The lobby of the Landmark Amman Hotel is humming with excitement. Sartorially suited businessmen converse as tourists sweep through the doors and hippies recline on sofas sipping loose leaf tea whilst activists and lawyers convene in hushed powwows en route to Gaza. The force behind this nucleus of Jordanian activity is as formidable as they come. Not only has the hotel’s chairwoman, Mary Nazzal-Batayneh, taken the hospitality sector by storm—breathing new life into an industry her grandfather once pioneered—her expert legal training is turning dedication to the Palestinian plight into tangible change.
Today, the Landmark Amman Hotel personifies Nazzal-Batayneh’s greatest passions, standing as a landmark in more ways than one. Located just off the city’s Third Circle, it’s one of the capital’s oldest properties, and one of the most recognizable. It’s also the first—and thus far only—Jordanian-owned and run five-star hotel in the Kingdom. Though the building dates back to 1978, renovation has recently been completed on most of the hotel’s public space.
But Nazzal-Batayneh, who believes the sky is never the limit, is spearheading further renovation, this time to the 260 guest bedrooms. “The style will be very contemporary and highlight Jordanian photography,” says the 35-year-old, who also has grand designs for the lobby. The new entrance will feature a library and tea bar with a wide selection of local herbs so guests can concoct their own brew. “Tea culture here, and across the Middle East is very important,” says the mother-of-two.
But Jordanian culture won’t only be reflected in steaming pots of cardamom-infused tea; local art, food, photography, bath products and music all subtly permeate the property. “We’re a platform for everything Jordanian,” says the dynamic leader. “We want to tell people, ‘you’re in Jordan, this is what we have to offer, this is the beauty of our country,’” she says passionately.
After taking over ownership of the property from her hotelier father, Yousef Nazzal, in 2009, Nazzal-Batayneh canceled the hotel’s management contracts with Radisson SAS, instead founding home-grown brand Landmark with her husband Aysar Batayneh, whom she affectionately calls her rock, to own and manage the property. Since the change, better results have been posted across all indicators, and although she keeps finances close to her chest, Nazzal-Batayneh reveals, “In terms of revenue, profit and guest and staff satisfaction, we’ve improved significantly.”
For Nazzal-Batayneh, Landmark’s success is down to its staff. “They’re what make the hotel great…they’re the reason people come back,” she says. Alluding to a common difficulty faced by hoteliers across the country, the chairwoman points to industry misconceptions. “There’s stigma related to working in hospitality. That’s an issue in our culture we need to fix,” she declares. Since change begins at home, the savvy leader set about challenging the way employees saw their jobs. “Jordanians are very hospitable. When you go to someone’s house, whether they’re a Bedouin or a farmer, from the North or the South, they’ll open their house to you as if it’s your own,” she says, “That’s the way we want our employees to see the hotel.”
In a bid to encourage a sense of ownership, and more Jordanians to join the ranks, Beirut-born Nazzal-Batayneh went about restructuring the business. Traditional hierarchical structures were removed in favor of a more egalitarian system. “We’re a family, not owners and staff,” says the young leader. The sense of family attracted locals to the company, as did the chairwoman’s focus on employee well-being and today 99% of staff and all department heads are Jordanian.
The near-perfect figure is a great achievement, but when pushed for her greatest to date, Nazzal-Batayneh can’t contain her excitement. According to the barrister, the hotel’s General Manager, Ibrahim Karajeh, is the biggest Landmark success. After joining as banqueting manager in 2012, the young Jordanian worked his way up the ladder. “He’s the best performing GM we’ve ever had!” adds the chairwoman, who cites regional instability as her biggest challenge.
But success stories like Ibrahim Karajeh don’t happen without hard work. And Nazzal-Batayneh, like her GM, is anything but work-shy as she continues to develop a variety of CSR initiatives, which include minimizing the hotel’s carbon footprint and recycling. “It sounds simple because the whole world is doing it, but for Jordan it’s new,” she says.
Of course, the hotel can’t recycle all. “There aren’t the facilities here to recycle everything,” says the Colombia University political science graduate, adding that Jordanian law doesn’t require businesses to recycle, something that she hopes will change soon. “Until then, we have to speak up,” she says, calling for environmentally sustainable practices to become institutionalized.
