x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Room boom launches peak season

Formula One week is fast approaching and to capitalise on the event, which marks the start of the peak tourist season, several new properties are set to open their doors.

The wave-shaped Rocco Forte Hotel near Zayed Sports City is the first hotel under the Rocco Forte brand in the Middle East. Courtesy TDIC
The wave-shaped Rocco Forte Hotel near Zayed Sports City is the first hotel under the Rocco Forte brand in the Middle East. Courtesy TDIC

Klaus Niefer needs to come up with a five-star review for the swanky rooms at the five-star Westin Abu Dhabi Golf Resort.

Before a single guest checks in, his comments will set the standard of excellence as the luxury hotel prepares to open on Monday.

A damaged lightfixture or faulty fridge will not be tolerated by Mr Niefer, the general manager at the resort and, for the next few days, a 'VIP resident' at the hotel.

"I'm on my way to my room at present to check if everything is working," he says.

"We have internal people from the hotel and from Starwood [the parent company] using the restaurants and staying in the hotel just to get feedback and to iron out any challenges there might be.

"They are there to ensure that everything is working perfectly, whether it's the water, the electricity, the air-conditioning," he says. "So when the first paying guest arrives we are up to the expectations and beyond."

Mr Niefer is a stickler for getting everything just right as he prepares to open the Dh783 million (US$213.1m) hotel's 172 guest rooms and six restaurants and bars in time for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix week, which marks the beginning of the peak season.

Then there is the added challenge of four other five-star hotels rolling out their red carpets in Abu Dhabi at virtually the same time, adding more than 1,700 rooms to the emirate's stock and creating about 3,000 jobs.

These luxury retreats are a vital part of the capital's target of attracting 2.3 million guests next year, up from an expected 2 million this year.

"When you go through the roll call of new properties coming up, they're very distinctive," says Lawrence Franklin, the director of strategy and policy at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

Along Abu Dhabi's Corniche, Doris Greif, the general manager of the Jumeirah Etihad Towers, worked through last weekend to get everything ready for yesterday's opening.

"We work 24 hours a day at the moment," says Ms Greif. "Things happen on all fronts."

Hundreds of support workers throughout the hotel have unpacked furniture, fixed light fittings and checked fixtures, while groups of staff have been undergoing final training in preparation for the launch of Jumeirah Group's first hotel in the capital.

The five-star establishment managed by Jumeirah, the Dubai luxury operator that runs the Burj Al Arab, has 382 rooms and 199 serviced apartments.

It will also eventually have 12 restaurants, including a branch of the seafood diner Scott's, which is being built over the water at the property's private beach.

Given the size of the hotel, the opening of most of the restaurants and bars will be phased through this month, while the last three will open early next year.

"When the doors open, that's when you will know what you have and have not done," says Ms Greif.

Over on Saadiyat Island, the $600m St Regis resort is preparing to open early next week, too, as employees continue their training and chefs perfect their specialities.

"We're currently putting finishing touches on this impressive resort," says John Pelling, the general manager. "The entire place is abuzz."

There are various challenges in the run-up to opening a hotel, especially when it needs to be ready for a specific big event.

"It's important that you have all the licences in place and the five-star classification," says Mr Niefer at the Westin. "The recruitment has been somehow challenging with the clearances.

"Six weeks up to the opening, we do intensive brain training for the people to get to know Abu Dhabi, the culture, our hotel and facilities," he says, noting that the resort has some 270 employees from 50 countries.

Elsewhere, other luxury hotels are ready to greet their first guests. The Dh1 billion Park Hyatt opened yesterday on Saadiyat Island, while the Dh600m Rocco Forte hotel, near Zayed Sports City, is another scheduled for a Monday opening.

Now all they need are the tourists.

"We know that these two or three months of the year are always very strong for us, and we have a good events calendar, so we're expecting to finish quite strongly at the end of the year," says Mr Franklin.

"There's ongoing logistical issues in terms of accommodation demand and supply balance, which we're very actively monitoring. But we think that some of these new brands and new names [act as] more marketing [for Abu Dhabi]," he says. Analysts acknowledge there is likely to be a decline in occupancy as the hotels open, but they say it is all part of the process of building a leisure destination.

"The timing of the large, new supply could create a challenge for the new hotels and for the existing hotels," says Chiheb ben Mahmoud, the senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels, Middle East and Africa.

"But, for leisure, guests will not come until the hotels are there, and you have to have a critical mass of supply in order to put the place on the map."