Trying to find Abu Dhabi's newest hotel, at an obscure address to the east of Salam Street, my taxi driver kept insisting there was nothing there but desert. He was almost right - even Google Earth shows the area as a bare stretch of sand. But after a few turns into small, partly formed side streets surrounded by construction work, we came to a booth where staff from The Village were handing out boxed lunches to passing taxi drivers.
"I will never forget where this hotel is now," said my driver as he tore into the box. Establishing itself on the map, both literally and figuratively, is a significant challenge for any start-up, not least a home-grown hotel brand launching itself into an intensely competitive market dominated by international players. But that has not deterred OnetoOne Hotels, the owners of The Village, or other local companies seeking to enter the market, including Tiara Hotels and Resorts, Ecos Hotels and Shaza Hotels.
They are all seeking to emulate the success of Abu Dhabi-based Rotana Hotels and Resorts and the Jumeirah Group, based in Dubai, both of which have forged globally recognised brands. Imad Elias, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Rotana, recalled it was "certainly challenging when we first started ... we worked hard to gain the trust of our customers in such a competitive region, where most of the international chains were here two or three decades before us". Rotana achieved this, he said, by developing "international quality standards" complemented by traditional Arabic hospitality.
He advised the upstarts to create brands with a "meaningful difference". In creating The Village, a four-star boutique hotel, OnetoOne is attempting to take advantage of a distinctive location and concept. The company, an off-shoot of Al Husam Group, which has a 30-year background in construction, trading and transport, secured the lease on a residential compound made up of villas owned by Sheikh Saeed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and transformed them into 128 hotel rooms.
The complex has retained a residential look and feel, with pathways between the villas, which all have rooftop pools. The insides of the villas are large and airy, while the bedrooms have a cosy feel. In fact, almost the exact opposite of a traditional business hotel. OnetoOne's chief executive, Lisa Steel, knew that there was a gap in the market for high quality mid-range hotels, thanks to her previous work, which included developing Abu Dhabi's new hotel classification system.
However, in making business guests and families from the GCC its primary target, the company faced another challenge: the propensity of these travellers to stick with known brands. "Most consumers from the GCC region like to stay at hotels that are part of an international chain because they are used to their standard of service that comes with the brand," said Jalil Mekouar, the executive vice president of the Middle East and North Africa region at the international hotel consultancy firm, Jones Lang LaSalle. Nevertheless, OnetoOne breathed barely a word of the project since the company was formed last year.
"I have worked in sales and marketing for more than 10 years, so talking to people about new services and products is my life but in this case it was better to stay quiet," said Mona Faraj, the company's chief marketing officer. "To tell you the truth it was rather difficult keeping quiet but if we had told people that our hotel had all these wonderful things they wouldn't believe us because we are a new brand. So we preferred to wait until the hotel had opened and then show them."
It was not a problem shared by established brands, she said. "When a big hotel chain makes a mistake people tend to forgive it more easily because they know the brand and feel connected to it. But when setting up a new brand we have to be extra cautious because if we make any mistake people will have no mercy." According to Ms Faraj, OnetoOne has now spent about US$30,000 (Dh109,500) on its website and online campaign.
"The website was the first step to let people know who we are and, despite the fact that the hotel is fully operational now, we will wait to hold a grand opening in October, after the end of Ramadan," she said. While getting noticed is one thing, building a brand in the long term depends on gaining the confidence of guests so return rates are kept high. "The main goal of a new brand is to achieve consistency in service, which is the reason why so many international brands are successful," said Mr Mekouar of Jones Lang LaSalle. Citing Jumeirah Group and Rotana, he said: "These two hotel groups have one thing in common that helped build their brand name: focusing on consistency of service."
Among the other new players entering the UAE market, Ecos, a division of Dubai-based Coral International, is attempting to differentiate itself by combining budget pricing with its environmentally friendly design, which won the Innovation Award at this year's Arabian Hotels Investment Conference in May. Shaza, a joint venture between Kempinski and Guidance Financial Group, is pitching itself as a design-led five-star "lifestyle hotel" brand, which celebrates "the spirit... and art of living" in the Arabian world. It also plans to build in Dubai by 2010.
Additionally, Tiara Hotels and Resorts, a subsidiary of Dubai's Zabeel Investments, is scheduled to open on Palm Jumeirah in January. Danny Haddad, Tiara's chief executive, said the aesthetic and attitude of Tiara's first hotel would be very contemporary. "However, rather than simply being design-orientated, we did a lot of research into future trends," he said. "It was clear that the new five-star traveller is looking for understated luxury and a very personalised experience.
"For our target market, time is a much greater luxury than lavish interiors and extravagant design. The most important thing we can do for our guests is to give them back their time." One way Tiara will do this is through "greater efficiency, for example, in the lobby, with the reception desk ? or no reception desk, and by helping to facilitate their activities outside the hotel," he said before stopping abruptly.
"I really cannot give too much detail away before we launch, since at this end of the business, our competitors will be watching extremely closely for anything worth copying." Some executives, however, said that being part of an international chain was indispensable. Lamia Kolthoum, the marketing director for Shaza Hotels, for instance, said having Kempinski as the group's management partner was a huge advantage. "It is a draw, because it has been around for 111 years and people recognise the brand and feel connected to it," she said.
Marwan Mseikeh, the general manager of KingsGate, a three-star-110-room hotel which opened this April in Abu Dhabi, agreed. "This was the first KingsGate to open in the Middle East and at first very few people knew that the hotel was part of [Millennium]," he recalled. "But when we started our marketing campaign and let people know that we were part of a big group, twice as many people came. "The marketing task was quite simple for us, but a for a new company with a new brand they have to spend at least twice as much as we did on marketing to get people interested."
He added that, helped by a marketing budget of Dh100,000 - less than OnetoOne paid for its website and online campaign - the hotel has maintained average occupancy of more than 80 per cent. "Above all, you have to deliver what you promise," said Danny Haddad of Tiara. "That's far more important than going out and advertising all over the place." And, he said, it was vital to stay fully abreast of trends in service, to stay one step ahead of your client's expectations.
"It doesn't matter what technology, or equipment or furnishings you install in a hotel, if you make errors with the service you will struggle." Ms Steel, of OnetoOne, concurred: "At the end it's all about the service." @email:email@example.com