Nestled in the Lebanese peaks of Keserwan, less than an hour drive from Beirut, the InterContinental Mzaar Mountain Resort & Spa has been living up to its five-star reputation ever since it opened its doors in the year 2000. Inspired by the world’s most beautiful ski destinations, the hotel blends into its natural surroundings and has direct access to the Lebanese ski slopes. It offers Alpine wood chalets, as well as entertainment ranging from an indoor swimming pool, to a fun kids centre, to the “Thermes du Mzaar” spa experience, as well as five different restaurants offering a variety of cuisines.
Joost Komen began his hospitality career in the Netherlands, working for several hotels across Europe, Australia, and the USA. He ultimately moved to the Middle East and became the general manager of the award-winning InterContinental Mzaar in 2012. Komen discusses luxury hotels, his hospitality journey around the globe, and his deep attraction to Lebanon.
First, tell us more about what motivated you to get into the hotel industry? And what brought you back to Lebanon?
I started working in the hospitality industry during my teenage years. I really loved what I was doing which is what led me to hotel management studies in Holland, and ultimately a career in the hospitality field. I worked all around the world. My first trip to Lebanon was for the re-opening of the Phoenicia hotel in Beirut, and I immediately fell in love with the country; its contradictions, diversities, and lifestyle. I met my wife Nancy and meanwhile worked in Egypt and Jordan, but I was always drawn back to Lebanon, until I settled here.
What is the main element that attracts you to work for luxury hotels?
Well I love dealing with people; guests, vendors, colleagues. What drew me into the luxury segment were the “exotic” destinations where the hotels are usually located. I have a passion for discovering new cultures, so it was the perfect balance of social and professional life for me.
With your 20 years of experience, you have seen many luxury hotels around the globe. What makes the Intercontinental Mzaar’s location unique?
I’ve worked in beautiful places around the world, from Santorini, to San Miguel, to Australia. At the beginning of my Mzaar adventure, I was astonished to discover that skiing in Lebanon even existed! I had only worked in beach resorts previously, so I took Mzaar as a challenge. Since it is not always an international knowledge that you can ski in Lebanon, we are putting a lot of our marketing efforts in this idea of skiing in the morning, and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in the afternoon, in order to promote Mzaar Ski Resort.
We know the hotel’s peak season is mostly during winter; what authentic local experiences do your guests have access to when they stay at your hotel?
Besides skiing and snow scooter tracks, we offer experiences such as visits to local wineries, historical tours of the Faqra ruins, hikes towards the natural bridge of Kfardebian, and culinary experiences at our tented restaurant “Khaymet el Hor” during the summer.
What are the most challenging issues you face in your current position?
We are in constant staff-guest interaction, so our main challenge is to find skilled and trained seasonal and casual manpower to assist us during the high season. Unfortunately, due to the emigration of talented Lebanese towards better career opportunities abroad, the hospitality industry’s local talent pool is nearly empty. The remoteness of the resort’s location, especially during winter, makes it even more challenging when it comes to recruitments, but we are doing our best to offer opportunities to the Lebanese from various regions.
In your opinion, what is the difference between management and leadership? Are they equally important?
Personally, I believe that management is the ability to direct the daily work efforts, implement processes, standards, rules, and operate procedures while looking after the people I am working with. As for leadership, it is about creating a vision, inspiring people, challenging the status quo, doing things differently and thinking outside the box. It is also related to communication, and keeping the team informed and involved in our journey. It is important to have the right balance between leadership and management to get the team on board to move forward towards our vision of success.
In between seasons, how do you stay on top of this estate, from managing the staff, to giving the best possible service?
We offer special packages to attract people to the destination. These packages include a double room that comes with breakfast and an activity such as a spa treatment, hiking, or an ATV ride. We also offer special meeting packages for our corporate segments. This attracts clientele to the hotel so we can keep our staff on board and focused on service delivery, and it’s a chance for the management team to take some time off.
What are the main changes you have made since you were named GM?
The main change I have focused on is offering the authentic Lebanese hospitality. Our clientele is mainly regulars, so we train our colleagues to learn more about the customers, their likes and dislikes. As for first time visitors, our guest-staff interaction is necessary to ensure their satisfaction and their return to the hotel. We also work a lot on informing our guests of the main local attractions.
What are your views on Lebanon’s hotel industry?
The Lebanese are creative by nature, and it does show in the success of the culinary field as well as the nightlife. I personally believe that creativity and innovation are lacking in the Lebanese hotel industry. We need to add a touch of novelty to the traditional way of dealing with this business, and that way we will ensure that the field will thrive in the coming years.
When you dine in a restaurant, what do you look at besides the menu?
The atmosphere, the ambiance and the vibe of the restaurant are the most important. Walking into an empty restaurant, even if the food is delicious, is not a pleasant experience. A place buzzing with people sets the right atmosphere. In my opinion, this is what makes or breaks a restaurant.
What is your favourite corner in your hotel?
It’s the hotel lobby. Its chalet feel with the central chimney, filled with the weekend buzz is quite unique. It’s the place to be, to meet hotel guests, or spend a relaxing time after a long ski day. It is also ideal during a snow storm, where you sit around the warming chimney, and indulge yourself with a good glass of wine, accompanied with cheese and chestnuts on the side. This always reminds me of how lucky I am to be the general manager of the InterContinental Mzaar.
Which aspects of the Lebanese culture do you enjoy the most? And which do you find the most difficult to adjust to?
I love the Lebanese social life; your fridge needs to always be filled with goodies for when friends or neighbours pass by for a coffee or a drink. Hospitality really is the heart of Lebanon. As for the most difficult adjustment, I would say it’s the punctuality. I grew up in the Netherlands, so being on time was mandatory. In Lebanon, being on time takes a whole new meaning, and it does frustrate me sometimes. But then again, it has its charms.
What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?
The best compliment comes at home from my wife and kids when they tell me how much they love me. At work, my favourite compliment would be my achievements; becoming general manager, winning the hotel’s award, receiving the satisfaction survey results from my colleagues. We are a family here at InterContinental Mzaar, and this is what renders our service unique.
So, who are your typical guests? And what will they rave about once they leave the hotel?
They vary over the seasons. In winter, we receive the “rich and famous” as well as European expats working and living in the Gulf countries. They rave about the hotel’s location and the direct access to the slopes, the complete services we offer inside the hotel, the luxurious spa, the indoor pool, the bowling, cinema, and wide selection of restaurants. During other seasons, our guests become businessmen who use our corporate area (conference rooms etc.). We also welcome local leisure travellers, since we have a wide variety of summertime activities such as hiking, biking, clay pigeon shooting, picnics, and ATV rides. During summer, our guests will rave about the award-winning “Khaymet el Hor” restaurant located at the foot of the hotel in an authentic tent setting, serving organic Lebanese cuisine.
Any exciting plans for the Intercontinental Mzaar Mountain Resort & Spa? What is next?
We are almost done with the renovation of our 140 rooms and suits. In 2018, we are planning on renovating the public spaces such as the lobby, the reception, and all the restaurants. There is also a plan to create an outdoor pool.
By Dana Mortada