I used to think Omar Farrugia was a nice guy. I was wrong; he is a great guy. A polyglot and a polymath, Omar’s knowledge and interests surpass the fenced boundaries between technology and Art.
He greeted me in his usual friendly manner, and in no time, we chatted and chatted. He is now Head of Global Digital Partnerships at Corinthia Hotels Limited (CHL). I became aware that by looking at his past roles within Corinthia, one could visualise the parallel development of digital technology. Omar was on the spot with his hands firmly on the rudder when this exciting digital journey started and exploded.
When he joined CHL, the Company needed to start its first Central Reservation System (CRS) to begin integrating the hotels, which were all separated from each other, without a seamless system. He was the pioneer and worked damned hard on it.
His next post was Electronic Distribution Manager. Electronic distribution was a new kettle of fish then. “You needed to have a mind which understands how systems work, how they integrate, and the possibilities ahead. We needed electronic distribution since, at that time were only acting offline. Online travel agencies (OTA) were emerging, and I onboarded this moving vehicle with great passion.”
This led to his next role as Manager of Online Marketing. “Practically, it was a general start-up. Social media was still freshly introduced. One had to join that route or get lost. So I personally started all the digital marketing of Corinthia without the assistance of other companies. I built profiles on Google, social platforms and the rest whilst continuously absorbing information from all our hotels. Facebook and Twitter had then just started; that was 2005/2006.”
I noted Omar’s next work title, Director of Online Sales. “Yes, that was a natural development, parallel to the burgeoning digital reality. We started integrating social media platforms with digital online platforms and built our own Online Travel agencies (OTA) database. This was also a pioneering job. Developments were so fast and worldwide that one could easily fall prey to the whirlwind. We had to understand where we were and what we wanted to do, and then sharply zoom our efforts on how to reach there.”
I reminded Omar of his next title, Director of Digital Retail Sales. His face reflected the excitement of those days. “By that time, our online retail sales started to become significant. So after having built a structure, we needed to contain it and channel it on the proper rails. We made it a point to understand it and choose the best suitable platform for us.”
And this led him to his current job title: Head of Global Digital Partnership. “I now evaluate which accounts are worth nurturing or pursuing. We cannot accept any new accounts. We perform SWAT analyses when dealing with a company and see what benefits us. Digital retail is our largest segment, so we tread carefully.”
I queried whether he had to work in close liaison with the Revenue part of Corinthia. “ Most certainly, I am in almost constant contact with our Head of Revenue. We collectively decide on where we should move. This involves a lot of strategies, know-how, timing, and a passionate but well-reasoned drive.”
What did he consider the essential requisites for his current post?
“First, you must understand what I call ‘the monster you’re dealing with’. So, you require a specialised knowledge of digital technology. You must also understand how the system works; otherwise, you fail in your drive forward. Technology is not enough. You also require a commercial background and comprehend well the ins and outs of the commercial maze. And finally, you must grasp the economics of the digital world.
This is a fast-moving train, so you must at least retain the same speed to understand where you are. But you need to even break the speed barrier by understanding or comprehending what is or could be around the corner. It is one constant, evolutionary performance.”
And has this changed post-COVID? “It has become even fiercer. So we need to reflect, deflect, counteract or even, at times, pre-empt what is going on. We must remain relentlessly in touch with the surrounding reality.”
It was obvious that Omar must have been attracted to the digital or computer world early in his life. “I always had a flair for technology and never liked conventional toys. I always remember myself with the latest computer. I vividly recall dot matrix, gaming consoles with cassettes, etc.”
Did he inherit this from any member of his family? “No. None of them has this attraction and passion. My father recedes in horror when you mention digital technology.”
In his current post, Omar needs both technical and managerial skills. Many people would excel in one field but not in the other. He has managed to marry both. Omar graduated from Edexcel London with a Bachelor of Technology (B.Tech.) in Hospitality Administration/Management Distinction. Was formal academic training an essential step to grow in this field, or should it also be coupled with personal skills? It did not take long for Omar to comment. “You need technical, managerial and sales skills added to a proper academic background. Being in charge of a digital platform means you have to manage it with a very healthy sales pitch which engages and excites the general public. It would be best if you had a constant flow of data which attracts the public’s attention and interest. And you always need to sell the following story.
