Fiennes’ scaling of huge heights inspire AHIC hoteliers
Fiennes’ scaling of huge heights inspire AHIC hoteliers
23 APRIL 2018 7:28 AM

The 2018 Arabian Hotel Investment Conference ended with the most memorable keynote speech I have ever heard. Get ready for some rousing adventures courtesy of the world’s greatest living explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, that will keep you out past dinnertime.

Regular attendees at hotel investment conferences have become accustomed to several days of deals, meetings and panel discussions that wraps up with a keynote address delivered by a speaker from outside of the industry.

Professional athletes and personalities connected with the politics of the day are often favorites to end the festivities, but at this year’s Arabian Hotel Investment Conference, delegates had a real treat when the guest speaker was Sir Ranulph Fiennes, often referred to as the “world’s greatest living explorer.”

Fiennes was not just a celebratory choice picked at random. He packs serious credentials.

He speaks Arabic fluently. He knows how to raise capital—all his many adventures need sponsors, who needed newspaper, TV and social media coverage—and he has raised almost $20 million for charity. In 1991, after 26 years of searching, he discovered the lost city of Ubar, Oman, a fabled center of civilization close to AHIC’s home in the United Arab Emirates. Legend has it that the city was destroyed by God in a massive sandstorm as punishment for presumably too much sin and extravagance.

While delivering his address, Fiennes was funny.

As a Brit myself, it was amusing to hear his near megalomaniacal obsession with outdoing the Norwegians. This is not of Fiennes’ invention, but goes back to the 1910-1911 race to the South Pole, which Norwegian Roald Amundsen won and Brit Robert Falcon Scott lost, along with his life and that of some of his colleagues.

This seemed to be at the core of Fiennes’ motivation.

After his hourlong talk, Fiennes was asked, “Where else is there left to be discovered?”

“I will not be drawn into that discussion,” Fiennes said. “There might be Norwegians in the audience.”

Of course there were, one sitting immediately to my right. I suppose that is to be expected at any international hotel event.

Fiennes spoke wonderfully on his polar expeditions, too.

When he gesticulated his passion, it was clear to the audience that his fingers had suffered from frostbite, resulting in amputation.

This is a leader who has a sound judge of character when it comes to staffing his journeys and is able to organize very complex travel logistics. He credited his late wife Ginnie (neé Pepper)—who accompanied Fiennes on many trips—and said he understands the management approach needed to keep teams whole when, for example, food is in short supply, the outside temperature can strip the skin off extremities in minutes and tempers are as tight as banjo strings.

There was much for hoteliers to ponder in that.

I asked him what travel literature inspired his boyhood curiosity.

Fiennes replied he admired fellow Brit, Arabic speaker and traveler Sir Wilfred Thesiger—whose books I have devoured, too—who explored the Marsh Arabs of Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen’s Empty Quarter desert, the Rub' al Khali.

A very accomplished British woman, Dame Freya Stark, was traveling through these lands at pretty much the same time. We Brits like to knight our explorers, and it was not just the boys involved in such escapades.

Another admittedly weak link between Fiennes’ life and the hotel industry is that he was sent to Beaconsfield, just west of London, to learn Arabic when he was in the elite, secret Special Air Service regiment of the British Army. Two weeks ago, I went to Beaconsfield to visit Paul Callingham, managing director of white-label management company Starboard Hotels, which has its offices there.

Yes, weak, I know, but it came immediately to mind as Fiennes spoke.

Often delegates are eager to wrap up events and head for lunch—or in the case of 2018 AHIC host Waldorf Astoria Ras al Khaimah, the beach immediately outside—but the main hall was packed and everyone hung onto Fiennes’ every word.

The achievement of a small handful of human spirits, including Fiennes’, was obviously evident and made us all realize if we put our minds to something, all is possible.

In the hotel industry, hopefully that does not mean lost fingers and toes and a heart attack, which Fiennes suffered from after three years of nonstop travel over both poles.

Inspiring stuff, indeed.

Email Terence Baker or find him on Twitter.

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