Interview: The Bench’s Jonathan Worsley on Saudi’s Future Hospitality Summit

Interview: The Bench’s Jonathan Worsley on Saudi’s Future Hospitality Summit

The founder explains how FHS can power your hospitality business in the Middle East 

Jonathan Worsley is the chairman and founder of The Bench, which hosts multiple international, game-changing conferences for the hospitality industry, including the upcoming Future Hospitality Summit (FHS) taking place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, the UAE.

Worsley’s illustrious career began with real estate consultants CBRE & Hotel Partners, hotel advisors PKF and hotel operator Forte & Holiday Inns, before he became co-founder and board director of industry-leading Smith Travel Research (STR).

Today, he sits on the advisory boards of inHovate, Hotel Swaps and Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA). His driving goal remains to propel industry transformation.

Connecting Travel talked to him about his past career, how he plans to achieve his goals and what FHS has in store for the industry.

Connecting Travel: Can you tell us the backstory on how The Bench came into existence?
Jonathan Worsley: I founded The Bench with my Swedish business partner, Pelle Lydmar, in 2001 as a benchmarking platform. We tracked hotel occupancy and rates on a daily basis, while the industry was typically tracking monthly data at that time. In 2008, The Bench merged with Deloitte and STR to create STR Global and I remained on the board until the business was sold to CoStar in 2019.

STR Global became the predominant benchmarking company for the industry and around the world during this time, as it remains today

The Bench brand and Bench Events has since been used for our investment conferences. In 1996, I launched and co-founded the International Hospitality Investment Forum (IHIF) with Jim Burba and Scott Pierce, becoming the most international event of its kind with 2,500 delegates attending annually from 300 in the first year. In 2016 the event was absorbed by Questex.


CT: What brought The Bench to the Middle East?
JW: Bringing the investment community together was not just important in Europe. In 2005, the Middle East was undergoing transformation with Dubai becoming a hub for the Middle East and Africa. With the support of Gerald Lawless, who was running the Jumeirah Group at the time, the Arabian Hospitality Investment Conference (AHIC) was launched and hosted every year at Madinat Jumeirah until 2017, and again from 2020. This year, the event will take place under the overarching brand, the Future Hospitality Summit (FHS), in September. At the same time, colleague Matt Weihs drove forward the successful Africa Hospitality Investment Forum (AHIF) and Jon Howell AviaDev, and in more recent years, the Saudi Hospitality Investment Conference (SHIC) now part of FHS.

CT: How did you get into the travel and hospitality industry?
My early career was with Holiday Inn, Forte, PKF, BDO and CBRE. I love to travel, see the world but also bring people together, which I find exhilarating. We all have so much to learn from each other as we innovate, and as an industry we need to ‘lead the change’ for both our communities and the planet.

Recently, I’ve been involved as a mentor and investor to start-ups who are leading this change

CT: The Bench’s next conference is FHS in Riyadh. The theme is ‘Reimagined Horizons’ – can you tell us about the key topics?
We’re embracing the need to stretch the conversation by including speakers from META, The Economist Intelligence Unit, EVE Air Mobility, The Arab Institute for Women’s Empowerment, Saudi Air Connectivity Programme, Fresh on Table, Electric & Autonomous Mobility, in addition to the CEOs from the Red Sea Development Company and the Diriyah Gate Development Authority. We’re also delighted that His Excellency Ahmed Aqeel AlKhateeb, Minister of Tourism for Saudi Arabia, will be opening the conference, and the Tourism Development Fund (TDF) has come on board as a high-level enablement sponsor.

READ MORE: Inside FHS 2022

CT: Why should investors attend FHS? 
JW: The key principle behind our investment summits around the world has always been, and will remain, dealmaking. Our conferences are designed and created to bring investors, government leaders and leading hospitality groups together to provide innovative and high-impact meeting spaces for the industry.

As the world is witnessing a socio-economic transformation unlike we have ever seen before, we believe the investor community can benefit from being a part of FHS. Saudi Arabia has evolved incredibly from an investment attraction perspective recently. We are at an opportune time for the country’s hospitality sector.

Investors need the right insights, connections, partnerships and discussions to explore and understand the market

CT: Saudi Arabia is an emerging market for the hospitality industry. What are the benefits of being among the first to invest here?
JW: I believe Saudi Arabia has an edge over many emerging markets for a handful of reasons. You have a country that was never entirely open to the world up until a few years ago, and has access to decades of hospitality case studies to learn from.

The government is investing in state-of-the art hospitality investment infrastructure and are serious about sustainability. Saudi’s ancient legacy has been of a holy destination for tens of millions every year. So, the country has centuries of experience to expand on. Now, it’s becoming a more popular tourist destination for regional and international visitors as it offers geographical and historical diversity, along with archaeological treasures that are exciting for tourists.

The Kingdom’s Vision 2030 is to raise the number of annual visits to 100 million visitors by 2030. It seems to be the right time and place for hospitality investors and start-ups.

Partner content in association with FHS

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