“In these days, the public’s attention span is short. The public is bombarded with millions of messages. You must enrich your message with flavour and introduce new factors, novel interests and attractions, and new products. Many think that in our consumer world, only goods become outdated quickly. In reality, the same fate applies to information and messages.
Unless you have a sales background, you are bound to miss the boat. Digital platforms merely facilitate the process; they do not inherently possess the sales touch. The old form of travel agency has whittled down, but the work of a travel agent has not. We still need to attract the attention of those who want or are dreaming of travelling and entice them to our travel agency platform.”
Somehow, I could guess that Omar was not just a technocrat but also possessed a flair for the arts, so I queried this. He smiled and nodded vigorously. “You are absolutely right. I actually started by studying Arts and Design. I was besotted with interior design, but back then, the interior designer had not yet flourished, and people were bent on doing their own job. So my father suggested I should try my luck in travel. My father was a tourist guide, and the travel world fascinated him. I joined Alpine Travel, and after a few months, I was very active in their sales and reservations department. I completed my IATA course and started my technical work.”
I noted that Omar knew five languages: English, Italian, Maltese, French and German. How come? I expected the answer but could not resist the question. It is evident that Omar is a good communicator, so the obvious response was: “I love communicating with people. Language is the bridge which connects us to each other, helps us understand other cultures, and feel different nuances of history. And people love it when we speak to them in their language. Languages also helped me in my first job with Corinthia. That was in 1997 when I started to work with Corinthia Jerma Palace. Knowing different languages was certainly an asset when I started work there as Senior Guest Carer at the Front Desk. From there, I moved to customer care and also did night auditing. At one time, there was a sales shortfall, and I was asked to support sales. I did so with great verve, and in a short time, I was heading the Sales Department. Life is a Snakes and Ladders game at times. So languages helped me in my first Corinthia job, leading me to the sales aspect, which is still an important part of my current job.”
What was the most exciting aspect of his work? Omar’s eyes brightened. “Being dynamic. It’s always evolving. The excitement of the shift or change to new technology is a paradise for persons like me.”
I commented that it was likely that on returning home after a tough day’s work, Omar would not be interested in sitting before a computer. He chuckled. “You are absolutely right. Do you know my latest passion?” I had a couple of guesses, but they were off the mark. “Motorbikes,” he answered. What type? “I have four bikes in total; one is a Harley-Davidson. I simply love spending time in my garage tending to them. However, I must emphasise that I merely tend to basic stuff and never meddle with the engines. Never surpass what you know. It would be dangerous with those powerful engines; one of them is 1600cc.
“I love Art in all its aspects. I also paint in oils, though I do not have the time to do more. I need time also for my family.”
What about them? “I am husband to a beautiful wife, Claudia, and father of three blessed children: Nathan, 20 years, who is reading Architecture and Engineering, Samuel, 19, who attends MCAST and is finishing a course on Office and Retail, and Maria, 17, who will hopefully start Medicine at the University of Malta next year.
“My second son, Samuel, has introduced me to another reality which kindled intense attention and dedication: Autism. I have been President of the Autism Parents Association Malta (APA) for 16 years. Samuel was diagnosed with this condition when he was two years. Suddenly, we were inundated with unknowns, queries, fears, and ignorance. A few parents used to meet to exchange experiences, but I soon felt we needed to move on more professionally. So, 14 years ago, I and a few others formed APA as an official voluntary organisation. I was elected its first president, a position I still hold after so many years. We work steadily to facilitate the parents’ journey, to make them understand that it is not the end of the world, that life does not stop there and that there is a process to follow. An essential step is to understand autism. Sometimes it is not so easy because it is invisible. A child could be very healthy. My son has participated in Special Olympics several times and prides himself of several gold and silver medals.
“One important message to parents is to be positive. And to others, I appeal not to judge and learn more about autism and its spectrum. We have published an excellent guide book.
“My message is: ‘Accept and understand’. Autism is a lifelong condition, not a sickness. But the only condition we should all harbour is one of acceptance towards individuals on the spectrum and to love them unconditionally.”
I confess I had tears in my eyes when I ended this meeting. And I felt a much better man.