• Ryan Haynes

Photographs & Memories - Mona Faraj: When camels try climbing stairs


When war broke out in Lebanon in 1990 our next memory maker had to abandon her course in banking and moved to Abu Dhabi where she entered a hotel management programme. Mona Faraj recounts the time she took her team on an incentive trip to the desert in the middle of summer and unexpectedly got hit by floods - explaining why you should never curse her.


As Mona prepares to fly with her dog Milo, she reflects on the changes in the industry and what got her to where she is today, “I’m one of the most privileged executives that ever worked in the ME region…the time invested in me was phenomenal.” She also shares the best memory of her life walking the desert as part of Women’s Heritage and the inspiration from people encouraging her.


We hear the love she has of the Middle East and the business culture where nothing is impossible - “If you set your mind to something, you are able to achieve it.’


Mona tells of her love of food, her father’s influence, and the two souvenirs she always returns home with. In Mona’s hilarious Fawlty Tower moment, the camel is causing chaos as the GM tries to outdo himself. “Camels don’t go up staircases, and cannot walk on marble”


Mona is a true business activist; with a far-reaching industry network. Her entrepreneurial journey started in 2007 with the launch of her consultancy - Insight Out - following a successful hotel career with Hilton and Rotana.


Mona actively develops the industry in her role of Managing Director of HSMAI for the Middle East Region and is co-founder of ExploreTECH the first digital marketplace in the Middle East and Africa. Among her many accolades, Mona is a Market Analyst & Manager for Phocuswright.


Each episode we invite an industry professional to share 2 photographs and a treasured souvenir from their travels representing moments particularly important to them. Join us as we go on a journey through time to explore the significance of each.


A Travel Market Life series, Photographs & Memories is a Haynes MarComs production, hosted and sponsored by Atomize.


For more episodes and details of the series Photographs & Memories, visit https://www.haynesmarcoms.agency/travel-market-life


Program Notes


Michael McCartan

My memory maker today is Mona Faraj. Welcome to photographs and memories with me, Michael McCartan Each episode, we invite an industry professional to share three photographs and a treasured souvenir from their travels, representing moments, particularly important to them. Join us as we go on a journey through time to explore the significance of each check, the podcast description to view the images of these treasured memories,


Michael McCartan

Mona is a true business activist with a far reaching industry network. Her entrepreneurial journey started in 2007 with the launch of her consultancy Insight art following a successful hotel career with Hilton and Rotana Mona actively develops the industry in her role of Managing Director of HSMAI for the Middle East Region, and is co founder of ExploreTECH the first digital marketplace in the Middle East and Africa Among her many accolades. Mona is a Market Analyst and Manager for focus, right


Michael McCartan

Mona Faraj. Welcome to photographs and memories.


Mona Faraj

Thank you, Michael. Lovely to be here.


Michael McCartan

Wonderful. So you've shared two photographs of people and places that represent special moments to you and the third photo of a souvenir from your travels. During the course of this conversation, we will explore each of the photographs and you will take us on a journey through time reflecting on the significance of each, but before we do so please tell me how you came to work in the hotel industry.


Mona Faraj

Super story. I was studying to be a money and a banker or an auditor and war broke in Lebanon in 1990, which basically meant that I had to leave university for nine months, came to Abu Dhabi, got very bored sitting at home, and travelled a little bit with the family. And then I went for a management program in Abu Dhabi, Hilton, and I, I fell in love with the industry. I fell in love with the dynamics. I was smitten by it and, my training manager at the time in 1990 in Abu Dhabi, Hilton, Mrs.


Mona Faraj

<inaudible> bless her heart told me hospitality is like morphine. You are either addicted or you run away from it, but once you're addicted, you need rehab to get over it. So I guess I was addicted since 1990. So I finished my studin ies business administration, money and banking and came back to work for the industry. So that's why I'm here.


