x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Lights on as race hotel moves up to starter's grid

The Yas Viceroy prepares for its television close-up as the centrepiece at Yas Marina Circuit.

Anton Bawab, the regional president of the Yas Viceroy.
Anton Bawab, the regional president of the Yas Viceroy.

ABU DHABI // The windows have been cleaned, the glasses polished and the familiar outside lights all checked as the Yas Viceroy prepares for its television close-up as the centrepiece at Yas Marina Circuit.

Now in its third year, the hotel is easily identifiable by race fans who have seen it on television as the backdrop to the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

In the lobby there is a sense of business as usual as various VIPs, world-class musicians and some of motorsport's biggest names wander the hotel, which is now operated by the Viceroy Hotel Group.

Rene Guttzeit, the executive sous chef of the Yas Viceroy, was at the hotel before it opened its doors, just two weeks prior to the inaugural race in 2009.

"We didn't know what to expect because the hotel was new, the staff was new and we had just moved in," Mr Guttzeit said.

They faced a host of challenges.

"We had no gas, no air conditioning; there were challenges which we don't have any more," he said. "We had a new team which we needed to get up to speed. We didn't know what to expect."

Jane Pryce, the director of rooms, said the hotel managed to make available 260 of the 499 rooms for the first race.

"We were not only under pressure to open the hotel on time but also to host the first F1," Ms Pryce said. "It was quite manic but also having the staff join us last minute, it was physically and mentally very challenging.

"By the time the second year came around we were in a calmer piece of mind. This year is a piece of cake."

Six F1 teams and some of the drivers are believed to be staying in the hotel. Anton Bawab, the regional president of Viceroy, said the entertainers preferred to stay off-island because of the noise.

Being the focus of attention requires a lot of behind-the-scenes organising and security is tight over the weekend.

"There's so much logistical nuances, like the entrances, and everyone must know the script," Mr Bawab said. "We've 720 staff and they will all know what restaurants are open from what time, and what's being offered, what the passes look like."

When Viceroy took over this year from Aldar Hotels, the management looked over a logbook that recorded the past two GPs, noting lessons learnt.

"A lot of the colleagues here have been through not one but two F1 events," Mr Bawab said.

The hotel held "town meetings" to get advice from the staff and learn the ropes. Now Mr Bawab expects this weekend will go as smoothly as every other busy weekend.

"The staff were unanimous that the atmosphere is a lot more jovial than people would imagine because everyone is here to have a good time. It's not the World Economic Forum - people are here for an event," he said.

Ms Pryce added: "This is carnival party time."

Once the racing begins, work at the five-star hotel does not stop and the after-effects linger.

"I vibrate and shake [during the race] and when I go home, I'm still shaking," Ms Pryce said. "The sound is phenomenal and it's very exciting."

Mr Guttzeit, an F1 fan, said it was the highlight of his year.

"There is a lot of co-ordination going on between the chefs and the restaurants," he said. "You are thrilled to see the drivers in your restaurant."

The Viceroy made few changes when it took over, the most noticeable being a warmer shade of paint and new furniture in the lobby.

"It's a soft refurbishment," Mr Bawab said. "It took three days to implement the changes."

The hotel will go through a more extensive refurbishment later in the year, he said, and next year the lobby and entrance will have an entirely different look.

Mr Bawab said he hoped the guests would have a good weekend.

"Hopefully they'll feel the warmth of the staff."