x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

One-star wonder: the first easyHotel in the Middle East

This month, the first easyHotel in the Middle East opened in Dubai, offering rooms from Dh99 a night. Rosemary Behan checks in.

Rosemary Behan checks out a double room with window at the newly opened easyHotel in Jebel Ali. The cheapest rooms only have
Rosemary Behan checks out a double room with window at the newly opened easyHotel in Jebel Ali. The cheapest rooms only have "internal" windows.

When booking a Dh99 hotel room, you have to accept that some things count as "extras". OK, a lot of things. Like windows. And towels. And housekeeping. And internet access, and watching TV. Those last two will set you back Dh30 a day each, cleaning Dh60. Breakfast? Forget it. That's Dh38, almost half the cost of a night's stay. By the time I arrive in Jebel Ali, I've packed my own soap and towels and am glad just to have sheets and a bed. Welcome to the world of the easyHotel, a franchise which has just opened its newest property in Dubai, where most people's idea of a cheap deal is not less than Dh500 a night including internet, cleaning and, er, windows.

It's the window thing which intrigues me. Booking my stay, the website tells me that the Dh99 rooms - twin or standard doubles - all come with "internal windows". As a proper window is obviously a luxury, and priced at Dh26 extra, I plump for the cheapest option possible. But what, I wondered, would I be looking out on? The bedroom next door? The corridor, hidden by a curtain? And what would be included? Unlike most hotels, which boast endlessly about their services, the list was refreshingly short.

"When registering at reception, you will receive a room key enabling you - for the duration of your stay - to open the door to your bedroom." Note the for the duration of your stay - check-in isn't until 3pm, and check-out is 10am sharp. Late check-out, guests are airily informed, "may incur an additional night's charge". Also included is a shower, a "mirror and shelf unit", air conditioning and ... electrical sockets.

Yet really, I'm pleased, as although I love luxury, I love a bargain even more. After driving from Abu Dhabi, I zig-zag my way through the Jebel Ali Free Zone Authority to the brand-new, purpose-built building (you've probably seen it by the side of the Sheikh Zayed Road - it's the one with the orange banner advertising "rooms from Dh99") and find the (free) covered parking spaces a nice surprise. Inside the clinically-orange lobby, the manager, Arun Mudhartha, tells me enthusiastically about the project and his all-important first guests.

It's only week one of easyHotel's arrival in the Middle East and already Mudhartha has a glint in his eye. There's even something of the easyGroup chairman Stelios Haji-Ionannu about him when he starts telling me that, in a couple of years, with the full opening of Al Maktoum International airport, "this place will be the centre of everything." "We have 33 people booked tonight," he tells me. "So far it's mostly been local businesspeople, but over Eid we had a family from South Africa who were based in Saudi Arabia, some Germans and Russians, and, last week, a few American backpackers turned up." I look around me: the place is empty. It feels slightly like a hospital waiting room, but that will no doubt change once the place fills up (at 216 rooms, it's by far the largest in easyHotel's portfolio).

And so, to the room. Having spent a night three years ago in one of easyHotel's other 14 properties, in London's Victoria, my expectations were low. And by that I mean very low. There, my budget room was windowless and in a basement. It was so disorientating that I lost all sense of time and place; practically speaking, the room was so small that if I had been sharing it with anyone, we would have had to climb over each other to get out of bed. And it was orange.

This room is different. It is, if you like, the Dubai version. At between 15.6 and 19.5 square metres, the rooms here are spacious; compared to most of the others in the group they are vast (the easyHotels at London's Earl's Court, Paddington, South Kensington and Victoria, for example, start at a measly six square metres). And the rooms are much less orange: instead of whole walls of colour, there are just splashes of it - a door here, a small bedside table there. My room, on the fourth floor, is one of the smallest, but it's well-lit and designed. There's plenty of room around the bed and there's even a separate desk and dressing area. The bathroom is an improvement on the portaloo-type contraption I had experienced before; the "internal window" looks out onto a metre-square shaft of natural light, which gives you something to look at if you've brought your laptop. Actually, I liked the fact that I didn't have to look out on 16 lanes of traffic or Jafza - the room was a pleasant, noise-free cocoon.

All in all, for Dh99, this is a steal. Even though I haven't splashed out on any extras, with a book and a bottle of water for company, I'm quite happy. There are even two towels provided gratis (it's the extra ones which will cost) and the room is spotlessly clean. The shower, however, takes some time to dispense hot water and after the drive from Abu Dhabi I would have liked a bath or a massage - but of course these are both extras beyond the scope of this hotel. A roof terrace, too, would have been nice - but Mudhartha can only smile when I mention it.

Despite the lack of services familiar to most UAE hotel guests, I keep I casting my mind back to my backpacking days and imagine how much better it would have been having landed in Los Angeles if I could have come to a place like this instead of being forced to share a dormitory with five strangers, including a pill-popping psychopath who kept everyone awake and threatened to kill the girl in the bunk above her when she had the temerity to turn over in her sleep. Here, for the same money, was a clean, comfortable room which was safe and secure - a budget traveller's dream.