Michael McCartan

Fantastic. And during that time, did you have, was there any one individual group of individuals that influenced you more than the rest that you look back and you think, wow,


Mona Faraj

I am, I M one of the most privileged executives that have ever worked in the middle east region. You are one of my influencers as well. Michael, I think I've worked with some of the best hospitality executives in the middle east and Gulf region. And I've learned from almost all of them. I can't name them because there are quite a few from yeah. From, my colleagues in Abu Dhabi, Hilton to Hilton in general to Rotana hotels afterwards, to all the technology partners that have supported me and educated me and spent time and invested in me was phenomenal.


Mona Faraj

So I'm, I always say I'm one of the luckiest people in the region.


Michael McCartan

And tell me, how did you come to transition from working in hotels to actually starting your own business? I mean, that must have been, a frightening moment, but also quite a decisive moment in your, in your career and your life.


Mona Faraj

Yeah. And, and it wasn't a nice memory in, I can't remember the year, it was 2005 when mark Forester, sorry, mark Pittsworth died in a car accident. And mark was a dear colleague of dear colleague of mine and ours. And his funeral was a celebration of life. His funeral in, Dubai, was during ATM. Thousands of people were there. And I recall then a statement that mark Betsy told me, and I left that funeral.


Mona Faraj

And I thought you know what? I love Rotana hotels. I'm not going to go and get employed somewhere else. I want to take control of my life and try to balance between work and private life. Little did I know that employment is 10 times better and being an entrepreneur and starting on your own is 1000% more time demanding, more forget about personal life. It just goes away when you start your own business, but that is different, there is a different, there's a different gig to, to being on your own.


Mona Faraj

There is that satisfaction. Well, it happens often, but there are such spot satisfactory moments, but there are as well many challenging moments. So, but yeah, it was during Martin funeral and then something happened afterwards in my career life that I thought, no, it's fine for me to move on. And 2007, I made that brave step. And guess what? I started on my own during the financial crisis. So not, not, not the best time to start your own business.


Michael McCartan

Well, it's, I mean, you've been wildly successful and I can't imagine you not being a, a consultant to the industry. So it's definitely our gain. So let's, let's have a look to the photograph. It's a, it's a group of people standing in a Whitey. I presume somewhere in, in UAE. Is that right?


Mona Faraj

No, it wasn't Elaine. And I, you know, I, I always do these incentive trips for my, for my team. And this was for the revenue leaders of retina hotels in 2004, I think. And I, we were doing a training on distribution and with Christina, <inaudible> from head now, and I decided that it's, we should, we should do the training. So what do I pick? I pick July for the training. And I say, we are going to go to the Wadi afterwards.


Mona Faraj

Now Elian is in the middle of the desert. July is boiling hot. What was meant to be a fun trip. The team was getting tired, and sweaty. They were cursing me behind my back. And I could hear them saying that we have to go in July to go to the Wadi and out of the blue, Michael, it started raining. It trained port cats and dogs, to the extent that all the wide, these were filled with water, we ended up swimming. And then our tour guides said, we're sorry, but we have to cut our trip short because soon the roads will get locked and you will not be able to go back to Abu Dhabi.


Mona Faraj

So I told my team, that this is what happens to anyone who cursed me behind my back. God listens immediately. And you know, you got, you got aligned, align what is flooded with water and yeah. And some of the people in that picture are all prominent hospitality executives still today. I won't mention names. They might see themselves in the picture, but yeah, it was, it was interesting. Yes.


Michael McCartan

Before


Mona Faraj

Grain in July.


Michael McCartan

And I guess that hardly ever happens.


Mona Faraj

So my kids don't ever upset me.


Michael McCartan

I worked when I, I know from, from experience, not to do that. So tell me, obviously you've travelled all over the place when you, when are you choosing a destination for leisure purposes, if you, if you get any time off for yourself, how do you go about selecting a destination?


Mona Faraj

Let, let me first tell you that the travel for me started way before really traveled because my father worked for the industry. He was in the travel industry. So we traveled quite substantially from the age of four. My, my first ever trip was to Germany when I was 40 years old, really choosing a destination have very much changed over the years. And depending on who are you travelling with? Is it with friends, with family? Are you, are you into the adventure part or do you want just to pamper yourself?


