Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with hotel renovations and refurbishment programmes?
I am privileged to have been part of hotel opening teams from the beginning of my career in hospitality, starting-out in the early nineties when I was working with Sun International in South Africa. I quickly moved through the ranks in hotel operations and took on my first role as General Manager in 1998.
Over the course of my career, between opening and managing hotels across the globe, I have been involved in eight property openings and as many refurbishments and/or conversions.
The Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates was midway through its extensive refurbishment when I joined in June, and I have thoroughly enjoyed working with my new colleagues in preparing for the re-launch of the property which both the Owners, the Majid Al Futtaim Group (MAF) and indeed the Management Company, The Kempinski Group, can be extremely proud of.
What was the catalyst behind the refurbishment programme at Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates?
Typically, luxury hotels of this nature with high occupancy and activity levels are refurbished every five to seven years and, with the start of our refurbishment programme in early 2012, we fell right within this timeframe.
Dubai is one of the most competitive hotel markets I have worked in. Most international hotel brands are found here, and the destination has very standards of quality, service and standards, as set by the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing and Dubai Municipality. In addition, the average length of stay, occupancies and density per Room Night Sold are currently slightly higher here in general than elsewhere in the world, which increases the need to refresh and innovate your product and services on a regular basis.
The refurbishment programme of the hotel is extensive and has taken place in multiple phases; could you give us an overview of the developments to-date?
We began in 2012 with the renovation and repositioning of the Lobby Lounge, Aspen by Kempinski. Its classic and luxurious décor reflects the elegance of a European city’s grand café.In 2013 we embarked upon the refurbishment of the Lobby and Reception Area, as well as the Main Entrance and driveway to the hotel, which has now become a five-lane Porte Cochere to accommodate and better facilitate the flow of traffic into and out of the hotel. This has really enhanced the accessibility to the property and the guest arrival and departure experience. To the right of our Main Entrance, we have opened an authentic Spanish restaurant, the Salero Tapas & Bodega, which has been successful since its inception in November 2013.
We have just completed a year-long refurbishment of all the guestrooms and suites, and this followed the renovation of our Conference facilities. Most of our Meeting Rooms and Banqueting Suites feature natural daylight; all are equipped with state-of-the-art AV equipment and high-speed Internet, as well as an interconnecting configuration and personalised lightning experiences.The Business Centre has been upgraded and fully equipped with Apple-branded computers, printers and scanners, as well as a TV lounge for relaxation.As part of the re-launch of our dining experiences, we have just opened Olea, featuring authentic cuisine of the Levant Region, and Noir, a stylish new Lounge and Cocktail Bar.Q1, 2016 should see the completion of the final phase of the program – being undertaken by the hotel owner, the Majid Al Futtaim Group – which is the re-opening of our Aspen Ski Chalets that overlook Ski Dubai.
What was the reason for launching two new dining venues? How will you position them in the market?
The number of outlets we have is optimal for this size of hotel, especially given our location adjacent to the Mall of the Emirates, with direct access. We want to offer and cater to a variety of dining options for our guests, and I believe we now have a wonderful mix of cuisines and dining venues at the hotel – our luxury Lobby Lounge, Aspen by Kempinski, Salero Tapas & Bodega, our new Levantine Restaurant, Olea, and Noir, our newest addition of a Lounge and Cocktail Bar.
This offering complements the many casual dining options available within the Mall of the Emirates itself, offering our guests a plethora of options throughout the day. In terms of positioning, we are looking to re-position ourselves amongst the top tier of luxury hotels in the city, and at best, as the preferred deluxe Mall Hotel in the Region.
What can guests look forward to in terms of the new rooms? What is the décor like? Any new services and amenities we can highlight?
