Tuesday, December 6, 2022

‘Staycations and events to lead Dubai’s post-Expo tourism boom’

Aurelio Giraudo was recently appointed as Cluster General Manager for Accor Group’s luxury iconic properties in Dubai including Fairmont The Palm, Mövenpick Jumeirah Lakes Towers, RIVA Beach Club and the Palm Jumeirah’s newest boutique hotel offering, Th8 Palm, Managed by Accor.  Aurelio takes charge at an exciting time for the UAE following the successful Expo 2020 Dubai and speaks to ArabiaTravelNews.com about his new role, new challenges and his plan to drive growth for the Accor cluster of properties in Dubai.

What excites you about stepping into your new role?

Firstly, it’s fantastic to be joining this strong cluster of properties including the luxurious Arabian-style sanctuary, Fairmont The Palm, the design-centered boutique hotel, Th8 Palm, bustling city hotel, Mövenpick JLT and the iconic RIVA Beach Club on the Palm Jumeirah. Within the cluster there is something for all travelers, as well as world-class dining options for UAE residents.

Dubai as a market is doing incredibly well, in March where market occupancy reached almost 92 per cent. The last time monthly Dubai occupancy rose above 90 per cent was back in 2007, but that was with only 51,000 rooms available rather than 140,000 now. This is an exciting statistic, and a stellar opportunity for hoteliers, something which I am excited to leverage in my new role.

The Emirate is one of the preferred travel spots in the Middle East, where visitors can enjoy Dubai’s beaches, green areas, shopping and iconic tourist destinations such as the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa and one of the world’s largest man-made islands, the Palm Jumeirah. It’s an exciting time to be in the hospitality sector in Dubai and to be working on this cluster of brands is a great opportunity.

The Food and Beverage (F&B) segment too is continuously evolving with theme nights, celebrity performances, Michelin Star chefs, events, and music festivals. With the arrival of The Michelin Guide in Dubai launching in June, we look forward to interesting times ahead in the F&B sector.

Dubai as a destination has much potential for large scale city events, conferences, exhibitions, and leisure business will continue to thrive with more countries easing restrictions following the Covid-19 pandemic. All of which provide more opportunities as I join into this role.

With FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 happening in the Middle East for the first time in Q4 of this year, hotels have already started to receive lots of enquiries for hotel rooms during this period, hence we look forward to exciting times ahead for Dubai as a destination and particularly in our cluster of properties!

What have been your key learnings in the last 2 years and how are you applying them in your new position?

My career over the last 40 years has given me many opportunities and learnings which I bring into my role each day. I took over my previous role in Doha in 2019 and our industry was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. At that time, I was managing two luxury hotels in Qatar and strategically, we positioned one of the hotels for quarantine business which supported the profit and loss for that hotel. For the other hotel, we continued to work behind the scenes and later opened one of the most hyped hotels in Doha – the  Banyan Tree Doha in May 2021.

The learning during the pandemic was immense, wherein our first priority was safety and security of our guests and employees. We invested a lot in technology to create contactless services. Social and digital media created a phenomenal impact and will continue to do so. The emphasis was on hygiene and sustainable practices which brought the confidence of guests back to our industry. Guests felt more secure at hotels than in their homes.

In my new role, we continue to invest in social and digital channels, as it has become a key driver in influencing a guest’s decision. Safety and security of guests and staff is one of our top priorities and we continue to invest in contactless services. We practice hygiene and sustainable measures in all our hotels. These learnings were incomparable and provided experience and knowledge that I will bring into my new role.

What are some of USPs at the properties you manage?

What is fantastic about this Cluster of properties is that they are all unique and standalone with their offering and characteristics. My new role of Cluster General Manager oversees Fairmont The Palm, Th8 Palm, Mövenpick JLT and RIVA Beach Club.

Fairmont The Palm is a well-established luxury hotel which is a market leader in the Dubai market. It’s a one stop destination with stunning views of the Arabian Gulf and the Dubai Marina skyline, with access to the private beach, four swimming pools, water sports, a spa, a kids club, rooms with a balcony and award-winning restaurants.

Th8 Palm is a new boutique hotel with a design focus, which opened their doors in November 2021. Guests can expect lots of art-inspired touches, including eye-catching sculptures, a sleek Miami-style lobby, and some unique experiences. With 161 rooms and suites, guests can enjoy sleek, minimalist interiors inspired by the jet-set lifestyle and Art Deco scene of Miami Beach. The hotel also features the luxe Fluid Beach Club which provides a vibrant energy and buzzing atmosphere, sure to provide a stunning backdrop to a memorable day and Envy, our Mediterranean inspired restaurant offering stunning views of the Palm.

