The FCSI interview: Roger Obeid

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Always looking to learn, thinking of how to meet the needs of clients, and fiercely advocating inclusivity, Roger Obeid FCSI tells Jim Banks how these forces have shaped his career

Hospitality consultant Roger Obeid FCSI bridges cultures and, with more than 30 years’ experience in helping contractors, architects, civil and electromechanical engineers with a myriad of diverse projects, he connects the industry’s past with its future. His blend of in-depth technical knowledge and hands-on industry experience could give him a professorial air, but when we speak he is instead humble, inquisitive and brimming with enthusiasm.

Born in Lebanon in 1953, he saw his country go through a civil war, witnessing the damage to places and lives that people can inflict because of their cultural, social and religious differences. Although it is more than 40 years since he left the country and although he is now a Canadian national, those early experiences still shape his outlook on the world, which is driven by a fierce passion for bringing people of all kinds together.

“I adore sports and when I was 14 or 15 years old I started working in summer camps as a coach and coaching skiing in the winter,” he says. “So I was in many student hostels and similar organizations, in which I gradually took on more responsibilities. I became attracted to that world, where you don’t have to be in an office and where you deal with people, which is the spirit of hospitality.”

“In my middle-class family I was educated to work with the poor and the physically impaired, and my mother would take me to volunteer with the deaf and the disabled,” he adds. “The war in Lebanon increased the number of people with motor disability. Later, when I was studying for my MBA, I had a classmate who was injured by a bomb playing football at the age of 13 and had been in a wheelchair ever since. Now, he is a lawyer. I realized then that people with disabilities are often underestimated.”

Never-ending learning

At the start of Obeid’s working life, Lebanon was an advanced country in the region, with a sophisticated hospitality industry. He worked in a high-end hotel to see if that suited him, but when he enquired about courses of study for the hospitality industry, he was disappointed.

“I found there was no education in hospitality in Lebanon, and although some people would go to vocational school, I was too advanced for that, so I had to look abroad,” he says. So began a learning journey that, to this day, is as important to him as it ever was.

His first step was to study at the Glion hospitality school in Switzerland, from which he graduated in 1977. Next, he went to Cornell University to pursue a more traditional path through the US college system. From there he took jobs with many hotel chains, but he was frustrated by the traditional methods of learning and the lengthy process to complete his studies.

“I wanted to take my own adventure, so I went into consultancy in 1981,” he explains. “I started my company in the early 1980s in Lebanon, as an independent consultant. Family and friends used to ask me what kind of business it was and how I was going to survive. The first proposition I had was a crazy and weird adventure. I was asked to organize, from scratch, in a country in the full turmoil of war, Lebanon’s first hospitality trade fair and exhibition.”

“Agility, credibility and risks in this field were the key themes,” he adds. “I was a young, unknown adventurer, aiming to go against the streams of the war by putting traders, manufacturers, exhibitors from different communities under one roof, flirting with hazards until the last minute and putting my credibility at risk. Fortunately, it paid off and helped to make my name in this industry.”

In a land divided by religion, his desire was to show that, beneath it all, we are all human beings.

“We are all brothers and sisters,” he says, “Hospitality has nothing to do with war. But when the war intensified I had to leave Lebanon, working first in Cyprus and then moving to Canada in the late 1980s. There I was able to push more into my studies before coming back to the Middle East when things were looking more optimistic and there was a lot of belief that something could be built in the region. Sadly, war never seems to end.”

Projects for the people

Throughout Obeid’s many standout projects, that desire to serve people and bring them together has been a constant.

“Working on your own, getting clients giving you their full trust, makes any project unique,” he remarks. “I am part of this generation who shifted from the ‘pencil, hand-design, blueprint’ to new technologies. I adapted, just to be able to follow all my projects with a personal touch from concept design to commissioning. Each project
was considered distinctive, though there is no doubt that some more challenging ones shape your career.”

Among those, he lists his work as the F&B consultant for the Sorbonne Paris Abu Dhabi University. With limited time, given that the inauguration day was already firmly scheduled, he had to make quick decisions about all the design concepts for eight restaurants and a multifunction area, with no time to conduct any field study.

“It was an interesting, internationally prestigious project,” he notes. “I had the privilege of being invited to pay a visit 10 years later, and I was glad to see that project was still young and relevant.”

Another turning point in his career came when he received a call to handle a global project organising more than twelve wedding premises for oriental weddings, each of which might need to accommodate up to 3,000 guests.

