later, you went back for your MBA, why?
I never wanted to stop learning. From the moment I graduated, I was planning just to continue but then my mentor/coach at the university looked at me and said: “Maria, if you do not indulge and dive into real-world experiences, make mistakes, learn and improve, higher education degrees will not do you any good.” So, I was convinced and actually did what he recommended and I simply gave myself into the world of hospitality until I found myself ready to go back to get my MBA. I was dreaming of traveling but it was not possible at that time, so I chose ESA-ESCP Europe based in Beirut. And the funny thing was that I was pregnant and still did not allow that to stand in my way nor detour me from my plan.
You’ve moved around a bit, from Lebanon to Qatar and now Saudi Arabia. Why and how has this helped your career?
Since I graduated, I wanted to travel but as stated before, I never had the chance.
Moving to Qatar was frankly an opportunity rather that an exploration. I was working with Minor Hotels in Beirut and they offered me to move for a mission in Doha which I embraced instantly because I knew it will be an open door for other challenges and endeavors I was already looking for.
Moving to Qatar helped my career by introducing me to another market, other ways of doing things, new people, a new country, and many new experiences. Every hotelier quickly learns that the hospitality world is dynamic and slightly nomadic. It actually can feel quite small as you may encounter the same people you have worked with on the other side of the universe just by chance. But we all also know that within this small world is an infinity of opportunities where you can learn something new every day.
I’ve never been to the Gulf region, tell me about what is happening with the women in Saudi Arabia? Since 2017 when Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) became Crown Prince, he has lifted many restrictions on women in an effort to modernize the country. Women can now drive, get passports, vote, and many other rights we take for granted in the west. Can you explain a bit about what is happening?
In a few simple words: Saudi men have a new challenge called “Saudi Women”!
Saudi men have a new competitor, more eager, motivated, committed, and not willing to give up. And women will do it better just to prove that they are worthy of the trust of Prince Salman, who is creating an amazing cultural environment built on mutual respect and healthy competition.
Saudi men have a new challenge called “Saudi Women”! Saudi men have a new competitor, more eager, motivated, committed, and not willing to give up.
Do you see hospitality as a good career option for women in the Middle East?
Any career option for women in the Middle East is a good option. I respectfully refuse the fact of categorizing careers by gender. I truly believe there is no career both genders cannot do except if it is biologically or physically impossible. Frankly, I doubt the idea of impossible jobs.
As far as tourism is concerned, the Kingdom hopes to attract 100 million visitors as part of Vision 2030, and has a number of massive projects planned around the country. How does Jeddah fit into this scheme?
I think Jeddah is a very important destination with an amazing geographical location. It connects you to the key giga-projects destinations so people will have to stay in Jeddah. Not to mention that this city itself (or even the entire Makkah Province) has an incredible religious and cultural history which Saudis are very proud of and consider a gem, as the sea is also just one step away. I am sure that Jeddah will have its share of successful projects supporting #vision2030.
Where are most travelers from today and do you think Saudi will attract more international visitors as these projects come to life?
From everywhere. Saudi Arabia was and will continue to be the heart of religious pilgrimage destinations. With the Saudi Vision 2030 and all the changes that are taking place, more travelers are curious to come and see what is happening and the transformation of the country. Saudi Arabia was a hidden gem and now it’s time to reveal its value, its amazing natural beauty, its epic history, and the cultural stories behind every city. Hospitality projects are just a further attraction to complete the journey of those travelers willing and eager to visit.
What is the partnership you have with Jeddah’s Effat University?
This collaboration is another way to support the community and give back to society. It is a partnership that aims to encourage Saudi talents to put themselves out into hospitality with confidence knowing someone is there to take them by their hand even if they make mistakes. It stems from our belief in Saudi Vision 2030 and the value it brings to all and the Saudi tourism market. Who is better to create the local hospitality experience for the locals than the locals themselves? This partnership is very valuable to us.
Your hotel is also supportive of female entrepreneurs?
Yes, this is another pillar of Kerten Hospitality's vision to support entrepreneurship. For instance, our newly launched Premium Gelato Concept “Nakhati” is now entering Riyadh with the purpose to create business opportunities for women. It is a concept that is operated, curated, served, and managed only by women. But again to make it clear we do that genuinely and not intentionally. We believe in gender equity, and inclusivity and not just empowering women over men.
