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Unleashing Her Potential in the Middle East: Judith Cartwright, Black Coral Consulting

A passionate hospitality professional with an entrepreneurial spirit, Judith Cartwright always knew that her ambition would take her out of her home country, Germany, to pursue challenges and opportunities around the world. Judith’s first venture overseas took her to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina in the US and from there to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with Starwood, and then to Bangkok, Thailand, with fast-growing hospitality company Minor International.

With her reputation for achieving strong results by taking an innovative approach to traditional revenue management, Judith was often approached by recruiters. When the opportunity arose to set up the revenue optimization structure for the iconic Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai, she was intrigued. The property is much more than a hotel, rather a multi-faceted destination with revenue centers ranging from restaurants by celebrity chefs to what is now the largest waterpark in the world. Judith took the post, and once there she rose from The Palm to SVP Global Revenue optimization for Kerzner International, overseeing Atlantis Dubai, Paradise Island, and Sanya as well as being responsible for One&Only and Mazagan Beach Resort, optimizing revenues worth over 1.8B USD across all business units.

In the wake of the pandemic, travel and hospitality companies were being forced to recalibrate and, in some cases, reinvent, with effective revenue optimization the key to survival. Judith decided to leverage this opportunity. With her location and contacts in the Middle East, where tourism is booming, and her 20+ years of revenue management expertise, she decided to strike out on her own, and in 2021 launched Black Coral Consulting. Her timing was critical, in less than two years she has already built a strong base of clients since working for well-known companies in the industry such as UAE-headquartered hotel operator JA Resorts & Hotels, GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) real estate developer Deyaar, global OTA Luxury Escapes, Cool Inc KSA and Four Seasons in Riyadh as well as Azmont Investments, which owns Portonovi Resort in Montenegro.

Judith Cartwright Black Coral consulting

We chat with Judith to learn more about herstory and building a business and life for her family as an ex-pat in the Middle East.

What brought you to Dubai and how has your career escalated there?

I was headhunted to set up the revenue management and distribution function, structure, and culture for Atlantis Dubai. At this point, revenue management was still in its infancy, especially from a total revenue optimization perspective. Traditionally focusing on finding the right rate for the right customer at the right time for rooms, Sol Kerzner, being an entrepreneur, challenged us to optimize every single square meter/foot across all business units. This gave me a unique opportunity to implement this methodology, not only across rooms but also restaurants, spa, retail and most importantly, Aquaventure and the Lost Champers (Waterpark & Aquarium), including concerts and special events. We researched and studied every detail to understand guest behavior and how to improve the user journey and create more revenue.

Two years later, my now husband, who was living on the Isle of Man at the time, proposed. Kerzner promoted me to Global Vice President of Revenue Management & Distribution and allowed me to commute between the Isle of Man and Dubai, as well as to the various destinations where we operated hotels – Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Indian Ocean, and Morocco. They realized the way I had set up the department, for me to work from anywhere in the world, had served to create a total revenue management culture across my team and departments, based on communication and education. Some 18 months after that, I was promoted to Global Senior Vice President of Revenue Management & Distribution and was part of the Kerzner Executive Committee.

Amazing, before we go any further, give us the big picture on tourism in the Middle East right now. It seems like the region is on fire.

It is! Dubai received 14.36 million international overnight visitors in 2022, up 97% on 2021, according to Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism, surpassing global and regional recovery levels. Average occupancy for the hotel sector in 2022 stood at 73%, one of the highest in the world, rising from 67% in 2021, against the backdrop of a 6% increase in room supply. The figure is also just short of the 75% occupancy in the pre-pandemic period of 2019.

But it’s not just Dubai and the UAE where tourism and hospitality are booming markets. In neighboring Saudi Arabia, under Vision 2030 – the kingdom’s ambitious socio-economic diversification and development strategy – the target is to attract 100 million visitors by that date. The Vision 2030 hotel pipeline is worth some $100 billion.

The Vision 2030 hotel pipeline is worth some $100 billion.

The latest STR report reveals the GCC (Gulf Corporation Council) has more than 170,000 hotel rooms in its active development pipeline and Saudi and the UAE are leading with 39,070 and 32,272 rooms respectively under construction.

From a macro perspective, the time, effort, and money (fueled by high oil prices) being plowed by the public and private sectors into huge GCC tourism and hospitality development shows no sign of abating and makes the region the ideal base for any company serving these high-growth sectors. Entrepreneurs like me, based in Dubai and the UAE, are actively encouraged to stay, work and thrive, supported by many government incentives. I have been living in Dubai with my family since 2009, and feel the region, welcoming to all, is my home.

While your area of expertise is revenue management, what areas of hospitality and jobs do you think offer the most potential for growth in the area?

Because of the strong growth in the region’s hospitality sector, with every major company expanding, and newcomers entering, there are many opportunities to start and forge a career in the hospitality sector. In revenue management, there are many new avenues, particularly as the Middle East starts to adopt the approach that we are already seeing emerge in Europe and the UAE. In these regions, more companies are hiring Chief Revenue Officers who oversee all commercial functions including sales, marketing, PR, and revenue.