Mövenpick Hotel Jumeirah Lakes (JLT) is ideally situated in the vibrant district of JLT, meaning it is close to Dubai’s key business districts and commercial free zones, minutes away from the city’s most iconic attractions, and walking distance to Dubai Metro. Just off the Sheikh Zayed Road, the 168-room hotel overlooks tranquil lakes and the. Dubai Marina skyline with a variety of dining and entertainment options.

RIVA Beach Club is located on The Palm Jumeirah, it quickly became one of the city’s most popular beach club destinations and offers a private 300m beachfront, a climate-controlled pool, an indoor Mediterranean restaurant and fully-licensed al fresco bar. It’s a family favorite and is popular with many Dubai residents.

How has business fared in the properties over the Expo period? Who were the key source markets and what kind of RevPAR did the hotel record?

Expo 2020 Dubai certainly lived up to its expectations and tourist arrivals to the country grew phenomenally during this period. We saw a surge of business for our properties and tourist arrivals for the cluster of properties grew from many countries including the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany, and other European markets. We recorded month on month growth in RevPAR during the Expo period and achieved our hotel budgets during this period.

What kind of strategy do you plan to put in place post-Expo? What will be key to keep the momentum going?

With the increase in market supply, we anticipate a market correction happening in relation to Average Daily Rate (ADR) however, with ease of restrictions and the world coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, we do forecast tourist arrivals to be healthy. Our focus is to sustain our current business for all the properties, be strategic in our selling approach and target new markets. The key driver will be the events business, wedding segment and strategic positioning of Dubai as a tourist destination in the international markets.

Accor also has a number of luxury resorts here in Dubai and the wider UAE market– how are they uniquely positioned to be able to cater to a wide range of markets?

Our hotels are strategically located catering to a wider targeted market. Fairmont The Palm is located on the popular Palm Jumeirah, with beach access, water sports activities and much more. It’s an ideal destination to spend holidays with family and loved ones.

Mövenpick Hotel JLT’s business is driven by predominantly by corporate, long term and project-based business. We also offer transportation and access to RIVA Beach Club for guests staying in at the hotel, meaning they can enjoy and experience one of Dubai’s most iconic beach clubs on the famed Palm Jumeriah.

Th8 Palm is located on the Palm Jumeirah and is a place where guests can live the ‘infinite’ every day. Th8 is inspired by the infinity symbol and infuses design and fine experiences for fun-seekers looking for a bespoke hotel stay. With panoramic 360-degree views across the Palm Jumeirah and the Dubai Marina skyline along to Ain Dubai, the hotel is truly one to be experienced.

While the Middle East markets may have taken lead in terms of recovery, the rest of the world is still finding its way out of the pandemic-stricken economy. What does this mean for inbound numbers?

Yes, we are looking to tap into local and GCC markets for the staycation experiences and believe our cluster of properties encompasses the needs of a variety of travelers from the regional market. We have created exciting new packages and offerings to cater to this ever-growing staycation segment. The Indian wedding segment has big potential for our hotels, we will be attending Indian wedding fairs, and will do sales coverage in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore markets. We will also be targeting to get into Virtuoso program, currently only 14 hotels in Dubai are listed under this, once we get into this program it will open opportunities from the US market too.

Are you seeing a shift in guest expectations / demands at the hotels? What are they looking for and what are some of the new guest trends we can expect to see, going forward?

We have seen a shift of guest expectations following the pandemic. We continue to be cautious and prepare for the rise of new Covid-19 variants. With this in mind, we understand that Touchless Technology will continue to exist and will evolve further.

Digital voice assistants – Consumers are used to using voice-activated devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant at home. It’s only natural they’d expect to use them while traveling.

Hotel guests can use digital assistant devices to order room service and operate the TV, using simple voice commands.

Mobile Apps – Access the room through an electronic room key, order room service or grab-and-go meals or make additional requests to reception. Guests can essentially check-in and out of their hotel room with no need to touch or interact with anyone if they so wish.

QR Codes – QR codes create a touchless dining experience. Guests can simply scan a code using their mobile phone and access the restaurant menu, order food, and even pay their bill. No face-to-face order-takers, credit card handling, or check signing is required.

