"You don't have to be a Halliburton to succeed in the
Middle East," says Jeffrey Ornstein, CEO of J/Brice Design, which has established
itself as an international hotel-design powerhouse through its growing presence in
In Saudi Arabia, for example, the firm is currently designing a $300 million Hotel
and Office Tower, a commission from one of the Kingdom's most prominent families.
J/Brice has also penetrated the ultra high-end residential market with two new
contracts -- designing a 52,000 square-foot summer palace on the Red Sea and a
high-end residential compound, or gated community, with 120 villas in oil-rich Al
Khobar. The villa development targets wealthy Saudis and energy industry executives
from Europe and the U.S. The firm is expanding with future hotel projects in
Zanzibar, Bahrain and Ethiopia.
J/Brice Design is no stranger to plum assignments in the U.S. -- refurbishing the
original Queen Mary in Long Beach, the iconic Helmsley Hotel in New York and the
award-winning Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza. "Projects like these that allow us to
push the limits and demonstrate our command of the design process are dwindling in
the U.S. as the recession wears on. On the other hand, our clients in the Middle
East are encouraging us to create leading edge properties and owners are willing to
provide the funding," says Ornstein.
By mid-November, 1,248 U.S. hotels were distressed representing $31.4 billion in
outstanding debt, according to Real Capital Analytics. Hotel analysts Smith Travel
Research reports that by year-end, occupancy and room rates will decline 8.4% and
9.7% percent, respectively.
Persistence Pays Off -- Finally
Ornstein assessed his situation. With the U.S. hotel industry in decline, the firm
had to find new markets or cut costs. J/Brice had worked in Dubai, United Arab
Emirates in the mid-1990s, but had not pursued additional business outside the
U.A.E. "I put out feelers throughout the Middle East with some people I had met
there, including architects working in the region. In no short order, a Cyprus-based
architect called. He invited me to meet in Qatar to explore ideas," said Ornstein
adding, "I had visited Qatar in the late 90s when it was still a sleepy Hamlet.
Knowing that our market was growing there, I was on a plane in two weeks to the
capital city of Doha. The potential in Qatar was huge since the recent discovery of
natural gas reserves made it the richest per-capita country in the world."
The first meeting was very friendly. "We met with a few Qatari businessmen and about
two-dozen members of the Royal Family. We spoke of art, the Red Sox, American
Politics, but there was little talk of business in terms of specific projects," adds
Ornstein returned to Boston. A few weeks later he received another call, "They like
you. Come back."
"So I went back. More talk. No business."
This went on for five trips. "At the last invitation, when I departed Boston, I said
'this is it.' No more wild goose chases. This time, however, the trip paid off with
a contract to design the interior of a new luxury hotel in Doha -- fifth time's a
charm," says Ornstein.
The Middle East work created a comfortable financial cushion and needed revenue for
J/Brice Design. "Equally important, it gave us the chance to really showcase our
design capability. The developers wanted us to awe their guests -- even those who
arrive in their own Gulfstreams. The properties we design have to be different from
anything else in the region -- indeed the world. In a nutshell, we were being
challenged to participate in rebranding the Arabian Gulf as an international hot
spot for the wealthiest international travelers. It was inspirational, and energized
me and my team."
Ornstein recalls, "I also realized the value of those numerous trips. They helped me
develop an understanding and sensitivity to a region that wanted to become the
world's hospitality leader. With the exception of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab in
Dubai, Middle Eastern hotel architecture had been rooted in an international
post-modernism style that lacked regional identity or, for that matter, any lasting
architectural significance. The buildings could be anywhere -- Vancouver, Houston or
San Paulo. But now the countries of the Middle East wanted to create their own
unique identity. And they looked to us to help make it happen."
As a result of the work, Ornstein has been recognized as the region's design
authority and a respected advisor. He was the first American ever invited to be the
lead speaker of the Kingdom Hotel Expansion and Investment World Summit, held in
June 2009. The Middle East's top real estate developers and owners along with
members of the royal family gathered in Riyadh to hear experts talk about
opportunities in the Kingdom.
For U.S. businesses trying to penetrate the Middle East, Ornstein emphasizes that
Americans are known for ingenuity and for following through on commitments --
qualities valued worldwide. "Nevertheless, you do have to let go of your American
business mindset before you get off the plane in the Middle East. Here, plans aren't
really plans. You'll arrive for a meeting on Tuesday and they'll move it to Friday.
In the middle of a meeting, they'll take a call and remain on the phone
indefinitely. I used to pull my hair out, but I finally said, 'Wait, this is how
they do things here. It's a cultural divide,' and not intended as a slight. Go with
the flow. It works."
Jeffrey Ornstein, CEO, J/Brice Design International, Inc. offers 10 tips: What U.S.
Businesses Must Do to Succeed Overseas.
1. Don't wait for an economic turnaround. Pick a country or region and dive in. Do
not assume that because they are buying your product or service locally, that they
will not buy from you.
2. Develop a global outlook. Travel to developing areas. You can incorporate
exploratory marketing trips with your personal vacations by eschewing Paris, London,
and Rome, and venturing out to Addis Ababa, Hanoi, or Shanghai.
3. Be patient -- invest your own time and travel expenses in exchange for knowledge
that will lead to greater rewards and more significant projects.
4. You must socialize to secure business. Attend social events, even if it means
flying from the U.S. to attend a single party. Build friendly relationships at every
economic and social level. Don't underestimate the importance of
trust-in-an-individual as a prerequisite for consideration.
5. Deliver on tiny promises. You may be asked to send U.S. stamps for a Sheik's
son's stamp collection or to buy a cosmetic available only in the U.S. Do it. The
significance of your follow-through stretches far beyond the simple task at hand.
6. Hire a local advisor or "fixer" to provide a car and driver, locate lost luggage
or work through a jam. This lets you focus on your mission while leaving the
logistics to others. Well worth the cost.
7. Establish a presence if possible -- the J/Brice office in Al Khobar was essential
to demonstrating our commitment.
8. Embrace customs and culture, but don't obsess over a minor social gaffe. Be open
and your hosts will advise you, delighting in sharing their customs and appreciative
of your interest.
9. Bring out the best that America has to offer. There are plenty of negative
cliches about Americans being loud, too demanding, and arriving underdressed for the
event (baseball caps and sneakers at dinner!) Lose the negatives and be exemplary
of what international clients admire about Americans -- Yankee Ingenuity, integrity,
determination, situational adaptability, multiculturalism and resourcefulness.
10. Be a Cultural Spy -- take in everything about the places you visit. Look for
connections that may not seem relevant to marketing your service or product.
Consider tastes and interests in literature, music and art. Having an interest in
the arts is far more important to clients overseas than to U.S. business people.
Observe whether your associates and their customers are socially conservative or
progressive? What fashions do they like? What do they aspire to? Absorb regional and
national cultures like a sponge and you will be welcomed into them more readily.
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