Abu Dhabi became the first city in the world to be home to two St Regis hotels this month with the opening of its new property on the Corniche. Here Oliver Key, the general manager, speaks about the long process of setting up a hotel and how the Corniche hotel plans to compete in the capital's crowded hospitality sector.
When was the decision taken to open the St Regis Abu Dhabi?
Approximately about three years ago now. We didn't come on board until about two years ago and at that stage the hotel was still in somewhat of a planning stage.
What was your first task two years ago?
You have all of the plans and designs for the property, so you know how many restaurants you're going to open and you know the number of rooms you're going to have. You know basically everything that is going to constitute the physical aspects of the property but then you have to start with the tricky business of hiring a team to open it and bring it to life.
How long did it take you to build your team? I presume you start with the executives?
Exactly. We appointed a deputy general manager, an executive chef, a director of food and beverage, all of the bigger departments that then require those individuals to then build their teams underneath them, that's the first job and that migrates as you go throughout the last couple of years.
Where did you hire from? Within St Regis?
There was a mix really. We had a mixture of team members who came from within St Regis or Starwood because obviously with the other eight brands of Starwood there is a very big, large pool of talent in the UAE. One of the criteria was to have a lot of Arabic speakers on the team because we are in the heart of the Middle East and it does have its advantages if you can have Arabic speakers on the team with a mixture of Starwood experience and Middle Eastern experience. We have [also] been to China. We have been to Indonesia. We have been to eastern Europe. We have been to Morocco. So as well as all the local people that we have on the team we have also gone to the various countries that you generally see in this part of the world. When you put the St Regis name out there people want to work in hotels like this so we didn't really struggle with recruitment. We probably had about 10 to 12 applications for every single position out there.
What's next after hiring?
At that stage you begin the planning process for the services that you're going to offer. We also were involved in all of the purchasing of the equipment, looking at how you're going to run the restaurant, how you're going to run the spa facilities etcetera, so it's more of a planning process in the initial months. And then as you get the chance to move into the building you start to really begin to set everything up as well. Everything from IT to engineering, you start to think about the size of the property and the task of bringing it to life, putting people in every place, getting the service to the level of expectation that we would want it to be. It's a long and very tough process.
When did you move into the building?
About seven months ago. There's a picture of us standing in what is now this beautiful lobby with hard hats on and you could see the metal framework of the staircase but it was full of scaffolding. The chandeliers were hanging but they weren't working. The carpets were being installed. The furniture was being delivered so it began to take shape but … really when it looked like this was probably only two or three months ago. Everything was covered up obviously, you can't have you furniture sitting out month after month.
What sort of training took place and when did it begin?
In the kitchens we were able to start cooking in the kitchens about six weeks ago. So we were able to fire up all of the kitchen ranges and get all of the chefs in there and begin their process. At the same time we had the restaurant teams arriving and the food and beverage teams arriving, practicing their service styles. And throughout the building, we had a housekeeping team training on the rooms we had initially and as we get more and more rooms handed over they move from training to actually cleaning all of the rooms. Training is an ongoing process and will not stop.
How are bookings looking for later in the year?
We are very encouraged about the last quarter of the year: October; November; and December. We expect it to be a little softer business-wise in August and September. A, it is still summertime and still very hot outside and B, it is the natural level of demand for this part of the world anyway. The season to be busy is starting in September and moving into October and November, so we are very encouraged with the level of demand for November in particular because of the Grand Prix and there is the Adipec conference.
What kind of occupancy do you expect in September, October and November?
We are working on projections and I don't think we expect to be 100 per cent but somewhere in the region of 70 per cent or 80 per cent for October or November would be [good].
Do you think it's realistic?
I think it's realistic. What you have in the city at the moment is perhaps a rate pressure. What we will be very keen to do is not go down too low on the average rates just to put people into the rooms. I think what we will try to do is find the right balance for the hotel of occupancy and rate because this hotel will offer a great deal of service, from everyone who checks in having a dedicated butler to the level of service you would expect to have at the St Regis, and that we have at our sister property as well. So it is important that the average rate is something that we also focus on and not just occupancy.
How do you plan to balance the rate with the occupancy? What strategy do you have to get people in?
As we go into September or October there will be a lot of direct selling. We have got a dedicated sales team who have been out and in the market for a long time now, selling in the GCC particularly, the Saudi, Qatar and Bahrain area. We expect a lot of our business to come from the GCC. We have been active in the leisure market, so we have had a salesman looking at working with the tour operators of the big hospitality companies, Thomas Cook and Tui and the different European destinations, so we will appear in those brochures.
What about corporate business?
We have concentrated quite a lot on the corporate business. We are very fortunate to be surrounded by a lot of the big companies in Abu Dhabi, from Abu Dhabi National Oil Company just across the street to Adia, so a lot of the sales effort is concentrated on making relationships with the booking planners from these big corporations. At the end of the day, it's difficult to predict what the market will do, but the signs are pretty good that Abu Dhabi is back on track. I think the occupancy numbers that I have seen, even through Ramadan, have been pretty encouraging. The 60s and 70s [per cent] has been the average that I have seen throughout the city, which is encouraging. Abu Dhabi has a lot to offer and also what is happening in the rest of the Middle East has helped Abu Dhabi and Dubai come back in a stronger way from the downturn two or three years ago. We are very encouraged about the future.