Expectations are as high as the prices

Traveller's World These are interesting times for the tourism industry. Even those of us who still have a job and can afford a holiday are starting to view time away rather differently.

Six Senses Hideaway in Zighy Bay, Oman, is currently operating at a 30 per cent occupancy.
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These are interesting times for the tourism industry. Even those of us who still have a job and can afford a holiday are starting to view time away rather differently. The more the banks wobble, the greater the bargains there are to be had and the more we want value for money. No longer are we pathetically grateful that our booking can be squeezed in. The boot is on the other foot. We want the hotelier to acknowledge that we have deigned to select their establishment and reward us either with a good price or by pampering us to pieces. Or, preferably, both.

If you are paying the exorbitant prices at the Atlantis, for example, you do not want to be woken at 9am on a Saturday morning by an attendant asking what time you intend to vacate your room, as happened to a colleague of mine. Of course, it all depends on market forces. Dubai has been one of the quickest destinations to react to the pressure of the downturn. With the pound sinking and much of Dubai's biggest market, Europe, officially in recession, something had to be done - and fast. The Dubai Department of Tourism does not want to revise its target figures for visitors and so instead they have encouraged a price slashing strategy. Most of the major Dubai hotels are currently offering half-price rates, and this week the Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa and the Harbour Hotel and Residence announced discounts of 60 per cent.

If that rate cut sounds enticing, however, you only need to look at what a 40 per cent discount means in terms of dirhams to conclude that it actually translates to no more than a dose of realism. The new promotional rates for the Al Maha start from Dh2,665 (US$7250), including taxes and meals, for a night in their Bedouin suites and The Harbour Hotel is offering studios for Dh832 ($226) and one-bedroom suites from Dh1,069 ($291), including taxes.

Abu Dhabi on the other hand has not changed its prices. Supply and demand here still favour the hoteliers - and the industry hopes that by 2012, when architects' drawings have metamorphosed into hotels and there are three times the number of beds, the economy will have improved and the status quo can remain. The Shangri-La reported a 77 per cent occupancy rate this month, for example, despite January usually being a slow period. The hotel will argue - with some justification given the high occupancy - that the prices reflect the quality of the service.

I reflected on such notions at the weekend when visiting another top destination - The Six Senses Hideaway in Zighy Bay, Oman - with three friends. The hotel's claims that it is currently 30 per cent full (although guests staying there last week who I spoke with estimated that the occupancy rate was probably much lower). Zighy Bay was probably the biggest launch in this region last year. Six Senses has a formidable reputation and the location is nothing less than spectacular. With the Mussandum mountains for a backdrop and a soft, sandy beach reaching out to the calm waters of the Gulf, it is the perfect place to unwind. I love the rustic chic of its villas and would rather spend a weekend there than almost anywhere else in the region. But at what price? Even with a 30 per discount, which is on offer to anyone who utters the magical words "best available rate", one night in a villa costs about $2,000 (Dh7,010). The quoted rates don't even include a bread roll at breakfast.

For that money - and this is where a economic recession is a great leveller - expectations of good service are set high. So what sort of management, when two-thirds of the complex is empty, sends out its gardeners at 7am on a Saturday morning to wield a hammer and chisel on the palm trees outside the one villa that has four occupants? We would have called our personal butler, Teep, but the front desk had forgotten to switch the phones on. So Teep remained undisturbed and we endured a rhythmic banging for three hours. Or, when four people are sharing a villa, what sort of logic is it that thinks that two of everything - from tea cups, to loungers to glasses - is enough. As my friend remarked, "This might be Six Senses but they need a seventh one - common sense."

The in-villa dining is a nice idea but if you order a meal three hours ahead of an 8.15pm dinner then you don't expect it to come at 8.45pm. Hotels like Six Senses need to understand travellers' psyche - if the rate is right, such irritations become far less of an issue. If the rate is too high then they become all-consuming. I will spare you the rest but, in the spirit of helpfulness, one of our party filled out the feedback form with great care. It had 18 individual complaints from broken lights to a confusing welcome. She did not even list her spa treatment. The therapist had a rag nail and my companion returned to the villa with red welts on her back. Would any of us go again? Yes but only if the price matched the service.

Norman Zweyer, the assistant director of sales, says that reducing the price is risky as they have to protect the brand."You cannot sell a Mercedes for the price of a Volkswagen," he says. Quite right. But one thing the traveller hopes will come out of the global recession is that hotels selling Mercedes don't offer a Volkswagen engine - unless it's priced accordingly. sryan@thenational.ae