Carlos Khneisser, Hilton’s Vice President of Development for MENA and Turkey, talks to Forbes Middle East about the brand’s growing footprint in the region and why it is a hit among owners.

You’ve just surpassed 100,000 open hotel rooms in the EMEA region. How have you achieved such strong growth at a time when many sectors—hospitality included—are reporting a sluggish market?

Reaching 100,000 rooms in EMEA was a significant achievement for us last year and with a pipeline of over 60,000 rooms to open in coming years we have strong momentum. The MENA and Turkey region accounts for over 50% of this pipeline—we are particularly active in this part of the world. This growth is all organic growth, as opposed to expanding by acquisition. We believe in the ability of our brands to drive market premiums within their respective market segments, and we create new brands to capitalize on gaps in the market.  What I would emphasize is that we sign hotel management agreements for periods of 15, 20 or 25 years. These are long-term investments and the long-term fundamentals of the market here point towards an increase in travelers into the region and increased demand for accommodation, particularly in the mid-market sector.

 What and where have been your new openings in the last year? And have there been any closures?

If you look purely by numbers a lot of our openings have been in Turkey with more than 10 in the last year, but we have had some significant openings elsewhere in the region too. Conrad Makkah became our first luxury property to open in Makkah, we re-entered Morocco with the opening of Hilton Garden Inn Tanger City Centre and launched our debut Curio hotel in the region late last year, the Al Rayyan Hotel Doha, Curio Collection by Hilton at the Mall of Qatar.  Curio is our collection brand and we are excited about rolling it out further. It allows owners to develop unique concepts and identities for hotels in the upscale category and plug them in to our Hilton system without needing to align with specific brand standards. We have an additional Curio under development in Dubai, The Rosemont Hotel & Residences, Curio Collection by Hilton, which will be a truly unique property with its own rainforest and sky beach.

Looking ahead, what plans do you have for the MENA region in particular? What’s in the pipeline?

We have a pipeline of around 120 hotels and over 30,000 rooms in MENA and Turkey and around 80% of this pipeline is already under construction. We are not just putting pen to paper on these projects, this is tangible growth that will be realised in the coming two to three years and immediately begin contributing to the bottom line of on new projects, in fact around 60% of our pipeline hotels are being developed together with owners of current Hilton properties. In terms of markets that we are looking at, Saudi Arabia has the largest share of our pipeline with over 30 hotels, mainly situated in Riyadh, Jeddah and Makkah. The U.A.E. is still a focus, particularly in the mid-market area given our comparatively ample supply in the upscale and luxury sectors. We have also just recently opened a development office in Casablanca with the aim of expanding in Morocco and North Africa.

What trends are you seeing in the current markets? Is the tide turning towards mid-market offerings and affordable resorts? If so, is it having an effect on the 5-star luxury sector that the region is known for?

Certainly if you take a market such as Dubai and com-pare it with other major destination cities like London and Paris, there is still a huge deficit there in terms of mid-market availability. We launched our Hilton Garden Inn brand in Dubai towards the end of 2015 and it now has three properties open in the city, all of which are already trading above the market average. This year we’ll launch the same brand in Ras al Khaimah and in 2018 we’re expecting to open the first of half a dozen Hampton by Hiltons we have in the pipeline for the region, so growth in this sector is to come quickly. Developing a luxury hotel is an entirely different proposition to doing so in the mid-market. These projects take a large amount of time and it is important to work with the right partners when you do so. Owners need to be invested in the journey and be committed to delivering a truly luxury product that in turn enables us to provide our guests with truly un-forgettable experiences. The Middle East is always going to be associated with luxury and we are working on a number of projects such as Waldorf Astoria in Dubai International Financial Centre, a superb 247 guest room property in a great location where we’ve been wanting to add a luxury property for some time. When it opens in 2018 I believe it will be one of the top luxury hotels in the city.

Which are your most popular brands in the Middle East? Is there much diversity between the GCC countries?

We have a portfolio of brands ranging from mid-market to luxury so it wouldn’t be right to compare them against one another in terms of popularity. We develop brands with the aim of serving any customer for any need that they have anywhere in the world. For a visitor to the GCC, for example, that might mean a comfortable and convenient Hilton Garden Inn on their business trip and if they have a good experience, they might come back and stay at a Waldorf Astoria or a Hilton Resort for a family holiday.