Hani El-Sharkawi

Vancouver is fast shedding its image as a cultural back­water, thanks in large part to an influx of world-seasoned travellers such as Hani El-Sharkawi.

Born in Libya and educated in Egypt, El-Sharkawi speaks six languages and has worked his way across Europe, managing hotels in Vienna, Paris and Prague before arriving in Vancouver to oversee operations at the Shangri-La Hotel, which will occupy 15 floors of the tower now rising above the city skyline at West Georgia and Thurlow.


El-Sharkawi’s previous assignment couldn’t offer a starker contrast to the glass-and-steel Shangri-La tower. The stately Radisson SAS Palais Hotel in Vienna has its origins as a 19th-century palace; European nobles were hosting regal cotillions there around the time when Gassy Jack was slogging through the mud streets that would one day become Vancouver.

El-Sharkawi’s CV also includes a stint at the Hotel George V in Paris, and even a brief posting in Astana, Kazakhstan, where he oversaw the opening of the country’s first five-star hotel. (He recalls having to staff the hotel with doctors and English teachers because they were the only ones who could speak English.)

For a candid impression of Vancouver through the eyes of a newly arrived world traveller, BCBusiness caught up with El-Sharkawi in April, nine months before the scheduled opening of the Shangri-La.

Had you been to Vancouver before starting your new job last March?

No. It’s my very first time in Vancouver.

What’s your first impression of Vancouver’s hotels?

To be honest, I have the feeling that there has been minimal hotel development over the past decade. As the city is rapidly growing and everyone is talking about 2010 and a lot of development is happening, there’s a need for new, state-of-the-art and luxurious accommodations in the city. There are quite a few coming; we’ll just be the first one to ride the wave at Shangri-La.

How do you expect the clientele at Shangri-La to differ from that of European hotels?

I think the clientele won’t be much different. Guests that I had at the Hotel George V in Paris, for example, I met again at the Sacher hotel in Vienna. As globalization continues to bring our world closer together, it’s the same businesspeople who are in New York, who are in Paris, who are in Vienna and who will eventually come to our hotel in Vancouver. I’ve met people at the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, and when I told them we’re opening in Vancouver, they promised to come, so I’m sure I will see a lot of familiar faces.

Opening a brand-new hotel is a rare opportunity. What personal touches do you expect to bring?

What I think is important is to have a diversified workforce. I think we’ve got a lot of good material, if I can put it that way, here in Vancouver: people are genuinely friendly and they don’t have to make an effort to smile, even in the most casual restaurant. I also hope to bring in some people from abroad who have seen other sides of the hospitality industry. If you think about the development of modern-day hospitality, the Europeans brought us the technique and the fine points of service; the Americans brought the efficiency and the friendliness; and then from Asia we get the graciousness and thoughtfulness. So it will require a good mixture to become one of the finest hotels.

What was it like overseeing operations in a 100-year-old former palace?

There are a lot of challenges because you’re running 50 per cent museum and 50 per cent hotel. Most of the buildings that are that old are historical monuments, so there are certain things that you cannot touch and you cannot change. You sometimes have very limited or no storage areas. You have stairs in the guest corridors because the building has different levels, so rather than one person in room service bringing up a room-service trolley, you need two people to carry it. Our walls were so thick that sometimes the signal for the wireless Internet didn’t go through.  And of course, space is very limited: 20 years ago there was no need for such large bathrooms, but today it’s standard in any luxury hotel to have double sinks, separate showers and separate bathtubs. You simply cannot do that in a building that’s over 100 years old.

What are some of the challenges in overseeing operations in a brand new tower in a young city?

We are introducing a lot of technology – Cat 6 cables, flat-screen TVs, the newest technology in banquets, the phone system – it’s all wired for the 21st century. I couldn’t imagine getting all that to function correctly from the very first day. It could be challenging.

Travel is obviously a big part of working in the hotel business. Is that what initially attracted you?

Absolutely. I wanted to work with people. I cannot be locked up in an office with a computer. I need to walk around and meet and talk and work with people. I like to travel and to learn about new cultures and new places. And I speak six languages, so I might as well make use of them.

How old are you?

I’ll turn 35 in July. But I learned you’re not allowed to ask that in Canada. I was asking our director of HR how old a candidate was and she looked at me with big eyes and said, “We’re not allowed to ask that!”

Vancouver probably won’t be your last stop in this business. How long do you envision being here?

That is a very good question. I don’t know. Obviously, I want to open the hotel, and stability is very important, although we are used to rotating our executives and our staff within our hotels. But I would expect to be here at least until the Winter Olympics and then move on from there. Who knows? Maybe I’ll fall in love with Vancouver and stay here forever.