x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi: access all areas to a five-star mini city

Join The National on a tour of Abu Dhabi's latest prestigious hotel, which stages its grand opening tomorrow, and find out what exactly goes into building the hotel right down to the minute details.

The hotel, which employs 480 Ladies and Gentlemen (they must never be called staff, it's against company policy), spends 10 days before the opening day preparing every minute detail.
The hotel, which employs 480 Ladies and Gentlemen (they must never be called staff, it's against company policy), spends 10 days before the opening day preparing every minute detail.

Sometimes it seems that there are so many five-star hotels in the emirates that they are almost as numerous as fast food chains.

But what exactly does it take to open one of the most prestigious names in the world?

Cynics may think that it takes little more than a hefty budget (reportedly Dh1.5 billion, in this case) and miles of gold-embossed wallpaper. Take a peek behind-the-scenes at the "countdown" to the opening of the Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi, Grand Canal, and a very different picture emerges.

Bringing the Ritz-Cartlon name to the capital involves turf imported from Australia, century-old olive trees brought over from Spain, 21,000 crystals to give the lobby some bling and a selection of uniforms designed to look like Pippa Middleton's famous Royal bridesmaid dress.

There is, for want of a better word, a science to an opening on this scale. The hotel, which employs 480 Ladies and Gentlemen (they must never be called staff, it's against company policy), spends 10 days before opening day prepping every minute detail.

The programme includes "vision and philosophy" motivational speeches by Bob Kharazmi, who is second in command across the entire Ritz-Carlton empire; a food show, in which all 480 ladies and gentlemen - including maintenance and security - are shown every menu item available in the hotel; and last of all, a fashion show loud enough and elaborate enough to rival those of top designers.

Lynn Gervais, director of public relations, hasn't left the hotel building for almost a week and says the countdown philosophy should not be underestimated.

"People will say 'oh another big hotel opening in Abu Dhabi'. But there's so much that goes on behind the scenes that people don't know about. The countdown is such a unique experience."

The "experience" she refers to is held up as a benchmark for most luxury hotel chains but also other large businesses including the technology giant Apple.

The property, which sits opposite the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and is owned by Abu Dhabi National Hotels, was scheduled to open last year, but construction of the 57 acre estate took longer than expected.

The success of the opening today is thanks to the help of more than 100 specially picked trainers, flown in from other Ritz-Carlton hotels to help teach the Abu Dhabi staff how they do things. Each one wears a long white lab coat which makes them easy to spot.

Ned Capeleris, 38, from Greece, is hotel manager for the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrain and has been with the company for more than 15 years. He also worked as director of housekeeping and laundry in Dubai from 2003 to 2005.

This week he is been training some of the ladies and gentlemen - most of whom were recruited from India, Morocco and Indonesia by Ritz-Carlton management on international recruitment drives - who work in guest services, which includes the front desk and concierge.

As well as the practical training they act out different scenarios to evaluate how the staff handle them.

"The Middle East is a very glamorous place to be because the quality of hotels is so high," Mr Capeleris says. "We also have a very good ratio of employees versus guests generally throughout Asia and the Middle East. Salaries are less which means you have a higher headcount.

"When you join Ritz-Carlton it's made very clear we have a very clear objective as to what we want to achieve. It's all on the credo card."

The word credo translates as a statement of beliefs or aims which guide someone's actions, and everyone - from the hotel manager to the person whose job it is fold the linen - must carry a wallet-sized credo card at all times. It includes the employee promise, motto ("We are Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen), three steps of service, the credo and 12 service values ("6. I own and immediately resolve guest problems"). It is essentially the mantra of the company.

On the mention of the card, Mr Capaleris recites the credo without pausing for breath.

"It's a culture, a pledge," he says. "We create a culture and keep it alive. For the opening of a new hotel we spend 10 days putting the body and soul into it."

According to Forbes magazine, the idea of the credo card was also copied by Apple, who insist on all Apple Store employees carrying their own card.

The hotel boasts 10 food and drink outlets, each one designed specifically for this hotel. Even that, explains David Murphy, the corporate director for food and beverage for the Ritz-Carlton group, involves mathematical ratios and science.

"We do a ratio based on city versus the resort, based around room size. But we also use a lot of local analytics. Obviously in the Middle East there's a desire to have a lot more restaurants within hotels that in other markets.

"So we have a standard formula used as base, then we look more closely at Abu Dhabi and work from there."