“It was a very technical project, calling for a central kitchen producing, at peak times, around 60,000 high-end meals a day,” he explains. “It involved more than 5,000 sq m (53,800 sq ft) of delicate canvas, not to mention the set-up of numerous technologies.”

Having proven that he was able to handle the scale and scope of any project, Obeid soon found a deeply meaningful thread that would emerge in his work – one he has carried with him to this day. Many key projects have been designed for people with disabilities.

This came to the fore in 2002, when a Jesuit organization, the Saint Joseph University that was established in Beirut in 1875, sought his advice on launching a hospitality management department.

“My mission consisted of two parts: first, as hospitality lecturer participating in the implementation of the department program. Second, as a designer to help in implementing the hands-on students labs,” he says. “I was very involved in motor disability at this period, so my first condition was to ask the priest in charge to allow labs to be adapted to motor disability. His answer was, as usual, that they did not have any budget for that, ‘Father, don’t worry, it will not cost one penny more than a traditional one’, was my response.

“It worked out by using a lot of imagination and keeping it as simple as it could be,” he continues. “Smart working places can be adapted to any usage with no discrimination.”

From this project, Obeid developed his revolutionary idea for a modular kitchen that can be easily adapted to the specific needs of the people working in it. From there, the needs of marginalized communities would become central to his work.

Looking beyond disability

Worldwide, up to 15% of people have a mental or physical disability, and research suggests that around 80% of those people hide it. Fewer than 2% are in wheelchairs, though the logo for disability has for many years used a wheelchair design.

“Inclusion of people with motor disability and deaf people as workers in hospitality is my passion,” Obeid explains. “I wanted to pursue that passion, so I recently took a PhD with the aim of finding solutions.”

Studying at Montpellier University, he not only furthered the idea of the modular kitchen, but also devised a way to create a more constructive relationship between hospitality employers and job candidates with disabilities.

“Employers often equate disability with a permanent illness or do not understand it, so see it unjustly as a cost and the source of problems,” he remarks. “People with physical impairments often don’t go far in education, so find it hard to join the workforce. These two communities are looking at each other but are distant.”

“So, I developed pictograms that identify the disability – for instance, a missing hand – and highlight the jobs that can still be done effectively by that person. Green means no obstacle at all, orange requires some facilitation, red is not encouraged. For recruiters, it shows the advantages a candidate can bring, not the disadvantages. It also helps disabled people feel included in an industry that is all about luxury, comfort and enjoyment.”

Obeid is quick to cite examples of physically impaired people who have achieved great success. For example, Jean Marc Berset is a Swiss motor-disabled pastry bakery professional and Olympic medal winner. Eric Beaumard, who lost his hand in a motorcycle accident at 18, has been voted best sommelier in France and Europe. French pâtissier and TV presenter Grégory Cuilleron was born with one missing hand. And the list goes on.

Obeid is inspired by such people and in 2018, during his PhD, he helped design a restaurant staffed entirely by deaf people.

“It involved simple changes, such as a thin mirror on the bar, so the barman can check anything in the dining room at any time from the corner of his eye,” he explains. “The kitchen is far from the dining room, so we use lights over the bar and each waiter has a color that flashes when an order is ready.”

“Even in a conventional restaurant, when service starts people usually use hand signals to communicate,” he adds. “We found that hearing impaired people are the best waiters because they are the best at talking with signs. They communicate clearly and rapidly and are better at managing the dining room.”

Obeid is unlikely to stop his learning journey any time soon. His renewed vigor and enthusiasm for inclusivity is still driving him onwards. In fact, his new ‘Join F&B’ project to bring an often invisible minority – physically disabled people – into the hospitality industry, was awarded first prize for innovation by the United Nations
World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) at its 2021 summit.

His hope is that it will not only bring more disabled people into hospitality, but also spread the message about inclusivity among employers and consultants. “My latest experience of being ‘back at school’ showed me how far I have come compared to what I knew in the late 1970s,” he says. “Consultants have no choice but to adapt. It requires a lot of imagination, flexibility, training and agility.”

“There are still two major obstacles to overcome to incorporate inclusivity into consultants’ designs,” he adds. “The psychological one concerns trying first to eliminate all kinds of stigmatization, stereotypes and prejudices. Do not confuse disability with illness. The second is technical. Consultants should familiarise themselves more with disability and be more involved by understanding the requirements of disabled people.”

Through his work, Obeid has turned his passion for people into concrete action that will undoubtedly transform the hospitality industry, not to mention the lives of many disabled people.

Jim Banks