It has been two years since Mandarin Oriental, the luxury Asian brand, announced its initial foray into the Middle East — a revolutionary new development on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island planned for 2013. However, after delays from the developer’s side, the company has yet to break ground. Undismayed, Mandarin Oriental has pushed forward with other plans in the Middle East, revealing details of rapid expansion — by 2017 the group plans to have seven hotels in operation.
The announcement follows a disappointing first quarter in EMEA, the company’s director of operations for EMEA, Christoph Mares, tells Hotelier Middle East. “We had a decline [in RevPAR] by about 3-5%, depending on location. It’s not something we had hoped for, but it’s not something you could shy from, given the slowdown in corporate demand,” he explains. However, globally, the company is around 8% ahead of budget — a great backdrop to what is hoped to be three years of impressive expansion.
“We were 11 hotels in 2000. Now we’re operating 29 hotels, residences and resorts,” explains Mares, “and by the year 2014 or 2015, we’ll probably have 42 hotels in operation.”
He continues: “We’ve grown from a little niche boutique owner operator, and we are in the process of growing to a critical mass and size, whilst not diminishing our exclusivity and our expectation of the brand integrity and services.”
Outside of the UAE, Mandarin Oriental’s Doha property, scheduled for late 2014 or early 2015, will include 117 rooms, 41 suites and 92 serviced apartments in the Souk Waqif area. “[We chose] Doha primarily because of the uniqueness of the project. We liked the design, and the architectural direction that was given really reflects the true culture of the country and the city.”
One of the most exciting aspects of both hotels, says Mares, is the food and beverage offering, which he expects to introduce a “new paradigm” to the Middle East, in terms of restaurant concepts. Both hotels will have around six F&B outlets, for which they are bringing in high-calibre celebrity chefs.
Mares says of restaurants in the region: “Because of their quick evolution, the relatively mediocre offering in hotels — not mediocre in terms of food quality, but in terms of overall concepts and investment — needs an overhaul. A new paradigm, quite frankly. And I think with the designers and architects in the game and now the celeb chefs and our expertise, it will be a strong proposition.”
Mandarin Oriental is planning to establish its name elsewhere too. It is “actively looking and negotiating in Dubai,” Mares reveals. “Within 12 months we should be able to come forward with a specific announcement. We are looking at a few options but we are getting ever closer.”
The only reason Mares hasn’t pushed forward already, he says, is that he hasn’t found anywhere “iconic enough or durable enough to put our brand into”.
The group is also looking at opportunities in Abu Dhabi’s second largest city — Al Ain. “It provides the untouched Arab desert cultural experience,” the hotelier explains. He adds that the group is looking for “a mountain resort or a healthy hideaway — something with a different twist”.
They are also eyeing up projects in Muscat, Jeddah, Riyadh and Beirut.
More of a challenge than choosing locations, Mares says, is going to be recruitment. “The market has obviously seen an incredible amount of properties arriving and brands being present already, and that normally means a certain dilution of the number of colleagues and the quality.”
For the coming years, Mares plans to “bring the number of properties to a certain level while making sure that our brand philosophy and our service culture and quality expectation is at the same level as it is today or higher. I think if we can achieve that and be widely recognised as one of the top three globally represented deluxe hospitality owner operators, then I think our group will have achieved its objective. That could take easily five years”.
“Once we arrive, we will be honoured to be allowed to operate here,” Mares explains. “There are a lot of big players already that know what they are doing and have the experience of many years, but Mandarin Oriental always brings a certain mystique to every destination, as we are so rarefied in our presence. People always look particularly closely to what we bring to the plate — how we do things, what we bring.”
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