Opinion.

Hospitality in arctic conditions

Mouawia Lababidi, 34, is Hotel Director of three Hurtigruten-managed properties on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, 1,300km above the Arctic Circle. The French-born Syrian oversees operations in temperatures that regularly plummet below -25c in winter. He shares his unique insights on island life with Click.

by Mouawia Lababidi, Hotel Director, Hurtigruten

Topic: Guest experience

Click. Takeaway

  • Working with the competition can sometimes be a positive experience
  • Be prepared for unusual guest requests and go that extra mile if necessary
  • Get creative when unexpected situations arise

In somewhere like this, good planning is essential

Logistically, you have to plan months ahead. We have deliveries via boat and air freight, but in the ‘dark season’ ships only arrive once or twice a month. If something needs to come in via air freight, cost and logistics become very important. In 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland and flights were disrupted all over Europe, we had real problems; no fresh produce or milk for example. You become very creative in situations like that. When things returned to normal it was like a ‘Black Friday’ shopping bonanza, everyone went crazy. Two weeks ago, due to logistical issues, we had a delivery of vegetables, which got left outside too long and froze solid so weren’t usable any more. These things happen.

In a such a remote place, working together with our competition is necessary

We help each other, for example, if we run out of eggs we go to them, if they run out of eggs they come to us. It would be more difficult, if we just focused on ourselves.

A typical day for me is never typical

I’ve never had a dull day here. Sometimes I’m interacting with guests, sometimes I’m much more in the back office for meetings. I start off my day with a plan and maybe once a week I’ll actually stick to that plan! I oversee three different properties (Radisson Blu Polar Hotel, Funken Lodge and Coal Miners’ Cabin), which are at different price points and that means guests in each have different expectations that have to be dealt with.

Of course, in winter the weather affects how we operate

Sometimes we have to move guests from the Coal Miners’ Cabin if there’s a high avalanche risk, because it’s in an area that might be more prone to this happening. We have to be a step ahead, for the safety of our guests. In winter, it can be -25c and winds of 25m/second and we carry on. You go outside, you’re cold, you come inside, you warm up. I’ve been up to the North Pole and there it was -46c: in fact, I was the first Syrian to get there, so that was excellent for my bucket list.

Our staff are like a mini United Nations

Of course, we have Norwegians, but we also have staff from France, Sweden, Thailand, Philippines, Italy, Slovakia, Faroe Islands, England, Canada, Russia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Portugal, and Argentina. It’s a fantastic mix!

Guests can make some funny requests

We had one couple who asked where we kept our pet polar bear on the property and were upset to find out we didn’t have one. Some people can’t cope with the darkness: one man wanted to check out after one night. There was no flight until the next day, so he wanted to know how much it would be to rent a private plane or helicopter to take him down to the mainland.

On days off I keep busy

I head out on my snowmobile to a cabin for a weekend with friends, where there’s no mobile signal or internet so we play board games, chat, play cards around a fire. It’s a chance to reconnect with nature and switch off from technology. I took up snowboarding three or four years ago, although the terrain is a bit rocky. In summertime, I go kayaking and hiking.

When Ramadan falls in summer, it can be challenging to fast when there’s no night

My first year here Ramadan was in August and I followed the time in Tromso (further south, on the Norwegian mainland), so I was fasting for 20 hours a day. That’s one way to lose weight! After that I spoke to a sheik in a mosque in Syria who told me to follow the time in Mecca, so that was easier. Ramadan isn’t a punishment, it’s a way to cleanse the mind, body and soul. And also, to remind us of being helpful and compassionate towards others.

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Mouawia Lababidi is Hotel Director of three Hurtigruten-managed properties on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen

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