As The Club in Abu Dhabi prepares for its golden anniversary, Elizabeth Pearson meets some of the staff and members who have contributed to its successs.
Abu Dhabi's The Club gets set for golden celebrations
On a windy day 50 years ago, several expats were huddling together on a beach in Abu Dhabi. They were deciding if their pirate party should be called off due to the unpredictable shamal that had risen around them. The party was quickly abandoned but a major decision had been made: this group of pioneers needed a venue to congregate in, and by the end of the year it had found one - Henderson's Folly, and The Club was born. In 1968, it moved 500m to its current site, which was gifted by Sheikh Zayed , the founding President of the UAE, three years before the country came into being.
I have been a member of The Club twice, once as a child in 1984 and I joined again last year. In the early 1980s, The Club was the place to be; while membership was 2,800, the waiting list was 3,000. If you survived the two-year wait, you then had to face the formidable committee membership at a cocktail party, pestering the members politely for support. Some applications never got past the first handshake as you were judged instantly on your glad rags. I remember my parents being faintly terrified by the prospect of failure. Can you imagine the ignominy?
Today, as is the modern way, there is power to the people as members of management seek you out to introduce themselves at a new members' party. The dress code has relaxed all over the place, too, with that curse of the modern age - "smart-casual" - taking over at many of the 13 food outlets. Hamish Macdonald, chairman of the committee, remembers the days when ties still had to be worn at the Friday Carvery, which to me as a child was the height of sophisticated dining. Woe betide the gent who forgot his tie, as he had to borrow one from The Club's stores. "Awful things," Macdonald says, chuckling. "Kippers, in bright colours. Everyone could see you had one on - how embarrassing."
Macdonald, 56, first came to Abu Dhabi in 1986 with his wife, Jacque, and six-week-old son, James. Johnny, now 23 and Jess, now 20, arrived quickly and the Macdonalds settled into expat life, joining The Club in 1987.
"I'm an opinionated man," Macdonald says with a twinkle in his eye. "I kept talking to the general manager about how things could be done differently." Fed up, the GM suggested Macdonald join the board - so he did, first as secretary.
Macdonald, a down-to-earth type, muses on The Club's success. "One thing about here is how important the people are," he says. "I first joined the new, flashier marina but transferred my membership because of the sense of community, both of staff and members."
This is a common theme for every member I spoke to: the sense of community is palpable and, for expats, the draw of a happy community is a strong one. Also, it's not just the members who are welcoming; the staff are also a cheery bunch. They have a professionalism not often equalled in these parts. With many working and sometimes living on site for years, there is not much they haven't seen.
Peter De Kauwe, the executive chef, is from Sri Lanka and was educated in Australia. Initially with The Club for 14 years, he left Abu Dhabi and spent eight years in Sydney. He returned here in 2009. Broad-shouldered and with a sportsman's presence, De Kauwe enjoys his cricket.
"We had many staff from India and Sri Lanka, and to relax we used to play cricket in the back car park," he says. "In 1982, the captain of The Club's team came and challenged us to a game. We won." This started an official staff team at The Club, and the members were particularly dedicated, rising at 5am to get a couple of practices in a week.
Gina Calleja, 43, works in the Family Room serving up treats to slightly flustered parents such as myself. Recruited from the Philippines nine years ago, Calleja, a neat, shy woman with a charming smile, intended to stay for only two years. "I didn't notice the time," she says. Like many of the staff, Calleja lives on site and shares a four-bed dorm with two other women. She says: "I like my job but I also like having a secure and safe place to live".
Feeling protected on the campus isn't the only bonus, as the staff canteen is careful to reflect the nationalities working there. "Chicken adobo is my favourite," Calleja says of the Filipino food served. The offerings in the canteen are good and Calleja is appreciative that staff also get to work it off as facilities at The Club are open to them from 10pm-midnight. She likes to use the gym.
Members also quickly become fond of The Club. Its demographic is 43 per cent families and 57 per cent singles and couples, with a strict cap kept on the number of children. Sarah and Ed Nicholas were lucky to get in so quickly with their brood of four. Arriving in Abu Dhabi in 2008 from Sydney, they joined a different beach club until July 2011, when they wanted a change, and a friend was waxing lyrical about The Club.
"It's a one stop shop," Sarah Nicholas, 36, says. "It is a friendly place where we can spend time as a family." With her flock of strawberry blonde kids, she comes to The Club at least twice a week.
