"Dubai’s market has remained resilient in the face of tough conditions"

GM of the five-star Sofitel Downtown Dubai, says competition keeps him on his toes
Ammar Hilal says Dubai’s current hotel market is competitive.
By Lubna Hamdan
Sun 12 Mar 2017 10:00 AM

You’ve worked in some of the world’s major cities including London and New York. Why the sudden move to Dubai?

I decided to move to Dubai simply because I liked the city. I had visited several times and really wanted to move there, but there was never really the right opportunity.

One time I was travelling to Mauritius and passed by Dubai and saw the Burj Al Arab hotel [and] I was approached for a role. I had a plan to stay for two years but then I realised I didn’t feel like an expat. We were all, in a way, expats. And for many of us, it became a home.

Some hospitality experts argue Dubai’s hotel market is becoming oversaturated, with supply overtaking demand. Do you agree?

Dubai’s market has remained resilient in the face of tough conditions.

There might be more supply than demand, but don’t forget that Dubai right now is gearing up to welcome 20 million visitors by 2020. And it’s not easy to balance building those hotels while also balancing supply and demand.

Sofitel Dubai Downtown’s proximity to major attractions, business centres and Dubai Mall helps it compete with other five-star hotels.

However, attractions such as [new theme parks] are especially attracting more families to Dubai. I think it’s really focussing on getting more family tourists from all over the world as well.

Many hoteliers have been complaining of low occupancy rates in Dubai due to an overall slowing global economy as well as increased competition in the touristic city. How have the rates been for Sofitel Downtown?

We actually had a very healthy occupancy throughout 2016 and saw a stellar performance despite competition from other hotels. We’ve also had visitors from different markets this year, including many from the US, UK, France and Germany.

When you look around the world, the number of visitors to Dubai are among the highest, competing alongside touristic cities such as London, New York, Tokyo and Paris. This shows you that we’re not behind at all and we’re doing quite well.

Would you say then that Sofitel Downtown has been immune to changing consumer spending in line with low oil prices and tough economic conditions?

Nobody is immune to these [factors] but the GCC market is one of Sofitel’s biggest markets. When we look at the Dubai International Airport, traffic hit a record 83.6 million visitors in 2016 and that’s pretty incredible. That really shows you that the tourism sector in Dubai is continuously evolving.

Sofitel Downtown Dubai combines French and Arabic attributes.

I think despite the instability in the region, Dubai has remained a growing city and has kept good economic conditions and relations.

What are some of the most difficult challenges for Sofitel Downtown and how are you working through them?

The most difficult challenge is that there is more supply than demand, especially in Downtown Dubai. That’s a big challenge but we take it in a positive way, because it makes our team focus on becoming creative and thinking out of the box about how we can get our fair share of the market. We’ve increased our market share in 2016, so we’re doing great.

How do you keep the hospitality offering relevant?

We opened a couple of new dining concepts in 2016, such as Indian restaurant Jaan and a Lebanese [lounge], Tyga, which has been extremely popular. We also opened another entertainment venue called Gemayze, like the area in Lebanon. We basically transformed a ballroom into a lounge. We are a business hotel, we’re not the main attraction for the wedding market, so the ballroom was usually not busy, hence we created a great venue that is now working incredibly well. We’re also adding a new Lebanese Armenian restaurant, Al Mayass, which is scheduled to launch this year.

What is the most expensive suite at the hotel?

Our most expensive suite is our Royal Suite, which has extensive Downtown and Burj Khalifa views and all the indulgences one could wish for. Its special features include a pillow menu and a ‘my bed’ concept with music that puts guests to sleep more easily. It also gives guests access to our platinum lounge, which includes Dubai Airport transfer, butler service and concierge service. The suite is priced at AED14,000 ($3,810) per night.

What is the best part of your job as a luxury hotel manager in Dubai?

Firstly, it’s working with a large and diverse team that includes different nationalities. Second, it’s the fact that everyone has opportunities to learn from one another. Dubai is a very diverse, busy and young city so we can all grow together. I also like that every day is very different. Then of course, there is the satisfaction of seeing happy guests.

What does it take to be a successful hotel manager?

It depends on the leadership and team you surround yourself with. It’s also extremely important that you provide them with an environment where they are trusted to do a good job. You require high levels of empathy, listening carefully to your team and guests, great attention to detail, a lot of patience and a good sense of humour to create a good environment.

The Sofitel has refreshed its dining options to keep up with changing tastes.

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