It’s been a challenging time for the hospitality industry but, with the right approach, the future can look very bright. Here, Neal Debono, the recently appointed Group CEO of the Xara Collection, spells out what lies ahead for the luxury brand as it seeks to renew its core values and keep sustainability at its core.
The Xara Collection has long since established itself as a leader in quality and luxury. Now, with the appointment of Neal Debono as its new Group CEO, the brand is preparing to embark on an exciting process of renewal, change and growth at a time when, emerging from the challenges brought about by the pandemic, the industry as a whole is looking for new opportunities and ways of doing things.
“We have heard a lot about the negative impact that Covid has had on our industry: in the last few months it has been the subject of many discussions and a change instigator for strategy,” Debono says. “I feel Covid gave the hospitality industry an opportunity to look back and reflect on where it needs to be. It gave us the time to realign and become comfortable with being uncomfortable and, in doing so, we can see great ideas coming to life.”
Debono joins Xara with an extensive pedigree in the five-star and luxury hotel business. He most recently led the InterContinental Malta and Holiday Inn Express Malta team, prior to which he was Director of Operations at the then-Le Meridien Malta, where he helped grow the company portfolio and developed brands such as The Villa and Taro, while contributing to the design-stage of the first Malta Marriott.
Neal Debono - Xara Collection Group CEO
Taking on his new role at the Xara Collection at such a pivotal moment, Debono believes the Xara brand has already built a lasting reputation for remaining truthful to the values of true hospitality, as it has grown steadily into a hallmark for fine dining and boutique living while extending into the realm of bespoke events and weddings. It is not dramatic change that is needed, he says, but a renewal of commitment towards the values that have made the brand unique.
“The Xara Collection is at a crossroads,” he explains. “We have taken the bold decision to refocus and strengthen our resolve to offer superior quality in whatever we do. Sustainability and the value proposition have become pivotal to many decisions, and one should expect to see Xara driving significant change in the way we approach hospitality in Malta.”
Debono believes that opportunities in recent years have seen the hospitality industry drive volume, which allowed it to fill beds, and stretch its resources and infrastructure. However, in a post-pandemic environment, he suggests that a volume-driven strategy may no longer be the opportunity it once was. “We should seek opportunities by focusing on quality as a culture and not as a catchy word,” he says.
Sustainability – and its implementation in the luxury sector – is at the centre of how he sees the brand’s operations going forward. “Sustainability has become vital and, whether we like it or not, businesses are being held accountable by their markets on sustainable operations. The Xara Collection’s current and upcoming projects will see a significant sustainability focus,” he promises.
What does that mean in practice? “From the outset any product that we produce needs to be designed with sustainability at its heart,” Debono says. He highlights initiatives to support local businesses with developing bespoke products that do not need high-end packaging or transportation. The Group will also use its properties to grow its own crops and is investing in hydroponic technology that will see it recycle and reuse food waste from all its outlets.
“We feel responsible for our carbon footprint and, already, our market is showing that they expect us to value sustainability as a core value,” he says. “Not every business can afford the same level of investment towards becoming as sustainable as possible, but, supporting local, avoiding packaging, avoiding plastic and reusing where possible are all actions that can be undertaken by many. Guests nowadays want to be associated with brands that have a conscience and they are driving a shift in the way they consume and do things.”
Debono sees his own role within this shift as that of a facilitator, saying he feels lucky to be surrounded by some of the best professionals he has worked with in the last decade. He also welcomes the opportunity to support the necessary culture changes, investments and opportunities that the near future holds.
“For us, any new project is an opportunity to convey our passion,” he says. “A number of our projects will not necessarily be revenue-driven, but rather will complement our core values and brand positioning within the market. Being affiliated to the Relais & Chateaux gives us an opportunity to collaborate with some incredible world class talent. We will surely remain truthful to our beliefs in true hospitality,” he concludes.
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