x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Abu Dhabi's earliest hotels have survived 40 years of change and now a host of the capital's heritage hotels have their own plans to modernise.

Hilton hotel in Abu Dhabi, circa 1975, taken by Alain Saint Hillaire.
Hilton hotel in Abu Dhabi, circa 1975, taken by Alain Saint Hillaire.

For nearly six months, James Hodgetts has been living in a flat in the Nation Towers, the glittering skyscraper twins on the Abu Dhabi Corniche that like to be described as the “pinnacle of affluence, elegance and comfort”.

Just a few floors from his doorstep is the newly opened St Regis Abu Dhabi, a five-star luxury hotel that boasts six lounges and bars, a spa, two swimming pools, a private beach club, butler service and the pièce de resistance — the Abu Dhabi Suite, a 1,210-square-metre, double-height majlis that forms a bridge connecting the towers at the 49th floor.

So why does Hodgetts, a businessman from the UK, not just take the lift when he is looking for a night on the town, but instead walk a short distance to the rival – but 40-year-old – Hilton Hotel?

“I think it’s fantastic value,” he explains. “Especially if you’re a member of its loyalty scheme, and you always get a great welcome from everyone. You’d be hard-pushed to find a nicer group of people.”

Part of the attraction of the Hilton is that the facilities, including a gym and a laundry, have yet to open in his new building. And yes, he admits, it doesn’t quite have all the glitz of the city’s new hotels. But even when the Nation Towers is fully open, Hodgetts suspects he will still be a regular at the Hilton.

“I visit other hotels in the city and spend quite a lot of time up at the Jumeirah Etihad Towers, but the Hilton’s still one of my favourites,” he says

Hodgetts admits that the hotel is starting to show its age — it opened in 1973. “It does look a little bit like the Sheraton and the InterCon, but architectural styles change and a lot has happened in the time the hotel’s been open. It’s what’s inside that’s important and the only people who benefit from what the building looks like on the outside are the people who are driving past.”

Like the Intercontinental in Bateen, the Sheraton at the other end of the Corniche and the Meridien on the east cost of the island, the Hilton is an Abu Dhabi institution, one of the grand dames of the capital’s nightlife, a place not just to lay your head but to escape and relax from the stress of city life.

There were relatively few of them but that only added to the sense of community. When a new hotel opened it was something to be anticipated, to be checked out and gossiped about. First there was the Emirates Palace, unimaginable luxury to be gawped at open-mouthed. Then the Shangri-La and Fairmont – shockingly off-island and so far from the city’s established heartbeat that old hands might imagine they were almost in the desert.

But then the trickle became a flood. The Aloft, the Yas Hotel – and four more nearby. A Rocco Forte that metamorphosed into another Hilton. More recently there is the Ritz Cartlon and the Dusit Thani on Muroor Road. So many stars, all crammed with spas and bars and celebrity chefs. Too many to name, really, let alone visit.

So how does the old guard deal with the pushy newcomers? The St Regis in the Nation Towers and the adjacent Hilton illustrates the dilemma perfectly. The 10-storey Hilton Abu Dhabi does not even stand shoulder-to-shoulder, let alone eye-to-eye, with its vertiginous neighbour despite having more rooms, more restaurants, and the Hiltonia, Abu Dhabi’s most established beach club.

Yet while the hotel cannot avoid being overshadowed by its modern counterpart, Wolfgang Maier, general manager since 2011, refuses to be fazed.

“The word hospitality does not address architecture or design, it’s about how welcome you feel, how comfortable you are,” he explains. “If you have a good product, a good level of service, and a good team, then you have a good brand and a good reputation and you’ll develop a loyal following of people.”

When the Hilton first opened its doors 40 years ago, it was more than the newest hotel on the block. It was the only internationally branded hotel in the city.

A faded Ministry of Information poster in the Hilton’s lobby still attests the importance of the hotel as a new landmark and a symbol of the rapidly modernising nation’s ambition.

This is Maier’s second stint at the Hilton Abu Dhabi. “I first arrived in early 1981 as an operations analyst and left at the end of 1983. In those days, the hotel scene in Abu Dhabi was very different,” he says.

“There was a lot of government business, and the rest of our guests were from the oil, gas, and construction industries. Tourism was non-existent because Abu Dhabi didn’t issue tourist visas at the time.”

If Maier provides a direct link to the teenage years of Abu Dhabi’s tourism industry, David Spearing was involved in its infancy. When the British engineer first arrived in Abu Dhabi in July 1968, he did so with the intention of building the first five-star hotel in the whole of the Trucial States and of being back in London in time for Christmas.

In his first aim, Spearing succeeded – the Hilton Al Ain opened in 1970 – but he failed in his second, as after 18 months he was still a paying guest at the Beach Hotel, established in 1964 and at the time, Abu Dhabi’s oldest.

