Interview with Philippe Attia

Philippe Attia brings with him more than 30 years’ experience in the field of hospitality and is the Co-Founder and President of Vertu Hotels & Resorts, a hospitality management company operating worldwide. He is also the Director of Hospitality Advisory Switzerland at Horwath HTL Switzerland focusing on hotels, tourism, and leisure consulting. He serves on the Board of Directors for the global and European IACC, International Association of Conference Centers. 

He has extensive senior management experience in global hospitality and leisure, hotel and resort operations and development, with some of world’s high-end groups including Dolce Hotels & Resorts, Occidental Hotels & Resorts, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Club Med and The Walt Disney Company. He previously served as CEO of Glion Institute of Higher Education, Switzerland. 

He has worked in 14 different countries and held several hospitality leaderships positions such as General Manager, Managing Director, Regional Director, Senior Vice President and CEO. He has overseen the hospitality operations and development of several new upscale and luxury hotels, resorts, spas, golf courses and conference centres, in EMEA, Asia, the US and the Caribbean.

Co-Founder & President
Vertu Hotels & Resorts

How you would describe what you do in hospitality and what your career has been thus far?
You’ve done so much from developing to branding to delivering experiential delight to customers and you’ve done it across multiple countries. How would you describe it?

I was lucky enough to know what I wanted early in my career. I discovered hospitality because I started working in hotels and resorts when I was 16. At that age, it was always a job during the school vacation; sometimes, I didn’t spend Christmas or Easter with the family and worked instead. Whenever I could work in hotels or resorts, I went there because I enjoyed that atmosphere and the lovely places. I knew at that age two things: firstly, that I would work in hospitality or tourism, and secondly, that I wanted to be a general manager of a hotel resort and deliver great guest experiences. So, I planned my career accordingly by working for some of the best companies in Tourism and Hospitality.

The career you’ve chosen is what many have called addictive, is that how you would describe it?

It’s in my blood and my DNA. I have always tried to have that fire and passion during my career. You need that to be on stage, interact with the guests, and create those unique experiences. If you don’t have that fire, passion, and dedication, you cannot do the job; better to go to an office job.

You started with two absolutely iconic brands, Club Med and Disneyland Paris, tell us about the early years of your career?

I come back to what I said at the beginning, knowing that I wanted to become the general manager of a hotel or a resort. This vision helped me decide that at the end of my MBA studies, I decided to write a thesis about hotel resort development and sales strategy. While writing the thesis, I met Serge Trigano, the son of the founder of Club Med. I met him because I wanted to interview each of the most influential people in that field. First of all, to help my network and ensure I know the key people in these fields for my future. Secondly, to understand what their thoughts were about the resort industry. When I finished my thesis, I gave him a copy, and after discussing it briefly, he asked me to join Club Med for a season or two. I stayed for almost three years because I enjoyed it so much.

So, tell me about Disneyland because that’s a second major company.

Walt Disney Company was preparing a mega theme park destination near Paris, with several resorts, Festival Disney, entertainment, and retail areas, so this was a perfect mega project aligned with my career goals. Disney is a great company, focused on creating unique experiences, with such a strong focus on guests and cast members (Disney Staff). So, I joined Disney to manage one of the Magic Kingdom lands (Frontierland) and then added Adventureland, the theme park West area. For me, Club Med helped me to develop my emotional intelligence and guest focus. Disney brought the same, but on a larger scale, the Standard Operating Procedure way focusing on the four Disney pillars – Safety Courtesy Show Efficiency (SCSO).

You have spent time in France, Turkey, the United States, Spain, Portugal, Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Switzerland. You’ve been all over the place throughout your career. Where feels like home to you?

I am French and was born in Tunisia. I did my studies in Paris. Having those two cultures helped me to adapt to any environment. I am open-minded and have no issue communicating with people worldwide. Club Med helped me a lot in developing this aspect. I’ve worked in 14 different countries; I feel comfortable going and working anywhere because it’s all about how you treat and interact with people. You will be welcome anywhere if you respect them, respect their culture, and have empathy.

In your 10 years at Dolce Hotels and Resorts, you opened lots of resorts, you were instrumental in identifying opportunities and opening developments. What were the key lessons you learnt?