"The kids are happy as there is easy access to children's activities," she says. "We use the pool; my daughter Juliet, 3, does ballet; my eldest son, Will, 8, does sailing and has started piano, as have Jimmy, 6, and my husband, Ed, 36. We love it. There is always someone to talk to, staff are helpful and everyone feels welcome."
As a member now - from Birkenhead, UK - with my family of five, I have to agree. The Club has moved with the times. The reinvestment of surplus funds has been impressive. No longer is there just a pool, a smattering of sports with a jaded clubhouse (the sophisticated Carvery notwithstanding); now there are climbing walls, a glittering health complex, a thriving sailing club and dozens of activities to participate in.
However, there is still a whiff of "old school"; ie ,"You get out of it what you put in", which was such a feature of early expatriate communities. The secret to The Club's success and longevity is dedication from the people involved.
This is superbly demonstrated by the sub-sections, such as tennis, scuba diving and other activities that are run by volunteering members who answer to the management.
Abu Dhabi Sailing Club is a great example. Barry Jarman, 43 - also from Sydney - became commodore in March 2010 after having been a member for five years, and now dedicates 15 hours a week to running the operation. He also works full time as a professional chef. Jarman is proud to point out The Club has the earliest history of competitive sailing in Abu Dhabi - with records dating from 1964 - and has held races through the 50 years since. Always trying to improve, the sailing club has launched a children's programme and the first official junior races will be klaxoned off this month.
With something new always happening, the hardest part of Laura Dunn's job is to get the information out. Dunn, 32, is the marketing and communications manager and loves her job, though she says that it's even busier in the background than it appears front of house.
"We want to make sure what we're doing is what they, the members, want to happen," the Briton says.
It seems that there is no danger of that not being the case today. As we wrap up our chat on the past half century of The Club, there is one subject I must clear up. How did the name come about? "Ah, Mike Daly, the first chairman, decided on the name at the first annual general meeting," says Dunn. "Apparently, 'The British Club' was a label taxi drivers gave to the place but it was always 'The Club', without distinction, to ensure that all nationalities could benefit from its facilities."
Rising through the ranks
Hakeem Kolakkatil, 30, from Kerala in India, arrived in the UAE in 1999 and joined The Club in 2001, despite being unable to speak English. He is married and has a 3-month-old son, Hamdan.
2001-2005 Started and worked in housekeeping, where it was his job to clean. It wasn't long before he was promoted to work within the health complex. This was a more front-of-house role with more interaction with members, and it was here that his English took off. "Not so slowly," he says, smiling with confidence.
2005 Joined the gate team. The front gate is staffed 24 hours a day and requires fluency in English.
2006 Employee of the Year as chosen by members.
2008 Promoted to gate supervisor.
FAVOURITE BIT "Members like my family. When I see them they ask about my family, not just my work. It makes me enjoy my job."
AMUSING MOMENT "We recently introduced towel tokens and had to have an amnesty to get some back, after not so many weeks."
A day in the life
John May, 53, senior food and beverage supervisor at The Club, came to Abu Dhabi from Sri Lanka in 1986 and joined The Club in 1998. He is married and has two daughters, Melissa, 16 and Megan, 14.
5am Alarm goes off and I take a little time and then get up to go for a walk or jog along the Corniche, coming back for coffee and breakfast at home.
8am I have a shower and then read the papers before setting off to work at 10am.
11am Open the main bar and check that it is clean and ready for operation.
11.30am Twenty-minute food and beverage daily briefing is held with the first shift, with the 12 outlet supervisors, the two assistant managers and the banquet co-ordinator.
Noon Open the bar. It has 140 covers, and we are a staff of seven. Lunch is busiest on a Friday. In the early days it was Friday Curry, then Friday Carvery and nowadays it is Brunch.
2.30pm Second briefing of the day with the second shift.
5-8pm Grab a break and get to the staff canteen. The food is good. My favourite meal is either the beef curry or the rice and dhal.
8pm The evenings are always busy and my favourite nights are when there is football playing. You have to be diplomatic about which game to show even though there are six screens. Everyone thinks their team's match is the most important.
12.15pm Finish up (1.15am at weekends). It takes an hour to close up and tidy around.
2am I've taken a taxi home and am in bed. I'm very happy in my job, we have a keen team and it's fun to work. I really love the conversations with customers, especially about sports.
Celebrations for members and their guests to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Club will be held on March 16 and 17; www.the-club.com