Stephan Vanden Auweele is general manager of Sheraton Dubai Creek & Towers, the city’s oldest five star hotel, this year celebrating it’s 40th anniversary.
The 50-year-old Belgian is also area manager for eight Starwood hotels in Dubai, Sharjah and Ajman, and previously launched the region’s first Aloft hotel in Abu Dhabi. Mr Vanden Auweele, who speaks seven languages, lives in Motor City with his wife, 18-year-old university-bound son and daughter, 16. Here he talks about his week
I wake at 4.30/5am every day, go for a workout; running, cycling. I come to the office at 8/8.30am. It takes 25/30 minutes. Sometimes I drop the kids at school.
I review the agenda; a lot of appointments are done the week before. You put your priorities in, how you’re going to schedule. We’re a business so we look at where the money came from at the weekend - what were the comments, complaints, how did business go? You start with your department heads meeting, looking at what went well, the challenges. The biggest challenge I see in the hotel business is making sure everybody is aligned, understands the priorities and what the focus is; why we’re here. You’re successful as a team. If customers aren't happy nothing will work. It’s a jigsaw. We have around 320 staff, split into nine departments. I make sure everybody is clear about what we want to achieve the next two weeks, what are the bottlenecks.
We’ve many nationalities in the hotel, all have different backgrounds. Having people with different opinions in an organisation is good, enriching. I love discussions. If everybody thought the same, it wouldn’t be dynamic. Today being the leader is not about telling people what to do, it’s about creating the environment for them to be inspired to do what’s good for the business and feel proud in what they’re doing, taking it to the next step; working with you to be entrepreneurial, self motivating.
Look at all the results. I usually have a number of meetings. I’m based in Sheraton Dubai Creek, but normally two to four afternoons a week go to other hotels, have a one-to-one meeting with general managers and teams, make sure they’re aligned.
The fact I can spend 20-40 per cent of time in other hotels, plus I’m still 100 per cent involved with one hotel, it’s easy to compare others with my business, to benchmark. Some things I do here I can copy in other hotels. I’m a boss of the other GMs but also they’re colleagues. It’s easy for me to put myself in their shoes. With pressure on rates in Dubai we’re looking at where we can work better together, opportunities we have because we’ve so many hotels in the city…what resources can we combine? As long as we’re not competing.
We have a lot of training online, webinars. We need to be constantly informed with what’s happening with the company. Training cannot be sitting in a room being told what to do, training is continuous. For the next few months we’re going through integration of the Starwood/ Marriott systems, sales and marketing, loyalty programmes; a huge amount of work. Normally I stop working about 6.30/7pm.
Tuesday I come in later - 10.30/11am. I can move a lot working from home, with my computer and telephone, all the paperwork. There’s no distraction.
If you ask me how this hotel is positioned; it’s one third business, one third leisure, one third groups, so a good mixture. But when do you see your customers, talk to them? I do a weekly guest cocktail, every Tuesday evening, from 6.30-8pm. Frequent customers know I’m going to be here. Having these regulars know each other … you’re creating family atmosphere and that’s our biggest strength. When you’re a business traveller spending 100-200 days out of your home a year, it might sound exotic but it’s lonely. Connecting these people, all in the same boat, is the smartest move I’ve done.
Every morning we look at the arrival list of regulars; 800 stays, 700 stays - I’ve never worked in a hotel, 25 years in hospitality - where customers have stayed 1,200 times, which we have here. This hotel is run, I’ll not say like a family hotel, but it’s much more down to earth and connected with customers than some newer hotels. Our Club Lounge manager has been here 20-25 years; she knows every VIP.
The agendas are defined by what projects we are running. There are always issues coming up. Do we have new programmes the company is rolling out? It’s the 40th year – this is our unique positioning - we have dinner arrangements, competitions, music events after summer. We’re proud of the hotel’s historic value; we connect people to what used to be Dubai. Nobody can compete with us on that. We had one major cocktail event for people living in Dubai for 40 years. It was pretty emotional. We flew in some people from overseas, people who hadn’t seen each other in 40 years. We’ve basically run for a generation. I started here in June 2013, oversaw the refurbishment and relaunch.
Yearly we do charity events. I’m a fanatical runner and cyclist. I like to give that passion to my associates and customers. We do a 10k run on the Creek where we collect Dh30,000 to Dh40,000 we give to charity. This year it’s in mid-November and all proceeds will go towards treating cancer in UAE children. This summer we’ll allow people to stay for Dh500 in the Presidential Suite and give those proceeds to charity.
We make sure everything is prepared for the weekend, events taking place; that the manning is there, ingredients for kitchen staff, make sure we have enough linen, uniforms. Make sure service is guaranteed. We have 268 guest rooms, five restaurants. A lot of department heads are off at the weekend but the hotel functions normally, so we have a duty manager. I put the director of sales or finance, or HR in charge; out of their comfort zone. When you’re duty manager you learn a lot about how different departments work. It prepares people to possibly move up in their career. We have staff who’ve been working here 35 years. We were the first hotel in the Middle East that recruited from the Philippines. This hotel brought so many nationalities together, I’m sure we have 140/150 here. What are the strengths of different nationalities; how can we leverage that, learn from each other?
We’re a solid five star hotel, based in a historic part of Dubai. Today you need to understand what you want to be; you cannot find a pair of shoes that fits everyone. We have the rooms, the view, access to everything, airport in 10 minutes. You can walk The Corniche, take the abra and go anywhere. It’s a nice destination. The Creek is the main attraction; we’re part of where Dubai started. Not everybody wants to sit on The Palm or Dubai Marina.
At weekends I cycle more. Normally on Friday I do 90-110km, go to Al Qudra, 5.30am. If you turn back the clock 30/40 years to a general manager … with a big belly, smoking cigars; now efficiency is key to everything - I’m at my best when I’ve done good workouts. To do 400 emails a day you need to be on the ball, digest a lot of information. I have emails, and documentation I need to read, fill out, During the week I really try to be there for the guests and staff; if I sit all day in the office, door closed, I might as well stay at home.
Some (weekend) days we go to the beach or play golf at The Els Club. A healthy weekend. Dinner with friends.
I do the coffee (cycle) ride to Bab Al Shams and back with Cycle Safe Dubai. We then maybe go to other hotels for lunch or dinner. I’m also chairman of Belgian Business Council. We organise events, including ‘Belgium Weeks’ with the embassy.