Billionaire hotel operator Sant Singh Chatwal is bringing a slice of the Big Apple to Dubai. In an exclusive interview with Arabian Business, the Indian-American entrepreneur talks about his rags-to-riches story, and his plans for global dominance
Sant Singh Chatwal is clearly a man that doesn’t do things by half. The six foot one inch Indian-American hotel magnate takes a series of rapid-fire phone calls in the imperious presidential suite at the Oberoi Hotel in Dubai before he sits down to chat. Time is short; Chatwal is due to fly back to the US after a brief sojourn in the emirate that has seen him announce a deal to run the world’s tallest hotel, based in Dubai Marina.
From piloting jets in the Indian Navy to being one of New York’s biggest hoteliers, via the Ethiopian civil war in 1975 and a short stint in bankruptcy, billionaire Chatwal is a master of reinvention. He played an important role in the deal between the US and India that brought nuclear power to the Asian state, is a trustee of the Clinton Foundation, and was given India’s third-highest civilian honour, the Padma Bhushan, in 2010.
Right now, the chairman and CEO of Hampshire Hotels & Resorts is on a mission to extend his portfolio of brands — which include the Plaza, the Chatwal, Dream Hotels and Night Hotels — across the planet. And one of his biggest bets is going on Dubai, where Chatwal says the market can take “at least three or four” of his hotels.
“Dubai has become, in my mind, an international city,” Chatwal smiles. “There’s a big amount of tourism coming, and with the problems elsewhere in the Middle East, where do people go? They come here.”
Chatwal plans to tap into those tourists by launching his latest Dream hotel in Marina 101, a behemoth with 720 rooms and hotel apartments. Dream Dubai Marina is slated to open in the last quarter of next year, and will feature six restaurants as well as a signature nightclub on the tower’s 101st floor. The supertall has been developed by Hampshire Hotel’s joint venture partner, Sheffield Holdings, and its height of 425 metres will make it the planet’s tallest residential building when it is topped out at some point towards the end of this year.
The stats certainly sound impressive, but how does Chatwal think he can compete with the plethora of options available to Dubai’s tourists? “There’s no lifestyle here, apart from the Armani Hotel, and this city needs more lifestyle brands,” he says.
“There’s no competition; Dubai can take hotels like New York can. I have hotels on 16th [Street, in Manhattan], 44th, 45th, 47th, 48th, 49th, 50th, 52nd, 55th and 59th, plus the Plaza — and I’m still not suffering from the competition.
“I’m not bringing a Tom, Dick and Harry hotel like a Marriott or a Sheraton — I’m bringing something new, and a lifestyle hotel draws a crowd. At one of our hotels in New York we created a beach by bringing in sand from Florida; we have beach cabanas there and a rooftop bar with the best view in the world.”
Chatwal’s plan is clearly to leverage his New York lifestyle model and transplant it wholesale into Dubai. He’s in talks with a number of third parties to bring various food and beverage brands over to the emirate, which will include Bombay Palace, the popular Indian brand that he first founded in the US back in the 1970s. Back in New York, the lifestyle section of the Hampshire Hotels portfolio is run by Chatwal’s son Vikram, a former Wharton School of Business graduate and model, actor and fashionista who is a regular feature in the American tabloid press.
“My feeling is that we can have one Dream here in the Marina, and we can have one Dream in the financial centre, and so on,” says Chatwal. “There’s enough room in the market. Look at Manhattan — it’s 17 miles long and three miles wide. You can have 11 hotels there without being hit by competition, and you can do the same thing here, as long as you have a new concept.
“I think that if in New York we could have 11, my strong feeling is that Dubai could have at least three or four, as long as we have that different concept. We don’t want to compete with each other. There’s big demand; occupancies are high, and Dubai used to have seasons, but things are changing.”
Chatwal also sees other opportunities in the Middle East, including in Abu Dhabi and Doha, as well as Beirut and Cairo, should geopolitical concerns abate. If those plans go ahead, they will be in the same vein as the Dubai venture, however.
“We always need a local developer,” he says. “We don’t want to get caught out with rules, regulations, licences and so on. We’d rather have somebody take the local headache — we do what we are best at.”
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