At Dolce, I put in place a strategy to develop, open, convert, and manage hotels & resorts across Europe. One of the main lessons I learnt is that you cannot be everywhere when you have multiple properties in different countries with different cultures. Hence, you must surround yourself with the best talents to achieve excellent results in any country. I treated each hotel and resort general manager as if they were the CEOs of their properties; I empowered them to make the best decisions, keeping in mind guests, employees, and owners’ satisfaction. Regarding guest experience and talents, I learnt that you can create, design, and build the most beautiful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality. The difference will be come through the people (personal service) and experience (emotion).
In terms of resort development, I learnt that location is critical. Also, when developing new resorts, you need to create public spaces where guests can interact and meet and simultaneously have spaces where they can disconnect.

As the Co-Founder and President of Vertu Hotels and Resorts, what are you focusing on right now?

It’s a continuation of what I did before. We are developing a new and fresh brand, VERTU Hotels & Resorts. We manage hotels and resorts, create sales and marketing affiliations, and support owners and investors by bringing them flexibility, agility, and results. Now, we are focusing on taking the brand globally. So, I’m discussing with owners, investors, family offices, and funds globally.

I’ve got to ask you about what looks to be the wild card in your career. The time that you spent in Montreux, Switzerland with the Global Institute for Higher Education. You got headhunted to lead this educational hospitality institute. What was that like?

I was headhunted to take over the CEO position of Glion Hospitality Institute in Switzerland. Laureate Education, the former owner, was looking for someone who knows the hospitality industry, and who’s the network in this business could help to develop Glion in Europe and overseas. So, I worked on opening the London Campus and developing several Glion certificates worldwide. At the same time, I was running the two campuses in Montreux and Bulle in Switzerland. I was missing the hospitality business, so I left to return to hospitality project development and management.

I’m going to ask you four topical questions. First – sustainability. How important is it that your developments are sustainable and green?

You know, it’s like a resort with a swimming pool. It would be best if you had it; you have no choice. So, you must have a sustainability program or approach for your hotel or resort. The younger generations will only stay in a place with sustainability values. If you don’t believe in that, you don’t believe in the future.

How has diversity changed over your career, have you seen more attention focused on getting different types of people involved in hospitality?

Yes, I see more diversity. A more diverse C-suite, more women in key positions. That is not enough, but we are moving toward leadership performed by talents from different cultures, origins, and genders. There is a great future for women in this business. With diversity, we are going in the right direction.

Third – the cost of living. Is it having an impact on the hospitality business?

After Covid, people want to express themselves and live unique experiences. There is no correlation between the cost of living and the need to travel to live unique and memorable experiences. The latest results for 2023 show an increase in hotel occupancy and Average Daily Rates in many destinations. Travel businesses and airlines are back on track as they were pre-Covid.

And lastly any change in who is investing? Is there more money coming from Asia Pacific, from private equity, what trends have you seen there?

There are many investors, and several funds are moving towards hospitality. As retail and office real estate is not performing well and become risky, the appetite for hospitality real estate is increasing.

How do you see 2024 in terms of hospitality, your business and the challenges facing the industry this year?

It will be a good year; people will continue to travel, and occupancy will continue to increase. My only concern is on the geopolitical aspect. I hope the situation in the Red Sea, in Israel and Gaza, in Ukraine gets better. This will help us from a business point of view. I’m optimistic; Covid showed that humans can find a solution to everything. I’m confident 2024 will be another good year for hospitality and destinations far from conflicts.

I’m going to just end with two personal questions. What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Try to have work experience in different fields until you find the one your heart leans towards. Anyone with the passion and commitment to hospitality has the chance to succeed. Hospitality requires people with special emotional skills. Hospitality requires a unique quotient, not the IQ but the HQ, the hospitality quotient. People with high HQ have skills like kindness, curiosity, empathy, focus, perseverance, clear vision, passion, pride, and performance excellence, besides essential competencies like communications. Excellence is not a skill. It is an attitude.

And is there an aspect of your business or career that you’ve enjoyed the most?

Hospitality and events are serious businesses, but you can have fun and enjoy everything you do. You need to approach your role that way. Make work fun – I enjoyed hiring talents with a sense of humour; at the same time, they are true professionals who take care of the business and people and are productive, so working with them is an absolute pleasure. Ultimately, taking your business and your competition seriously would be best, but don’t take yourself seriously.