In comparison, in the Middle East, most companies focus on a Chief Marketing or Chief Commercial Officer with a strong marketing or sales background.

Asset management is another area of opportunity for revenue management as today’s asset manager in the Middle East traditionally has a finance background, which is important, but you need someone on your team who understands commercial strategies and can challenge and complement management companies. If an owner hires an asset manager with a revenue management background and topline revenues are optimized, this will translate to the bottom line.

What companies specifically do you think women looking to move to the region should check out?

The same rules apply as in any other part of the world. It is important to understand the structure of a company, its values, and the company culture and to ensure they align with your values and beliefs. Contrary to common perception, companies in the Middle East are more progressive in terms of gender equality than in Europe and other parts of the world. For example, strategies championing women in the workplace at DHL in the Middle East are now being adopted globally as a benchmark of international best practices.

Given everything is so new and fast-moving, the region has also embraced tech, specifically fintech, crypto, NFTs and exploring the metaverse. Do you see that continuing despite what happened this year with FTX? How do you see this impacting hospitality?

The hospitality sector has a lot to gain from all three and the GCC, unlike many other regions, has specific strategies in place to embrace these. I would not be surprised if the region became the leader in these fields, not just in hospitality, but in other industries too. Airlines like Emirates are already experimenting with NFTs, while there is a huge opportunity for the travel and tourism industry to leverage the shift in consumer spending habits toward crypto.

The mega resort Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai
The mega resort Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai

Shifting gears, let’s talk about what it’s like to actually live in the Middle East. In the west, we see mixed messages about how women are treated in the region overall with some Muslim countries seeming quite progressive and others not so much. What has been your experience working and living in the region?

I have had a very positive experience. In Germany, my home country, men still get paid more than women for the same job, which is not the case in the UAE. Here, you get paid for your qualifications and talent. This is a government-led strategy, which filters down to private-sector level. Women in the UAE now occupy more than half of the workforce in the government sector, more than half in all stages of education, and they make up more than a third of the cabinet. Half of the members of the Federal National Council are women. This was reiterated just this month by Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan at the Global Summit of Women held in Abu Dhabi, where she praised UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who worked for women's empowerment from the beginning. She remarked that he accomplished in one generation what takes other nations several generations – gender equality in the workplace.

What changes do you see happening for women now and over the next five to ten years?

Under the new UAE Labour Law, maternity leave will be increased from 45 to 60 days, which is an encouraging development. The country continues to champion women in leadership roles and gender equality.

In Saudi Arabia, women work side-by-side with men, often in executive positions. As of Q1, 2022, Saudi women comprised 33.6% of the kingdom’s workforce, according to the General Authority for Statistics, up from 17.4% five years prior. The percentage of women in senior and middle management positions rose from 28.6% in 2017 to 39% as of the first quarter of 2022. I believe this is just the start as Vision 2030 comes to fruition.

Does your husband also work in hospitality?

Yes, he works at the Hilton corporate office in Dubai.

You have two children, how old are they and how have you managed their care?

My Son Maximilian is 7 and my daughter Mia 3.5 years old. Both were born in Dubai, and go to school, and after school, they either have activities or are looked after by our nanny, who has helped us care for them since they were born.

My children have the opportunity to go to a bilingual school and are learning Arabic as well.

Do you live in an expat community? What is that like?

We live in a modern residential community, which is very international and home to schools, medical facilities, cinemas, supermarkets, and other shops. Some communities are gated, but not as a compound, but rather for aesthetics and branding, as they are mini neighborhoods in their own right.

What do people (single or married) do for fun?

Dubai offers great nightlife, from bars and restaurants to nightclubs and theme parks. The MICHELIN Guide marked its debut in the Middle East last year, with the MICHELIN Guide Dubai 2022 highlighting 69 restaurants covering 21 cuisine types. We are a gastronomic hub, with restaurants operated by a vast list of celebrity chefs, from Nobu to Heston Blumenthal. There are some very successful locally-grown brands. On the weekends you can join one of the many hiking communities, go to the beach, play golf, cycle, and much more. Dubai has a large triathlete community, a sailing club, paddle tennis, shopping, wellness – spas galore - you name it, you can have it. Saturday Brunch is very popular with various packages from non-alcoholic to free flow Champagne.

What do you do during the long hot summers? Do most hotel management / Executives stay around?

Summer is the shoulder season when quite a few Emiratis and ex-pats leave the country to take a vacation or visit their home country. Children have the opportunity to join various summer camps while their parents are at work. We base ourselves from Europe over the summer as we can both work from anywhere.

What does your typical weekend look like?

During the cooler months, beach, hiking or camping in the desert, sports activities, and theme parks––we have parks Legoland, Warner Bros. Ferrari World, and many more, as well as attractions such as aquariums, museums, and even an indoor rainforest! Winter is also a great time for beach or garden BBQs with friends. During the summer months, we visit the beach early in the morning and stick to indoor activities during the afternoon.

Thank you, Judith! So much excitement around the Middle East right now, it is great to get the inside scoop. For anyone with further questions, please email Judith.

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