When it comes to designing a restaurant, huge amounts of effort go into even the smallest of details, which even regular diners may never even notice. In the Lebanese restaurant, Mijana, Mr Murphy points out that the decoration on the plates matches the ceiling, which matches the collars on the waiters shirts, which matches the table linen. It's hard to believe the effort would be appreciated by an untrained eye.

During what is known as the countdown food show, every member of staff is taken to all the restaurants to get an idea of what is on the menu.

For Mr Murphy, who is from Ireland, this gives him a final chance to check everything is perfect. Each dish is cooked and every drink is poured so he can ensure the presentation matches the brief, which has been two-and-a-half years in the making.

"Once everything is finalised we have about three months of tweaking, then it all comes to this," he says. "It's really important that all the ladies and gentlemen can speak to the guests about the restaurants. Not the individual menus but the concepts and the vibes."

The Ritz-Carlton group has its own interior design team of 14 people, as well as architecture and construction teams, which all work together to plan every last detail in all the restaurants and bars. "There are chair specialists, table specialists, music specialists, there is a specialist for everything," says Mr Murphy.

Mitchell Duggan, originally from Carlow, Ireland, is a gelato trainer, taking a break from his role as hotel manager of the glitzy Ritz-Carlton Battery Park in New York.

Despite his senior title, Mr Diggan seems to relish his role as teacher for the week.

"It doesn't get better than this," he grins, standing next to the Dolce Italian coffee and gelato cafe, which sells lollipops larger than human heads. "Our job is to bring the philosophy of the Ritz-Carlton to the ladies and gentlemen.

"I'm essentially showing them the mechanics of how to serve when the guests come in."

In the build-up to any opening, the management began the tried-and-tested 10 day countdown.

On day six, Bob Kharazmi, global officer worldwide operations (CORR) stands in front of 50 or so people to deliver one of his vision and philosophy talks.

All the women are wearing small pearl earrings, which must be no bigger than an American Quarter, (which has a diameter less than an inch), and their hair tied into neat buns. Their make-up is understated as per the company dress code, and their shoes, of course, are shiny.

The men are equally well groomed, even down to their sideburns, which they have been told must be no lower than the halfway point of their ear.

"Are you ready to open the best hotel?", Mr Kharazmi calls to his audience, to a deafening "yes" response.

He goes on to stress how important the first impression is, and how every employee needs to be "aligned" with the company philosophy and vision. It seems that after five days of orientation, the ladies and gentlemen are all on board.

"We strongly believe we are not a hotel company, we are a company that creates lifetime memories," he says, after the talk. "Every organisation talks about service but very few define what service is. We define it for our ladies and gentlemen from day one. If someone has a doubt I would have them come and stay with us and see our training."

Mr Karazmi, a father of three, has been with the company since 1983 and has overseen about 90 per cent of the 82 hotel openings.

"I wouldn't say it's a science, more a collection of experiences that we have had that we know are effective. It's a simple but well defined process."

As well as those who were directly recruited from abroad, some of the ladies and gentlemen transferred from other Ritz-Carlton hotels.

Himak Sharma, from Jaipur, India, transferred to Abu Dhabi from the idyllic St Thomas Ritz-Carlton in the Virgin Islands. He will be working in Dolce cafe.

"My main motivation for coming was to be involved in a pre-opening, I had heard a lot about it and I really wanted to experience it for myself."

All of the uniforms for the staff were designed in Turkey, and as with all the other details, took months of consultation.

One of the most special is one based on the bridesmaid dress worn by Pippa Middleton to her sister Kate's wedding to Britain's Prince William.

"I love my dress," laughs Victoria Gosudarska, 26, from Ukraine. Ms Gosudarska was recruited six months ago while working at an international language centre in her home country. "I always wanted to be in hospitality and this seemed like a great opportunity."

As opening day looms, the Ritz-Carlton hosts another of their unique training sessions — a fashion show that includes everyone from maintenance and security, to lifeguards and housekeeping. As well as being fun for the staff, it gives the management yet another chance to examine the small details.

Mr Kharazmi and Kelly Icard, senior manager of pre-opening operations, sit in the front row clapping along with the excited crowds, but also carefully eyeing each uniform for anything that might need changing. Fortunately, everything passes the test and another day of the countdown is over.

"We have retail shops, a spa, bars, restaurants, we are a lot of businesses under one roof so all this work is necessary," says Ms Icard, who has been with the company since 1993. "I don't really think there's any other industry like it, it's really a mini city,"

munderwood@thenational.ae