Luxury room with view to future

The operators of exclusive hotels the world over are facing great challenges tied to a weaker global economy and the fiercer competition that arises in difficult times. Senior executives from some of the world's premier hotel brands discuss their industry.

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The operators of exclusive hotels the world over are facing great challenges tied to a weaker global economy and the fiercer competition that arises in difficult times. Senior executives from some of the world's premier hotel brands discuss their industry. Rebecca Bundhun reports As the luxury hotel market in the Gulf expands and competition increases, operators are having to adapt to attract leisure tourists and business executives.

At the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference in Dubai this week, the movers and shakers of the hospitality industry gathered to give their views on the future of the luxury resort business. Robert Gaymer-Jones, the chief operating officer of Sofitel Worldwide, met up with Liam Lambert, the president of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, Nicholas Clayton, the president of Viceroy Hotel Group, and Marc Dardenne, the chief executive of Emaar Hospitality Group and Emaar Hotels and Resorts, to share their thoughts on the state of the business.

qWhat does the future hold for the luxury hotel industry? aMr Dardenne: We learned from customer feedback the things we should do better, how can we make it easier for the customer. It's technology that is easy and accessible. I think we're thinking too hard about how to create a "wow" effect. Keep it simple. @Body-Answer2 :Mr Clayton: We have to adapt to customer needs. One of the things you're seeing in the resorts is the launch of high-end delis, coffee shops, where people can do a sophisticated grab-and-go. This is what the customer demands and they will march outside your hotel to find it if you don't develop the product. I think it is really about thinking through how customers use hotels.

Mr Lambert: I think as we move into the future there is going to be a greater sensitivity to the environment. I think we will have to have mechanisms whereby when you leave the room a motion detector turns off the air-conditioning, lowers the blinds. When you approach the room, all those things snap back on again. I think that will be an expectation in five years' time. I think a change is afoot. It's about the experience. On the business side, obviously information technology is de rigueur.

Mr Gaymer-Jones: It's still about a focus on design and how well you can understand the client. You have to make sure you build customer loyalty so people come back again. Tell us about your brands and where they are going. @Body-Answer2 :Mr Gaymer-Jones: Sofitel went from 206 hotels about two years ago to 130 worldwide. Out of that we have about 14 in the Middle East and about eight under development in the region. With the new repositioning of the brand, the whole idea was to move the hotels out that didn't represent Sofitel as a luxury market. We used something called a luxury index, based on location, design, investment and revenue per available room. So we went around the world and cancelled contracts, which is not an easy thing to do. Within this area we've got the [Sofitel] Jumeirah Beach hotel, which is in its soft opening. Recently we did a conversion of the Sheraton hotel to a Sofitel in Cairo, and we've just opened up a new one in Saudi Arabia as part of the Sofitel luxury collection.

Mr Lambert: The owner of the Oberoi group does not want to have the biggest hotel company; he just wants to have the best hotel company. We have 17 operations right now. We have two cruisers on the Nile and one cruiser in Kerala. In the pipeline, we have two hotels in Abu Dhabi and one in Oman. Mr Clayton: The original success of Viceroy as a brand began in Los Angeles, with a hotel in Santa Monica. We now have operations in Mexico, two hotels in the Caribbean, and recently we just opened our first ski resort in the Aspen area. Our presence here is really related to our partnership with Mubadala that's now two years old and the development of our brands and our company in this part of the world.

Mr Dardenne: We launched the Address brand two years ago. We have a portfolio of five hotels. We have signed management agreements in Marrakech and the south of France. As a new brand we have been able to perform positively against established operators here in Dubai. Obviously, we would like to duplicate that success internationally. The other brand is with the Armani group to develop 10 ultra-luxury hotels in the world. Dubai was the first, which opened last week. The next hotel will open in Milan in the first quarter of next year. We're looking at key destinations like New York, London, and Shanghai.

What roles do butlers and lifestyle managers play in your brand? @Body-Answer2 :Mr Clayton: I think there's a level of sophistication butlers must have today because there's a relationship beyond their duties. There's also the knowledge of the local sites and attractions. Mr Dardenne: We have lifestyle managers at Armani. We looked at going beyond butler service. You have to create a relationship with the customer. We have a team of 20 to 30 lifestyle managers of different nationalities. The idea is that you manage the experience from the time you actually get in touch with the brand and start your reservation. We have taken away the front desk. You are not going to check in at the desk, you are going to be accompanied to your suite immediately.

How important is the "nationality" of a luxury brand? @Body-Answer2 :Mr Gaymer-Jones: The Sofitel brand is very, very French. It's one of the key differentiators for us as a brand. Everything that we are doing is through the lens of someone living in Paris to create this French feel. It has to be authentically French. What is special about the Address brand? @Body-Answer2 :Mr Dardenne: I think with The Address the important part is really the food and beverage concepts that are really targeted to the local community. Part of the brand is active lounges, and we want to attract the community to come to us. When you stay in a hotel, you want to stay at the place where it's all happening. You want to see people ? you want to see energy. We are going to try to duplicate that internationally.