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Passion with Purpose – Haitham Mattar

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Haitham Mattar, CEO, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAK TDA) in a tête-à-tête with TBME’s Charmaine Fernz divulges what drives him as a professional, how routine is not his cup of tea and being the family man….

Background

Haitham is a Lebanese born American. His family left for the United States when he was five years old (during the first war in Lebanon). The United States of America has been home to him since kindergarden right through university. He graduated from the University of Central Florida, specialising in marketing, followed by an MBA in Marketing from University of Liverpool in United Kingdom.

Going back in time

Haitham started his career young with the first job at 17 years old right after high school. This was none other than the hotel industry close to home as a dish washer in a very busy kitchen. His first salary as a dishwasher was a minimum wage of US$3.25 (three dollars and 25 cents) an hour. When he grew in his work place and worked as a waiter, he received US$ 2.01 (Two dollars and one cent) while surviving on tips. He recalls saying, “I remember telling my mother that I do not want to hear anything about washing dishes one day as I wash more dishes than you did all my life.”

The mountain range in RAK

The journey so far

Haitham has never studied hotel management as a subject but has imbibed every aspect of the hospitality industry through his career path. The industry grew on him as he progressed with hard work and dedication. His career path took him from being a dishwasher to a waiter, cook, bartender and finally, the youngest restaurant manager at 19 years of age with the Marriott back (1989). Having worked in several areas of a hotel, he had a well-rounded understanding of the business from housekeeping to sales and marketing finally to operations. Through, he entered the hospitality industry in 1987, it was not until 2000-01 that he got his first sales and marketing role. He headed up sales and marketing for IHG in Middle East/Africa and then with Hilton Worldwide, with a bigger regional portfolio covering Eastern Europe, Turkey, Russia and then Middle East/Africa.

The shift from hospitality to tourism happened in May 2015 with Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAK TDA). Haitham brought with him his immense marketing experience; something the destination really needed.

Challenges

One of the initial challenges Haitham faced was working through university while at the same time educating himself. This became even more challenging when he pursued his MBA, as work brought in more responsibility which meant dealing with a bigger team. The next challenge came up in RAK TDA initially with finding the right team who are willing to drive at the same speed. This resulted in us loosing many people on the way.  In the beginning although when I hired people I was clear about the expectations. This is like a start-up company so you will have to work long hours or even on weekends. We have to be there as we did not have the luxury of time.

Mountain Excursion

The RAK Story

When Haitham took on the mantle for RAK tourism in May 2015, his directive was like drawing on a white canvas. He was told by His Highness Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah that he has all the powers and authority to do what he knows best for Ras Al Khaimah provided he delivers. He was given six months to show results. According to Haitham, “This was the best motivator ever – Authority, Power and Funds – to re-resurrect a destination.”

Though it looked all simple but there had to be immediate impact. There were several areas to be worked upon such as Ras Al Khaimah was trending backwards in terms of its tourism numbers from the German and UK markets; visitor numbers were low, hotel occupancies were down. Haitham did not have the luxury of time, yet, despite all roadblocks, he has managed to revive the destination to what it is today.

In his words, Haitham feels, “I was the luckiest person to be on the seat with all the right recipes for success. I could not take all credit for what we have done here cause there have been so many players who have contributed. One of the key people was His Highness who was knew what he wanted for the emirate and had the right focus.”

Motivating factors

Haitham is motivated by a number of factors – the main reason being results…positive results. As he says, “When I see results and achievements it motivates me to do more”. In his opinion, one has to love what they do. This is evident from his working style which is undoubtedly long working hours and not a routine. He is also very accessible as a leader. However, the love and passion for his work certainly results in a drawback somewhere. In this case, his personal life took a hit with not much holidays (barring the 10-day break) since the last two years of joining RAK TDA. Prior to this, he worked for two full years straight without a vacation. In his view, “I feel joy when I come to work cause I enjoy what I do. People call me a workaholic…I am what I am…at least I am not an alcoholic.”