Mona Faraj

So there isn't really one way, one direction. However, now that I have my little Milo now, all of a sudden I started and he's going to travel with me to Canada this summer for the first trip ever that's to hug, we now can travel with pets. So he's going to Canada with me. And now all of the sudden I'm looking for destinations that are pet friendly hotels that are pet friendly. So here you go. Now all of a sudden I have to be more decisive as to where to go and where to stay his Highness dictates through.


Michael McCartan

So let's go to your second photograph. It's one of you on top of a sand or sand. You waving a flag. Please tell me about that one


Mona Faraj

Best memory of my life. The, the, there is a woman's group association funded by chef Salama foundation in Abu Dhabi called the woman heritage walk eight years ago, they decided that they want to take the expert ladies into discovering the MRR culture and to discovering how the UAE was back in the days, how the Bedouins, how the MRR is lived in the desert. And despite me being in the UAE since 1973, I've really never done anything in the desert, other than the desert safaris that every tourist has done in this region.


Mona Faraj

Yeah. You go to, to the multiple Everetts, but have I really have, I really got firsthand experience of sleeping in the desert. Not really so, and, and a friend of mine, who's a 60 plus year old lady who did that walk. She was the fourth group told me, Muna, you have to do it. It's the best experience in your life. You can do it. If I can do it, you can do it. So here I go, I sign up for, for what I thought would have been an easy walk and you train yourself for the walking in the desert. And the journey is to walk on foot between Abu Dhabi to align, which is 125 kilometers in the desert across June's you name it.


Mona Faraj

And you start training for desert walks three months before. From the first day I did my training. I thought, what that, what the hell have I signed up for? I am not, I am not physically fit for that. I am not mentally fit for that. I will never be able to do it. And I said, okay, let me try it the second time. Let me try the third time. And then a French lady comes to me, she's a cancer survivor for three times. And she said, when are, you can do it if I can do it out of cancer treatment. So can you, and to cut the long story short three months of twice a week training to, to do that work.


Mona Faraj

So the walk is it's the best experience. I think I have advised every one of my girlfriends who live in the UAE to just experience it. You will not, you will never experience anything like it in your life because you have five days of pure serenity. You simply walking 10 to 12 hours every day. There is only you, the sky, the sand and God, and a bit of chit-chatting and talking to your girlfriends, but it is, it is physically and mentally challenging. But getting to that last day was the best feeling of my life.


Mona Faraj

So this picture in specific is on the highest it's on the tip of a sand dune, which is the highest point between Abu Dhabi and a lion. It's about, I think 150 meters above sea level between you and I was lucky. It rained the day before. So the gold sand became like a cross. So it was much easier to get up to them because, you know, looking back now, I'm thinking if this was a real sand dune, I don't know how I would have been it sticks or no sticks. It's difficult. And in, in five days we saw all weather, all weathers, it, the temperature fluctuated from nine degrees at night to 35 degrees in the, during the day.


Mona Faraj

So you learn you. Yeah. Yeah, it is. It is. Many of my friends have gone on that trip after me. One trip actually stopped because of Corona for the past two years, but I'm definitely signing up for next year.


Michael McCartan

Fantastic. Wow. And you mentioned that you lived, in UAE since 1973, and obviously, you've seen huge change specifically in Dubai, but in Abu Dhabi as well. But it seems to me that there's another revolution happening in a tourism revolution happening in the world,


Mona Faraj

The understatement, anyone who has been brought up in this country and I'm seeing it genuinely, anyone who has been brought up in this country understands that there is nothing called impossible, understands that If you set your mind to something you are able to achieve, it understands that if you do not evolve and you do not change and you do not develop you die. And, and this country is, is the best example. The, the, tremendous development that I've seen in the UAE since 1973, you need, you can write books about it, but you also learn a lot when you have been brought up and raised.


Mona Faraj

I'm not talking about coming here in your twenties and thirties. Sure. You learn a lot. But for somebody like me, I came, I was three years old. I've seen it all. And I, and I saw it all firsthand. So yeah, it's, it's, it's, it's amazing. Yeah.


Michael McCartan

I guess it's happening in Saudi now as well. It's not just in the UAE as well.