Flexible, Multifunctional Spaces – This means we can expect to see spaces designed to evolve with the ever-changing realities of public health — while answering to the current needs and preferences of guests. Public areas will need to be designed to prevent bottlenecks and minimise contact but give guests ample space to move around comfortably.

Indoor/Outdoor Flow – Meetings, groups, and events, are looking for multipurpose conference spaces that let attendees move freely between the inside and out. Customers desire sunlight, fresh air, and nature – especially those who have been isolated in big cities.

In-Room Fitness – We will see the trend of digital assistants and mobile apps with sanitised exercise equipment being brought directly to the guest’s room. Video content like guided workouts or yoga classes being streamed on in-room TVs will continue to exist.

Wellness- Travel that allows the traveller to maintain, enhance or kick-start a healthy lifestyle, and support or increase one’s sense of wellbeing will continue to grow.

Travelers from all walks of life will continue seeking out experiences that make them feel well and healthy. Whether that’s splurging on a luxurious resort getaway or taking a quick break closer to home, that feeling of wanting to take care of ourselves right now will be there.

What are some of the other initiatives or tech enhancements introduced at the hotels?

For our hotels, we have introduced Online Reputation Management technology which it offers valuable insights into how well a hotel is providing services for its guests

We have also introduced Smart Guest experiences which enables hotels to predict and personalize several guest services based on previous visits and aggregated guest data. This is important to ensure we provide memorable customer-centric guest experiences.

Smart Energy Management helps to continuously analyze historical thermodynamics, local weather patterns and peak demand loads to optimize energy consumption in real-time, all year round. Smart energy-management systems reduce hotel energy costs by up to 20 per cent.

In near future, we will be introducing Mobile room keys and an app for the in-house guests, where all the hotel facilities, activities and nearby places will be available for guests to view and book.

Corporate travel has generally been slower to return than leisure. Is this true at your hotels? What other trends are you seeing with corporate slowing down?

Due to austerity measures in place due to Covid-19, corporate travel has been slower in pace in comparison to the leisure and staycation segments. We have seen those trends across the properties I am currently managing, however, with more and more events being announced in the coming months, we anticipate changes in corporate travel trends. We have started to get lots of leads for small groups with shorter length of stay. Hence, we see a surge in the corporate segment coming to Dubai, and we hope it will soon be back to the pre-pandemic trends.

The Expo also saw the opening of several new hotels in Dubai. How do you stay ahead of the competition?

Fairmont The Palm is a well-established hotel in the market, however, with the opening of new hotels, we do forecast an average rate correction. We will be targeting new markets and customer segments for this hotel. The focus will be on international wholesale market, staycation, weddings, and group segment.  In the coming months, we will be doing a soft refurbishment of some of our food and beverage offerings and will come up with exciting new concepts too to ensure that we are always at the forefront and ahead of the competition.

Th8 Palm is a new hotel located on the Palm Jumeirah and offers a luxe experience with stunning suites, VIP cabanas and other experiences, right on the shores of the Palm. Relaxation and sunbathing are on the cards at Fluid Beach Club, where you’ll find an infinity pool overlooking the beautiful shoreline. Here, guests can enjoy an Airstream trailer-style food truck, outdoor bar, and a DJ booth, which will host a variety of musical entertainment.

On a ground level, what are kind of sustainable practices do you plan to implement/ have implemented to make a positive social impact?

We have implemented Planet 21 in all our properties which is a fantastic sustainable initiative. The Planet 21 programme endeavours to act for “positive hospitality “and has set some ambitious objectives, structured around four strategic pillars: working with our employees, involving our clients, innovating with our partners, and involving local communities. The two key areas of focus are food and buildings, which are key pillars across our properties.

We are also complying with 19 Sustainability Requirements set by Dubai Tourism. The 19 Sustainability Requirements include sustainable management approaches, performance metrics, energy, food and water management plans, guest education, employee training initiatives, the presence of sustainability committees within hotel establishments and corporate social responsibility programs for local communities. Through improving internal sustainability operations, hotel establishments in turn will enhance the competitiveness of Dubai’s tourism-linked economy. Sustainability is important to us and each individual property within the cluster is working towards a more sustainable future. We work with a variety of partners on various actions such as Averda to collect and repurpose used cooking oil from our kitchens in Fairmont The Palm and Th8 Palm.

Fairmont The Palm is the only hotel on the Palm Jumeriah to be Green Key certified and we have three electric vehicle charging stations. We have also been implementing the Winnow system since 2017 to combat commercial food waste and we have reduced food waste by 61 per cent since implementing the program.

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