It is important to identify yourself with a product, explains general manager York Brandes, sat smiling at the end of a long day on the Chedi Muscat stand at Arabian Travel Market. “If you can show a continued growth or continued guest satisfaction, it is not an issue that you have spent a long time in one place.” He has been at the helm of the five-star luxury hotel for almost nine years now, and neither growth, nor guest satisfaction, have ever been so high, he says.
As soon as he set his eyes upon the hotel, and Muscat, he fell in love. “I have never met anyone who actually came to Oman and didn’t fall in love with it,” he says. “It’s the only Arabic country that has everything to offer. We have mountains, so you can go mountain climbing, biking. You can go kayaking, you have desert, sea life — coral, dolphins and turtles.” The only problem, he explains, is: “A lot of people are not really aware of Oman. They don’t even know it exists.”
Brandes, from near Düsseldorf in the west of Germany, started his hospitality career with aspirations to become a food and beverage manager, and so enrolled on an apprenticeship in his home country, spending three years as a waiter, followed by two years as a chef. “I did the exams but I actually liked cooking very much, so continued that until I was executive sous chef, and travelled all over doing that – I went to Switzerland, Austria, France and the USA.”
After returning home, Brandes did a two-year course in economy at hotel school before moving into F&B, quickly working his way up to his goal of being an F&B manager, at the Reid’s Palace Madeira in Portugal. He then moved up at Anassa in Cyprus, where he was resident manager for six years before Muscat.
The hotel is now sitting quite comfortably in the luxury market in Muscat, with “absolutely amazing” figures for February, March and April 2012, says Brandes. April closed with an average occupancy of 86%, and a room rate of AED 1500 (US $408). However, this is still making up for a dismal 2011.
“I only got cancellations last year, I didn’t get any bookings,” the hotelier explains. The property was hit by the knock-on effect of the Arab Spring, with a total of almost €300,000 (US $374,620) worth of cancellations. “When the phone was ringing, it was cancellation after cancellation. People cut short their stays in Egypt and Bahrain, and suddenly the whole Middle East was affected.”
He adds: “Luckily, it was right before the summer. If it happened in October or November it could have been a killer. We would have lost the entire season.”
Key to the hotel’s continuing success will be awareness of the destination, which is increasing all the time, Brandes says, due to people getting “fed up” of Dubai. He continues: “If people do their homework and want to find some Arabian culture, they have to come to Oman. And I think Dubai is doing an excellent job in getting its name out and promoting itself, but can it even still be classed as Arabia?”
He explains that a huge amount of the weekend market is made up of people from the GCC, and UAE in particular. “They are coming for a weekend to get out of the hustle and bustle. They come to us to relax.” During the week, the main market is Europeans, but while the largest markets — UK and Germany — have dropped, it has seen an influx from France and Italy.
Brandes explains that continuing the increase in awareness is something the hotel can’t do alone. “Awareness is part of all of us — the minister of tourism, the airlines and the hotels,” he says. “When you want to bring something on the map, it costs a lot of money and this can only be done by government.”
There are many new hotels planned for Muscat in the coming years, but Brandes says he is not worried yet, as he can’t see any challengers opening in the next three years. “There are a lot of plans, but the majority that have announced they will come here, it was in 2008, 09 and 10. They were announced, but never took place. Some are reborn, but then again, it won’t be before the beginning of 2015.”
The only challenge which Brandes sees over the next couple of years would be more unrest: “I hope that the region will be quiet, as it will break all of our necks if something happens down the road. Otherwise, it is definitely picking up — the last three months have shown that. Confidence is back. People aren’t scared anymore.”