Mona Faraj

Look there the region, the region has a lot of hidden gems. We saw one, which is the UAE. Saudi Arabia is definitely a place to watch. I keep on saying, I hope I live long enough to see all those mega mega projects happening. We're not getting any younger, but, but yeah, the, the, the region has people think of the middle east as a single region. We are not, there are so many different cultures and different, different experiences living within the middle east.


Mona Faraj

So, yeah. Welcome to my region.


Michael McCartan

Wonderful time is marching. I mean, we were going to run out of time if I'm not careful. So let's move to your next photograph, which is a picture of your fridge. Tell me about that.


Mona Faraj

That's my souvenirs. So it's not my fridge. It's the, it's the entrance to my, my apartment. And, and, you know, I love to collect different, different fridge magnets from the different countries I travelled to. And that's some of the collection I have a little bit more, and those are on my fridge, but this wall I love because it's a, it's what welcomes you when you enter my apartment.


Michael McCartan

And when you arrive in a new destination, is that what you looking for? That little vignette that you can put on your,


Mona Faraj

I love to collect that the only souvenirs I collect from every country, other food is a fridge, magnets and shot glasses. So, you know, you shooters. So I collect shooters and I collect magnets and that's about it. I stopped collecting all the other bigger bulkier pieces, because then you need a whole room to store them.


Michael McCartan

You mentioned food. And I like you. One of my sort of takeaways from visiting different places is the food. And tell me, tell me a little bit, a bit about your,


Mona Faraj

Oh, oh, oh, I was, I think we would in 1980, my first trip to the Philippines, I must have been maybe 12 years old or 13 years old. And me and my dad were always adventurous in our food. So I was 12 or 11 or 13 years old when I tried to snake fish and snake meat. When I tried snails, when I tried oysters, I, I mean, me and dad, whenever we used to, my dad loved travel. And my dad, my, my memory of my father is us quizzing him by opening the applause and putting our finger on any destination and the applause and saying that what is the city or country?


Mona Faraj

And my father would be able to tell you which city it is. What's the country. What's the capital, what, you know, core elements of audit and the most important is connectivity. He used to be able to tell you, how can you connect to that destination? Because my dad used to always say, travel is about connectivity. If you don't get to, if you are unable to connect point a to point C with as many points as possible, you will not be able to travel. So my that's how as kids, this was my game with my dad. And maybe that's why I love travel from a very, very, very young age.


Michael McCartan

Yeah. It's almost like you were destined to be in, in hospitality. It seems, you know, without realising it at the time.


Mona Faraj

Yeah. But I studied money and banking. I studied to be a poet. I was studying money and banking. I never completed it because I thought, no, it's not for me, hospitality. It is


Michael McCartan

Now as, as a hotel, you would have seen many unusual and interesting things on the property. So before we wrap up, can you please share a faulty towers moment?


Mona Faraj

1000% I do. It's a camel. So my general manager at the time in Abu Dhabi Hilton in 1992, decided to do 1001 nights of Arabia and the boardroom of Abu Dhabi Hilton. And to get the field, we put sand in the boardroom. We had all the sun Junes all the tent, but we needed the camel. So he decided to bring two camels and get them up the marble staircase to the board room. So you get the authentic feeling of the thousand and one Arabian nights and Camels don't go upstairs case and commons.


Mona Faraj

Can't walk on marble. So we brought tons of sand and we were throwing sand on the marble, trying to get that camel to go up the staircase. It did not work because he put the sand on the, on the Arbel and it just spreads all over the lobby of the Adobe Hilton. So after three hours of trials and trials, I think our general manager, Mr. Emad Ilyas decided to give up. So what we ended up doing is we ended up putting the sand in the lobby and putting the camel to welcome the guests when you're going up to the thousand and one nights and the Abu Dhabi, Hilton boardroom.


Mona Faraj

But that experience, okay. Something naughty happened as well because the camel got very stressed. So he decided to give me a gift on my desk.


Michael McCartan

No one told you not to work with animals or children.


Mona Faraj

Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah.


Michael McCartan

Well, Mona has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much for sharing your stories with us. And once again, thank you for being on photographs and memories.


Mona Faraj

Thank you, Mike. Thank you.


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