The passion for business, love for the industry and drive for success is what keeps him going. Haitham feels that, “in my business you keep meeting new people; the fact that you can make tourist happy by discovering a new aspects of a destination is a big motivator.”

If Hospitality was not an option, what then…

Haitham cannot see himself anywhere else besides this industry. “This is what I live, love and breathe,” he says. He went to school first in Dentistry but knew right from the start that he did not want to look down people’s mouth the whole day or be confined in a clinic the entire day. His passion was simple… pursue a profession which involves interaction with people, making people happy and delivering experiences.

Family

Marriage for Haitham was at a young age of 25 years. He has been married for 22 years with two kids who are going to be leaving for University soon. His daughter is 17 and will be going to New York while his son is 14 years of age; a few more years before he leaves for University.  His better half is a working professional, who owns a company in brand representation for interior designs.

Donning the DAD’s role

Haitham feels it is difficult to be the perfect husband, father or even professional. His passion for work makes it difficult for him to spend a lot of time with the family.  “My wife and kids do complain about my lack of presence – this is not just physical but sometimes even my mental presence,” he adds.  He claims many a times when he is home, it is like he is there yet not there. Despite these factors, he is always there for the big stuff…be it his son’s final soccer game or his daughter’s prom. He smirking says, “I promised my daughter I will be there for her wedding…not just to pay the bills.”

Haitham has some strong views when he says, “I cannot be everything to everybody including myself. For me, family is important. However, I always have these mixed feelings about what comes first – is it my career or family?”

He further explains, “People tell you, if you ever lost your career your family will always love you. This is true. But, you are the provider and in today’s world; they love you when you provide. Maybe when you do not provide, it is not that they will not love you, but it’s a different kind of love.” A classic case of ‘you have to lose in order to gain elsewhere’.

He certainly feels he works really hard but never gets to enjoy his money but his children do; he never takes a holiday but his family certainly go holidays. It takes him a long time to buy something for himself but his kids certainly get the luxury stuff. All of this makes him happy especially because his family is happy. He cannot spare more of his time because that would mean taking a setback in his career, which he does not want to happen.

Best Holiday Destination

Haitham is an out and out city person; he cannot take the resorts and seaside. He needs to see and interact with people; hear the noise and most importantly walk. Like he puts it, “Cities suit me best. There is no way I would be on a cruise ship or a remote island resort. I have been to Mauritius and Seychelles for work in a suit and tie.”

He loves cities that are romantic and rich in culture and architecture such as Rome, Berlin but his all-time favourite is undoubtedly – London.  He can visit the destination anytime of the year and loves walking exploring the city. “I love walking so I could walk for hours in the city. I love the gastronomy of the place, love going to the parks and relaxing,” he says.

Hobbies

Working is Haitham’s biggest hobby. He also loves exercising be it cycling, swimming or simply going to the gym. He loves music and can listen to music anytime of the day. His favourite is the recent pop music. He claims music helps him work better and he works four times faster with music on… without music he gets distracted.

He likes reading too especially books like the Da Vinci Code, books on strategic thinking / alliances and mostly magazines related to health.

Haitham’s Five Mantras

  1. You have to be passionate about what you do
  2. You have to have the drive for success… See success not an end goal but a lifestyle
  3. Having a purpose in life…roaming life without a purpose makes people loose opportunities, trust and motivation…focus on what legacy do you want to leave behind
  4. To really lead by example…be prepared to be criticized. Have it in you to accept your mistakes
  5. Be prepared to learn…no matter how much you grow either in age or career… either from a younger or older person

Food

Haitham can cook and does so on the weekends when at home. He likes the simple, clean organic kind of food… be it grilled fish, steamed vegetables, marination on poultry. He really enjoys Asian cuisine and particularly Indian food. “I can actually handle more spice than most Indians,” he claims.

Movies

When he does get the time, Haitham enjoys the movies mostly the action ones. He is not the romance kind… so it would be the legendry Rocky Series, The God Father series which work for him.

To sum it all up

Haitham says, “I am passionate about what I do, I commit to what I am passionate about, I am driven by success and rewarded by achievements.”