Dagmar Symes On How The Restaurant Business Is Evolving In Saudi Arabia


Starting her career with the leading hotels of the world, Dagmar previously worked in various luxury properties in France, Switzerland, and her native Germany. Her first General Manager position was at Hotel Chateau Grand Barrail in Saint Emilion, France. She then spent 12 years in a managerial capacity in the luxury retail business and worked in flagship stores of renowned brands such as Louis Vuitton in France and Germany where she held the position of Marketing Director and BVLGARI, before returning to the hospitality industry in 2010 as Hotel Manager for Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski, Munich.

Dagmar’s career with Kempinski brought her to the Middle East when she was appointed as the pre-opening General Manager for Kempinski Summerland Hotel & Resort in Beirut, Lebanon. After the successful opening of Kempinski Summerland Hotel & Resort, Dagmar assumed the position of Cluster General Manager at Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel in Beirut, Lebanon, and Le Vendome InterContinental Hotel. After a five-year span in Lebanon, she relocated to Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar Resort in Oman, where she re-established the property as a leading Luxury Hotel in the Middle East.

Dagmar is currently the General Manager of Private Estates in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In Conversation with Dagmar Symes, General Manager, Hill Robinson Estates

In an exclusive conversation with The Restaurant Times, Dagmar Symes, General Manager of Hill Robinson Estates, Saudi Arabia talks about the hospitality/ F&B industry in KSA and women empowerment in KSA. 

This is the fourth in a series of interviews hosted by our guest host, Peggy Li, Managing Partner at SPS Affinity Consultancy, who has 18 years of experience working with Michelin-starred fine-dining brands across the UK and the Far East. Peggy has worked with some of the greatest chefs, including Joël Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay, and Atul Kochhar.

Peggy Li – Give us a brief overview of your career journey in the region and how you landed your post in KSA?

Symes – My golden ticket to enter the Middle East came through the assignment as General Manager of the pre-opening of Kempinski Summerland Hotel & Resort in Beirut, Lebanon. I therewith, fell in love with the country and the region as a whole and was entrusted thereafter with various prestigious properties, including the prime gem of the Middle East, the Phoenicia InterContinental Hotel, along with its sister property Le Vendome InterContinental Hotel. From there I continued my paved path by assuming reestablishing the prime mountain resort, Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar in the Sultanate of Oman. Subsequently I was handpicked to take on the reins of a unique opportunity of managing Private Estates in the Kingdom, as part of our company’s development plans. I am in awe of this particular undertaking and life in the Kingdom.

Peggy Li – Of the time you have worked in KSA so far, what is your sentiment of the country, and how have you seen the industry evolve with all the new initiatives from the government of KSA?

Symes – Saudi Arabia has created a vision 2030, championed by His Royal Highness Prince Mohamad Bin Salman focusing not only on development but on tourism, a new era within the Kingdom’s future. This vision is of an utmost progressive and fast-paced approach. 

COVID has indeed re-engineered the world and the traditional traveler behavior. This pandemic has given all of us a very conscious understanding of tourism with a focus on sustainability and an eco-friendly approach, which the Kingdom embraces as its future. 

With the current pandemic striking the hospitality industry, taking up an opportunity in the Private Estates sector in the Kingdom versus an assignment within Hospitality was a most stimulating prospect. With the tremendous growth opportunity in the Kingdom and their initiatives in all business sectors within vision 2030, we envisioned this opportunity to establish our legal entity in the Kingdom, as Hill Robinson Estates Limited Saudia. It has been truly rewarding to have taken part in the founding of such a prestigious undertaking within the dynamics of the most stimulating progression in the country.

As per tradition, women did not participate over generations in the economy and education, whereas nowadays a huge number of youngsters join university or study abroad. Nowadays, the opening up of the social parameters strongly supports the Kingdom’s economic growth and development. Especially in the Hospitality and Restaurant scene, you can embrace the booming vibes that are circulating all over the nation. With current investments at all levels, businesses support primarily the local community and fulfill therewith one of the key targets of vision 2030.

Peggy Li – What is your opinion and insight in seeing how the hospitality/ F&B industry will evolve in KSA?

Symes – KSA is anticipating the launch of becoming a prime destination within the tourism industry worldwide which goes hand in hand with the development of the restaurant and hospitality sector. With the vast expansion within the tourism sector as a whole, one of the biggest challenges might be the harmonization between the educational system and the requirements of the labor market. The Middle East as an emerging market thus far dependent on foreign workforce. Evolving in the hospitality industry would mean to align society with the employment market. With new employment opportunities, we see the rise in the educational sector as well. These development mirrors that society itself is changing granting enormous opportunities for young local talents. Saudi Arabia has taken a proactive approach that growth and sustainability have to co-exist.

Peggy Li- As a female C- level professional in the hospitality industry how have you seen the evolution of female leadership in the region?

Symes – When I joined the Middle East, I realized the meaning for the local community to have a female General Manager and Executive leader, as it appeared uncommon. 

In the Kingdom, the culture has never prevented females from working. However, their roles were traditionally more engraved within the household. With the opening up of society, the female community is embracing the bridge to the opportunity of education and female empowerment. The sky is the limit!

There are numerous vibrant developments in the Arab world in the hospitality and tourism sector. KSA has defined a clear vision for 2030, Oman is promoting their vision 2040 and other Arab countries are recovering from the dire COVID situation and its dramatic repercussions on the business. 

The Kingdom is under substantial change starting to embrace female talent and creating new opportunities for women. Female empowerment, especially in the hospitality and tourism sector, and gender equality is steadily increasing as the Arab world continuously evolves and modernizes.

I am a firm believer that the future is digital and female. Women can bring significant positive changes to the workplace.

The Arab region has the world’s lowest rate of the female labor force. The more cultural barriers are overcome and concerns as to adequate education, balancing family and work life and legislative barriers, women will have a successful future in the industry. I believe that diversity and inclusion are base pillars for healthy demographics in all business aspects. Time has never been a better ally to female leadership than the present.

Peggy Li- What would you like to see the most on how women leadership/ development of our industry in the region?

Symes – The Kingdom is in the process of paving the way forward for the female workforce and therewith empowerment. As the hospitality and restaurant sector have not been fully acknowledged by society as ideal and reputable career paths and work environments, women prefer assignments in administrative fields such as Finance, Sales, and Marketing, and similar contrary to the service-related operational fields such as housekeeping and F&B. 

Women bring along different perspectives and attribute to the table. Especially as we are adjusting to the post-pandemic phase in the hospitality and tourism sector, I firmly believe that women will organically pave their way through the ranks based on their natural attributes and will play a key role in the socio-economic development of the business environment.

There are countless positive developments in the Kingdom regarding the roles of women in the hotel industry. You can witness an increase in the number of female executives in the hotel sector, proving themselves to be robust, enthusiastic, and experts in the field. This exercise has also extended to vast ends, reaching the Arabian Peninsula where cultural boundaries are opening up.

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Prachi is the Marketing Manager at Restroworks. In her current capacity, she establishes connections with key stakeholders in the F&B industry and serves as the host of The Restaurant Times talk show, "F&B Talks," tailored for the restaurant sector. With hands-on experience in international sales and marketing, Prachi has led initiatives in the LATAM and USA regions, contributing to the platform's global outreach.


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