Despite an extensive renovation in 2012, the Hilton Al Ain is largely unchanged and 45 years after his arrival, Spearing still lives in Abu Dhabi. The Beach Hotel is no longer, and the title of the capital’s oldest hotel now belongs to the 46-year-old Al Ain Palace Hotel.

By 1981, there were half a dozen international hotels in Abu Dhabi under conditions that continue to define the local market to this day. Not only were they popular with visiting dignitaries, consultants and executives, but they had, thanks to their lounges, restaurants, pools, ballrooms and even bowling alleys, found a place in the hearts of Emiratis and expat residents alike.

As Maier explains: “You will see a lot of expatriates who have lived in Abu Dhabi for the last 15, 20, and sometimes up to 30 years and they keep coming back.”

“The children of 1981 are now in their 50s and a lot of the local population have very fond memories of the hotel. They got married here, they launched products here, and they signed business deals. There is nostalgia for the hotel and a very loyal following. It is part of their heart.”

Among them is Beverly Moore, who moved to Abu Dhabi in 1982. “I only intended to stay for a few months,” she says. “We all used to work six days a week. Shorter hours than now, but come Friday we all went out in boats – everybody had a boat – and then met up at a hotel later on.

“Back then, there was a much smaller population than there is now, and fewer hotels. So when you went out, you saw everybody.”

Clare Shryane moved to Abu Dhabi in 1988. “Everyone there was either a worker living in Abu Dhabi or a visiting businessman,” she says. “There were no tourists back then. All the tourists would be in Dubai. So the crowds at the hotels stayed the same.”

“Everyone would go to the same place on a Thursday night. They’d all be there. Then after a few months, someone would get tired of that place so everyone would go somewhere else. The crowd just moved together.”

Moore, who now works in banking, says that fewer hotels meant more personalised service. “The staff knew everybody, and you felt welcome, so you went back again. The population was so small and dense, these hotels were just packed out.”

From their very earliest days, Abu Dhabi’s hotels occupied a special place in the nation’s history and memory, not only as physical landmarks in the emirate’s urban fabric, but as important locations where the personal stories and public histories have been made.

But the nature of Abu Dhabi’s hospitality market is changing, with exponential growth bringing not just new hotels but big changes to several of the city’s older hotels.

Over the last nine years, the emirate of Abu Dhabi has witnessed a 175 per cent increase in the number of its hotels and a 210 per cent increase in the number of available rooms, according to figures from TCA Abu Dhabi.

While not all of these are five-star, the luxury segment of the market, which includes the likes of the Hilton Abu Dhabi and the InterContinental, has become increasingly congested and competitive.

As the general manager of the InterContinental, Dieter Franke is acutely aware that nostalgia and sentiment can only take it so far.

“We have a lot of history and maturity but that shouldn’t be a reason for complacency,” Franke explains. “The pressure we face as a more mature hotel is to ensure that we continuously deliver the right level of service. People who come through the door should always walk away having had a great experience. It’s as simple and as complex as that.”

Visitors to the InterContinental will be able to experience just what the “right level of service” feels like when the hotel’s latest project, Destination Bayshore, opens later this year. It will include a renovated beach, a new 90-seat beachfront restaurant, a spa and health club, two new pools, and Byblos-sur-mer, an enormous, 500-seat, two-storey Lebanese restaurant that will allow diners to sit facing the sea while offering live music, dancing, and an outdoor area for shisha. These changes are part of a trend: to keep pace, the Hilton Abu Dhabi has just reopened its Italian restaurant, Bocca, to attract a new clientele.

As Shaun Parsons, the general manager of Le Royal Méridien, puts it: “We’re sat at a crossroads between east and west here in an epicentre of growth from a hospitality perspective.”

“We are transforming one of Abu Dhabi’s landmarks. I was asked to come here and lead a property improvement process that will allow us to embark on the next ten to fifteen years with changes that will allow us to compete with whatever is happening in this city.”

In the last two years during Parsons has managed to keep Le Royal Méridien open while undertaking a complete shell and core renovation of all the rooms, the development of a new lobby area, now called The Hub, and the Wheat, a new all-day bistro and bakery. Phase two of the renovation will include the transformation of Le Royal Méridien’s revolving fine dining restaurant, Al Fanar, and Stratos, a restaurant and lounge bar that can double as a nightclub.

The most immediate difference that regular visitors will notice once the Hub and Wheat are open is a radical change in aesthetic. The sombre tones, dark woods and low lighting that defined the old Le Royal Méridien have been replaced with something younger, more contemporary, less formal, and far brighter. “If you’re driving along the Corniche you will not see much of a difference in terms of the outside of the building, but what we’ve done here is major surgery.”

nleech@thenational.ae