Guests can expect a fresh ‘look and feel’ and a modernized colour palette in all of the rooms. The décor exudes a wonderfully contemporary feel while paying homage to the region with a modern twist to Arabic geometric detail. The atmosphere is cool and calming, witnessed in the sharp lines and ice blue and silver of the paintings and seating and in the living rooms. The silver theme carries through to the bedrooms, with silver covers and crystal chandeliers, bringing in the winter wonderland feel of the adjacent ski slope in the Mall. The patterns in the room and on the headboard are of an arabesque design, blending well with the other features. The bathroom is a perfect sanctuary to unwind after a busy day in the bustling shopping mall, business around town or a day touring the city, with its large tub, rain shower and luxury finishes.
We have been fortunate to be able to incorporate a lot of our guest feedback we received over the years into the design of the new rooms. The styling of the furniture has given the rooms more floor space, making them even more comfortable and convenient for our guests. We are also fortunate to have such a large variety of room categories, which suits our diverse range of guests.
There has also been a clear focus to modernise and upgrade our IT and AV within the rooms in order to accommodate the growing number of devices guests bring to the hotel and their increasing need for connectivity while away from home and the office. We made sure that there are sufficient and easily-accessible power points in the room so guests can charge multiple devices at any time.
We also worked on enlarging the desk space. Whether travelling for business or leisure, guests typically spend some time working in their rooms, whether it’s staying in touch with the office or connecting with family or friends. We have upgraded all the IT facilities in the rooms, providing increased WiFi bandwidth, and we have placed iPads in all rooms incorporating the hotel service directory, allowing guests to order services online, including In-Room Dining.
We also use the iPads for marketing purposes and to communicate with our guests while they are in-house, eliminating the need to print and deliver paper copies. This enhanced technology allows us to operate a greener environment by having fewer printed items in the rooms.
Guests staying in our Executive Rooms and Suites have access to our newly refurbished Executive Lounge, which offers breakfast, as well as complimentary snacks and drinks throughout the day. We have hired a dedicated manager for the Executive Lounge who will also oversee the management of the Suites and our Aspen Ski Chalets, providing our guests with enhanced personalised service and experiences.
What are the biggest challenges in managing a renovation of this size as General Manager/hotel team?
There are different ways to handle an extensive refurbishment such as ours; you can either shut the hotel for the duration of the work, or phase the renovations after planning these very carefully. Our methodology was to keep the hotel open for the duration of the three-year refurbishment program, and this was certainly a highly challenging and complex project to manage.
Throughout the refurbishment program we always made sure that we had sufficient rooms and amenities for our guests, and we closed off floors to avoid the noise pollution and disturbances to our guests from the ongoing work. We also needed to ensure guests had access to all the services and facilities they required, as expected at a hotel of this stature.
From a guest’s perspective, a refurbishment program can be a challenge, as it typically means that there are changes to the offering and services as we move through the various phases of the program. This would require that as hotel management and staff, we need to pay special attention to and take care of the relationship with our guests, ensuring that there is fluid and seamless two-way communication, with minimal disturbances. I must say that we did a fabulous job in this area.
When a hotel is undergoing an extensive refurbishment program such as ours, there will inevitably be concerns from guests and, as a team, you need to make sure your service recovery processes are smooth and effective, while your colleagues are proactive and empowered to deal with any issues that may arise.
As we were renovating the hotel, we could not accept the normal demand and number of bookings due to our reduced room inventory. Our focus now shifts to communicating with our guests and business partners to advise them that the work has been completed and that we look forward to welcoming them to experience our enhanced and new facilities. We will furthermore focus on our reputation as offering impeccable personalized service, ensuring that this exceeds our guests’ expectations.
I must commend my Colleagues here at the hotel, and the Majid Al Futtaim Project Team and contractors for all their efforts which have contributed to the overall success of this extensive refurbishment program. In parallel, the renovation and extension of The Mall of the Emirates has greatly enhanced the guest and visitor experience, creating a one-of-a-kind destination in itself.
What has the feedback from guests been so far?
Overwhelmingly, the feedback has been extremely positive. Our new outlets and facilities have been very well received, with customers commenting on the differences they see in the beautiful new surroundings that have been created, while occupancy in the hotel and activity levels in our food & beverage outlets and C & I Centre has quickly bounced back to former levels, and we are as busy as ever.