And the easyHotel Jebel Ali has its feet firmly on the ground. Most of its customers are business travellers, although I come across Einas Mamdouh Zein, a pharmacist from Egypt, who is already on her second visit. "We came here initially last week on a business trip," she says. "We saw the hotel as were driving past. My husband came in first to check the rooms and we stayed for two days. Now we are here again, because it's comfortable and easy and everything you need is available. Before we used to stay at the Media One or Radisson Blu, but I can't find any essential difference. It's not only cheap, it's clean and comfortable. If you don't feel comfortable in a place, you will not stay in it."

That's also the view of Ahmed Alkathiri, who works for an oil company and is staying overnight to avoid an early morning drive. "I live in Abu Dhabi but I have a meeting here and this is the nearest hotel. I like the fact that it's new and clean and a good standard. I'm used to living in a complex so it has similar facilities to that. In terms of improvements though, I would like to see increased facilities and more TV channels."

Not having opted for the TV remote rental option, I have nothing to complain about. And this, I think, is the key to getting a bargain at places like this. I'm a budget traveller at heart because it's easier to get value for money when you're spending less, and spending less means you can travel for longer. Some of these experiences aren't pleasant - my worst ever hotel room was probably one in Vientiane, Laos, which not only lacked a window but was damp and mouldy from floor to ceiling. Yet the money saved went towards a fast coach and three days in the Mekong delta. In 15 years of travelling, I've found that spending more often restricts you and leaves you feeling disappointed. While it's true that you get what you pay for, it's better than paying for what you don't get.

In any case, by the time you've paid Dh60 for "a full room clean including linen and towel change", Dh30 a day for internet, Dh30 a day for your remote control and splashed out on breakfast, you might as well throw caution to the wind and book into an Ibis, Holiday Inn Express, or - if you really want to push the boat out - a Premier Inn, all of which have recently expanded in the UAE. I put this to Andrew Watson, the CEO of Istithmar World, the investment arm of Dubai World which owns the master franchise to develop 24 easyHotels in the Middle East and North Africa. "It's obviously a slightly different concept in terms of location and the type of accommodation we are offering but we do think there's a gap in the market," he says. By aiming for local business travellers, the company doesn't have to go anywhere to fill its rooms but may end up capturing some of Dubai's growing budget tourism market. But aren't there already enough budget hotels in Dubai? Watson thinks not, and says his company has already secured several more sites in Dubai and is also looking to open properties in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. "There is definitely a place and demand for this sort of hotel in another location." In terms of the base price and the "extras", Watson is sanguine. "We believe we are substantially cheaper and with more than 6,000 businesses in Jafza so we think the location can't be beaten. Regarding the services, we are giving people the choice as to whether or not they spend that money. The other hotels in Dubai of a similar price are very inferior so we're trying to raise the quality of the accommodation at that level because not everyone needs or demands five-star luxury. Business travellers certainly are working to a different budget than they were historically. We are still committed to rolling out more properties in future."

It's certainly a formula which works elsewhere. The budget airline easyJet, launched in 1995, has now developed into easyGroup, which encompasses easyJet and other brands incuding easyHotel and easyCar. Since the easyHotel brand was launched in 2005, its customer base has grown from 9,000 to 160,000 and the UK company now boasts hotels in Switzerland, Germany, Hungary, Cyprus and Bulgaria. In a sense, its opening in Dubai is a sign of the Emirate's coming of age. Ahmer Naushad, the director of real estate for Istithmar World, is positively boastful that "this is the first one-star European hotel brand in Dubai". "Everything in Dubai is four and five star luxury", he says. "There is a need to get into the budget sector especially with the recession. This is the prototype." Naushad says that the easyHotel Jebel Ali has been carefully planned to make use of all available space (hence those internal windows) and resources (water is heated by solar panels on the roof and the property's environmental credentials are certified by Leed, the internationally-recognised, US-based rating system). "We have a total of 17 staff so it's a lean, mean model", he says. "This is a super-budget hotel and the advantage here is that it's custom-built, unlike most of the others [in the easyHotel group]."

The easyHotel Jebel Ali did have a couple of early problems, including a delayed opening which meant that some guests who had booked and paid had to be refunded or transferred (at no extra cost) to the Ibis Barsha. For me, the lack of shops and restaurants around the hotel, as well as its distance from most of Dubai's major attractions (it's 25km from Mall of the Emirates and Jumeirah Beach, and I spent the evening at Ibn Battutah Mall) aren't quite enough of a draw to make me return in a hurry, but a restaurant is due to open within two months and a plan for a property in Jumeirah is being considered. For Roger Powell, the director of franchise services for easyHotel, the important thing is that budget travel is now firmly on the agenda all over the world. "Our occupancy in Europe has been very strong over the last two years. People have continued to travel and we offer a product that meets their needs. In the past if you had a group friends sitting around on a Friday evening talking, the thing to talk about would be to say you'd been to Milan for the weekend and flown BA business class. If you said that now you'd be laughed at. So while we won't be seeing an easyHotel on the Palm, there's a credibility in budget brands now which there wasn't before."

As I leave Jebel Ali at 9.45 sharp the following morning, Arun Mudhartha hands me an orange bag containing a small orange calculator. It's a gift to commemorate being one of the easyHotel Dubai's first 100 guests - and, secretly, I'm proud.