What U.S. businesses must do to succeed overseas

Boston December 4, 2009 -- "You don't have to be a Halliburton to succeed in the Middle East," says Jeffrey Ornstein, CEO of J/Brice Design, which has established itself as an international hotel-design powerhouse through its growing presence in the region.

Ornstein and Sheikh Fahd Allreza

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the firm is currently designing a $300 million Hotel and Office Tower, a commission from one the kingdoms most prominent families. J/Brice has also penetrated the ultra high-end residential market with two new contracts -- designing a 52,000 square-foot summer palace on the Red Sea and a high-end residential compound or gated community with 120 villas in oil-rich Al Khobar. The villa development targets wealthy Saudis and energy industry executives from Europe and the US. The firm is expanding with future hotel projects in Zanzibar, Bahrain and Ethiopia.
J/Brice Design is no stranger to plum assignments in the US refurbishing the original Queen Mary in Long Beach, the iconic Helmsley Hotel in New York and the award-winning Mart Plaza in Chicago. "Projects like these that allow us to push the limits and demonstrate our command of the design process are dwindling in the US as the recession wears on. On the other hand, our clients in the Middle East are encouraging us to create leading edge properties and owners are willing to provide the funding," says Ornstein.
By mid-November 1,248 US hotels were distressed representing $31.4 billion in outstanding debt, according to Real Capital Analytics. Hotel analysts Smith Travel Research reports that by years end, occupancy and room rates will decline 8.4% and 9.7% percent respectively.
Persistence Pays Off -- Finally
Ornstein assessed his situation. With the US hotel industry in decline, the firm had to find new markets or cut costs. J/Brice had worked in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in the mid-1990s, but had not pursued additional business outside the UAE. “I put out feelers throughout the Middle East with some of some people I had met there, including architects working in the region. In no short order, a Cyprus-based architect called. He invited me to meet in Qatar to explore ideas,” said Ornstein adding, “I had visited Qatar in the late 90s when it was still a sleepy Hamlet. Knowing that our market was growing there, I was on a plane in two weeks to the capital city of Doha. The potential in Qatar was huge since the recent discovery of natural gas reserves made it the richest per-capita country in the world.”
The first meeting was very friendly. “We met with a few Qatari businessmen and about two-dozen members of the Royal Family. We spoke of art, the Red Sox, American Politics, but there was little talk of business in terms of specific projects,” adds Ornstein.
Ornstein returned to Boston. A few weeks later he received another call, “They like you. Come back.”
“So I went back. More talk. No business.”
This went on for five trips. “At the last invitation, when I departed Boston, I said this is it. No more wild goose chases. This time however the trip paid off with a contract to design the interior of a new luxury hotel in Doha -- fifth times a charm,” says Ornstein.
The Middle East work created a comfortable financial cushion and needed revenue for J/Brice Design. “Equally important, it gave us the chance to really showcase our design capability. The developers wanted us to awe their guests -- even those who arrive in their own Gulfstreams. The properties we design have to be different from anything else in the region -- indeed the world. In a nutshell, we were being challenged to participate in rebranding the Arabian Gulf as an international hot spot for the wealthiest international travelers. It was inspirational, and energized me and my team.”
Ornstein recalls, “I also realized the value of those numerous trips. They helped me develop an understanding and sensitivity to a region that wanted to become the world’s hospitality leader. With the exception of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab in Dubai, Middle Eastern hotel architecture had been rooted in an international post-modernism style that lacked regional identity or, for that matter, any lasting architectural significance. The buildings could be anywhere -- Vancouver, Houston or San Paulo. But now the countries of the Middle East wanted to create their own unique identity. And they looked to us to help make it happen.”
As a result of the work, Ornstein has been recognized as the region's design authority and a respected advisor. He was the first American ever invited to be the lead speaker of the Kingdom Hotel Expansion and Investment World Summit, held in June 2009. The Middle East's top real estate developers and owners along with members of the royal family gathered there in Riyadh to hear experts talk about opportunities in the Kingdom.
For US businesses trying to penetrate the Middle East, Ornstein emphasises that Americans are known for ingenuity and for following through on commitments -- qualities valued worldwide. “Nevertheless, you do have to let go of your American business mindset before you get off the plane in the Middle East. Here, plans aren’t really plans. Youl’l arrive for a meeting on Tuesday and they’ll move it to Friday. In the middle of a meeting, they’ll take a call and remain on the phone indefinitely. I used to pull my hair out, but I finally said, ‘Wait, this is how they do things here. Its a cultural divide,’ and not intended as a slight. Go with the flow. It works.”
Jeffrey Ornstein CEO, J/Brice Design International, Inc. offers 10 tips: What US Business Must Do to Succeed Overseas.
1. Don't wait for an economic turnaround. Pick a country or region and dive in. Do not assume that because they are buying your product or service locally, that they will not buy from you.
 2. Develop a global outlook. Travel to developing areas. You can incorporate exploratory marketing trips with your personal vacations by eschewing Paris, London, and Rome, and venturing out to Addis Ababa, Hanoi, or Shanghai.
3. Be patient -- invest your own time and travel expenses in exchange for knowledge that will lead to greater reward and more significant projects.
4. You must socialize to secure business. Attend social events, even if it means flying from the US to attend a single party. Build friendly relationships at every economic and social level. Don’t underestimate the importance of trust-in-an-individual as a prerequisite for consideration.
5. Deliver on tiny promises. You may be asked to send US stamps for a Sheik's son's stamp collection or to buy a cosmetic available only in the US. Do it. The significance of your follow-through stretches far beyond the simple task at hand.
6. Hire a local advisor or "fixer" to provide a car and driver, locate lost luggage or work through a jam. This lets you focus on your mission while leaving the logistics to others. Well worth the cost.
7. Establish a presence if possible -- the J/Brice office in Al Khobar was essential to demonstrating our commitment.
8. Embrace customs and culture, but don't obsess over a minor social gaffe. Be open and your hosts will advise you, delighting in sharing their customs and appreciative of your interest.
9. Bring out the best of America has to offer. There are plenty of negative cliché about Americans being loud, too demanding, and arriving underdressed for the event (baseball caps and sneakers at dinner!)  Lose the negatives and be exemplary of what international clients admire about Americans -- Yankee Ingenuity, integrity, determination, situational adaptability, multiculturalism and resourcefulness.
10. Be a Cultural Spy -- take in everything about the places you visit.  Look for connections that may not seem relevant to marketing your service or product. Consider tastes and interests in literature, music and art. Having an interest in the arts is far more important to clients overseas than to US business people. Observe whether your associates and their customers are socially conservative or progressive? What fashions do they like? What do they aspire to? Absorb regional and national cultures like a sponge and you will be welcomed into them more readily.


Like this story? Subscribe to Hotel Design!

Hospitality professionals turn to Hotel Design as their go-to news source for the latest products, projects, and trends for hotel interior designers and architects. Sign up today to get news and updates delivered to your inbox and read on the go.