Your company has a huge focus on retail and entertainment alongside its hotel portfolio, so how do you keep track of what your customers want to experience?
Hotels are a core part of our business but we only do hotels with an integrated lifestyle, mixed-use focus. There are great synergies with retail and that goes beyond apparel; it’s a combination of good F&B, leisure and entertainment, and millennials especially want to predetermine what they do when they travel. It’s not just about the hotel and what it offers, but it’s the immediate adjacencies and amenities. We can provide a seamless suite of options beyond “What’s the room like?” – Mall of the Emirates is a perfect example with a huge number of leisure and entertainment options.
Is it fair to say your upcoming movie-themed Aloft hotel is more about experiential travel and moves away from the traditional luxury offerings?
What we’ll do with Aloft is bring attention to a market segment that we don’t feel is being served, on an existing estate and within that framework develop a thematic approach that ties into City Centre Deira. This is where we have our Vox cinema and one of the biggest IMAX screens in the region, so there’s a natural connection to offer to the consumer in various packages.
Speaking of serving inbound demographics, we’re already seeing greater numbers of Chinese tourists. How are you tracking markets and responding in terms of your retail offerings?
There are a lot of different ways we accumulate information and form a perspective on that. We have a very active and involved relationship with the tourism boards, and we’re paying attention carefully. Within the hotel and retail estate we manage and interview customers about their preferences, paying close attention to cultural nuances, looking at what they are reacting to and who will be coming. As mentioned, there’s a rise in travellers from Asia and a reduction in high-spending Russians who were supporting a lot of the luxury spend in the past few years. But we’ve also seen regional appetite grow, so we’re adjusting all the time to perform at optimum level.
It seems like the definition of luxury is more fluid than ever…
It’s like saying, “Let’s digitise the business”… what does that mean? What a millennial thinks is luxurious versus a successful businessperson may think is luxury at a later stage in life is completely different. So that’s a hard one. It’s really more about what is an optimal customer experience and what are the things that happen within that journey and experience that keep people feeling euphoric.
Your Aspen Chalets at Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates are essentially a destination within a destination. Is the thematic stay something we should expect to see more of in the region?
I believe so and we’re actually taking that experience and looking at our pipeline in the same way we looked at Ski Dubai, and we’ve now opened Ski Egypt at the Mall of Egypt, just outside Cairo. We opened Aspen Chalets [in Dubai] but we’re looking at a couple of locations where we’re going to do other snow attractions, and we’re also planning to adapt these from what we’ve learned so far with the chalets. I think one of the challenges ahead is how you take suites of that nature and instead of a 10-year life cycle, you turn it into a two-and-a-half-year life cycle, so you keep the vibrancy changing. So you could have an entire section or wall of one of the chalets that is digitally programmable, so you’re not changing the physical but the actual content that people are looking at and feeling.
You recently spoke at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC) about global trends impacting the hotel business – what was the key take-home from your presentation?
The interest thing about the panel is that there were major operators like Marriott and Accor and boutique operators like Jumeirah and Emaar, and then ourselves, not as an operator but an owner. We rallied around two key subjects: one is societal demographic changes and the other was how technology interfaces with the customer experience and business operations. It was a great discussion and I’d recommend that you track down the video online.