You are also part of a networking and women’s organization, G100, and the Chairwoman for the group in Saudi, tell me about that and what you hope to achieve for women?
I hope I can invite many successful Saudi and non-Saudis women into the G100 Organization to support other women in other cultures, businesses and countries. G100s aim is to help women believe in themselves and pursue their dreams and execute their plans on all levels whether personal or professional. And finally, to build a gender-equal future for all.
Who has inspired you in your career and have you had mentors?
My father is my role model. He was a Hotelier and I guess I inherited the hospitality ‘gene’ from him. In every experience I have had, there has been a mentor for me to learn from. It would be unfair to name just one mentor who has helped me grow in my career.
What challenges have you faced as a woman and how did you work through them?
I like to think that the challenges I've faced are not because I am a woman but because I was learning along the way. Yes, I encountered some men-obstacles who treated me differently due to my gender and made my life harder but I chose to simply ignore them. On the other hand, most of my mentors were men, supportive, positive pushers, and made me who I am today.
Everyone says challenges make us stronger; and though this adage is a cliché, it still holds true. When we fall we become more agile and more proactive rather than reactive. Roadblocks come in two forms – the people we meet and the operational situations we encounter. I can say that the most valuable lesson I have learned, in both, is to anticipate things before they happen because not everything is as it seems; it is important to be ready to act the right way at the right time.
Congrats on recently being named the best boutique hotel by Conde Nast Traveler! You’ve only been open since September of 2021, not even a year, what a great achievement. Tell us about the hotel and how you’ve gotten your team up and running so fast.
The House Hotel Jeddah City Yard is a beautiful lifestyle destination, the first of its kind in Jeddah. What makes this property a standout are all the different stories behind every single piece of furniture, piece of art, and design. The architect, Saudi native, Ayman AlMehmadi had this amazing vision of combining the historical and cultural spirit of Al Balad with a modern touch. Thus, he created a te low-rise building and the soul of the property you feel as soon as you step in.
As for the team, we tried our best to select the young generation with a strive to move forward. And I guess they just picked up Kerten’s DNA all the way. Maybe because we do not work by standards but rather by guidelines that are easier to process and believe in. Providing them with a friendly, understanding, empowering, appreciative, flexible, upskilling, and curative work environment. We trusted them with a space to spread their wings and allow them to understand and engage in what they are doing, and they will fly so high. Saying “Thank you”, “great job”, ‘keep it going”, “proud of you”, and “It’s ok this happened, you will do better next time”… it’s about coaching rather than teaching and training.
What is your leadership style?
I do not have a particular style. I usually adapt to the person I am dealing with. The most cliché thing to say is to be a leader, not a boss. But if I chose one sentence, it would be that I try to influence through empowering my team and giving them ownership. To own it and live it. To walk the talk and believe in it.
Wow, 14 different F&B outlets for a 114-room hotel, that is quite a buffet of choice. How did you come up with so many different concepts? Is the hotel becoming a hub for the local community?
The owners and the operator had one common vision to have a curated plaza with hand-selected brands offering unique local shops, culture, and dining experiences, many having young Saudi entrepreneurs behind them. They were very careful in choosing the partners they would want onboard. It worked, the hotel is a hub for the local community, and now exceeding business plans and footfall, it is truly the area's first lifestyle destination, everyone wants to come and spend time here.
How is business at the hotel so far?
Business is great, we have already built an amazing reputation. We have a fantastic Saudi team who are the pride of local authentic hospitality in Jeddah, busy creating loyal guests.
For other newbies like me, what is your top travel tip for women traveling to the Middle East?
Come and enjoy it! Do not overthink it, be yourself, and make it count in every step you take. You are not different from any other person.
What are the best three traditional foods to eat in Saudi?
Kabse, an Arabic chicken with rice, and Gouzi, a stuffed lamb dish, are both amazing, and Moufattah, a delicious rice pudding with Tumeric.
For a first-time visitor to Saudi, what cities or places should we not miss?
Jeddah (Al Balad- Corniche – The House Hotel 😊)
Riyadh (Boulevard – Dirriya)
Al Ulah – Khobar (Corniche)
Makkah & Madinah (Religious Tourism)