And Nazzal-Batayneh’s green fingers haven’t gone unnoticed, with His Excellency Hazem Malhas, former Jordanian Minister of Environment, engineer and fellow activist commenting, “She’s transformed the hotel into a successful local brand and put forth a lot of effort towards sustainability—sourcing local products and going almost carbon neutral in the meeting spaces.”
Beyond the environment, Nazzal-Batayneh has dedicated herself to the empowerment of women, and claims to employ more females than any other five-star hotel in the country. To establish a favorable working environment, a nursery is set to open at the Landmark in early 2015, so female employees can bring their children to work.
But the road to female empowerment is never smooth, and in March this year Nazzal-Batayneh instated a zero tolerance policy regarding harassment. Taking center stage, she ran a series of workshops regarding the role of women in the workplace. “It’s in the culture of this hotel to respect women, nothing less will be tolerated,” she says firmly. Understanding that actions speak louder than words, pay equity was established. “All over the world you find pay discrepancies between the genders. Here, men and women doing the same work are paid the same,” the hotel head says.
Nazzal-Batayneh’s hopes stretch beyond the four walls of the Landmark and her greatest wish is that positive change transcends her business to impact the wider community. “As a company, we’re a microcosm of all the societal issues, be it poverty or empowering women or the marginalization of a community,” she begins, “we have an obligation, and a platform, to deal with these issues.”
With resolve that goes beyond business, there’s little doubt that Nazzal-Batayneh’s tenacious background in human rights law has informed the way she works. “Being exposed to injustice and abuse certainly influences the way I make business decisions,” she articulates. But beyond that, the chairwoman can’t deny the familial. “My father is a very giving person. To him, giving has always been more important than receiving,” she says.
And giving comes naturally to the self-proclaimed activist. Her Royal Highness Princess Rym Ali of Jordan, Executive Commissioner of the Royal Film Commission says, “Mary has no problem pouring most of her energy into defending human rights, using her legal know-how to hold those responsible accountable.” Since being called to the bar, Nazzal-Batayneh’s ongoing priority has been to fund and facilitate legal cases in support of Palestinian human rights. “Becoming a lawyer was just one way of facilitating my activism,” says the hotelier who was named a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. “For the sake of my children, and for the sake of humanity I had to get involved,” she adds.
Explaining the need to use the law in activism, Nazzal-Batayneh declares, “For the Palestinian people, the struggle is based in international law, and it’s time we start using it.” Most recently the dedicated lawyer helped establish Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Jordan, an offshoot of the BDS global movement which calls for action to be taken against Israel until it complies with international law.
And boycotting Israeli products is something the chairwoman has taken to heart. “We don’t purchase any Israeli products,” she says, though admits that weeding them out can be challenging due to a lack of comprehensive labeling. To combat this, she’s currently working to document all Israeli products available in the Kingdom and then plans to lobby the government so they are labeled as such. “Consumers should, at least, understand what they’re buying,” she says.
The chairwoman’s activism has impressed many, not least Her Royal Highness Princess Rym Ali, who says, “She puts her words into action, systematically and without fault.” As tension in Gaza subsides—for now, at least—Nazzal-Batayneh is consumed by legal battles, but keen to keep the Landmark ball spinning, she’s mapping out extensive future plans, most notably, acquiring the historic property, The Winter Palace in Jericho. Over the next five years, she plans to restore the palace, and open with a crew of Palestinian employees.
It seems grand ambition runs in the family; it was the roaring twenties when Nazzal-Batayneh’s hotelier grandfather, Anton Nazzal, was aspiring to standards of hospitality previously unknown in Jordan. The Philadelphia Hotel in the capital’s old town was the hotspot for the famous and the fashionable. Kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia shared pots of steaming coffee, Omar Sharif relaxed by the glistening pool and Peter O’Toole and Anthony Quinn recuperated there during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia.
Over 25 years after The Philadelphia Hotel closed its doors for the last time, Mary Nazzal-Batayneh is breathing new life into an industry that runs deep in her veins. Managing to balance head and heart, the chairwoman is doing great business—and she’s doing it the right way. “I’ve merged both worlds—the hotel and my activism—and somehow it works,” she says. For the young girl who once dreamed of becoming UN Secretary General, her life followed a somewhat different path, but it’s a path she wouldn’t change for the world. The world, on the other hand, she would love to get her hands on.