By Louise Oakley
Stephan Vanden Auweele, GM, Aloft Abu Dhabi talks about the hotel’s first year in operation.
Aloft has been open for a year now - how would you evaluate your first year of business?
We opened Aloft at a time when Abu Dhabi was going through a complete change. The situation before the Formula One last year with the major shortage of rooms was that prices were far too high. Last year about 10 hotels opened in Abu Dhabi in about one month and that de-regulated the market. We had to find new playing fields and new balances - the hotels the customers, owners, government - everybody was coming into an environment which was 180° different from two months ago and the playing field had to be re-shaped completely.
The markets have done very strange things. Traditional hotels kept up their pricing, while the new hotels that were not doing as well on Yas Island dropped their prices, and customers didn’t understand because they were paying AED 1500 (US $408) and then all of a sudden somebody was offering AED 300 ($82) - so it was a very weird situation. But I think now we are balancing out. Prices have come down to a more reasonable level. Right now at Aloft, we are pretty close in terms of occupancy to where we said we were going to be. The last three months we have been doing better than we expected in terms of occupancy, but we are considerably below the average room rate.
The concept of Aloft is something quite new to this market - what are you doing that’s different?
The brand only started two years ago and we now have now 42 Alofts in the world. It is the fastest growing brand. We have to be different because we want to be leaders and show what’s important to the next generation of travellers. That’s why, together with the Element brand, we are in the leading role for everything that’s sustainable in Starwood. Being a new, trendy brand we are more sensitive to the needs of the next generation of travellers than the traditional customer, who wants an excessive amount of luxury without even considering the impact on the environment. There’s definitely no doubt that the new generation of travellers will be more sensitive to being green. That is why we have solar heating. That’s why we’ve got the push-top bottles for the soaps in the rooms, which traditional customers might say ‘that doesn’t fit’ - but you have to break some taboos. We cannot keep on giving out packaged soaps to our customers because it’s not sustainable, it’s too much packaging and people just take them home.
On that note, Abu Dhabi is looking to establish itself as a sustainable tourism champion, what are the challenges associated with this?
I think Abu Dhabi has the intention to be more sustainable. I think it has to be because it has the highest carbon footprint in the world. It’s a necessity to be concerned about renewable energy and as a rich nation with resources they also have the funds for development and to look after alternative resources and eventually be considered as a leader. It is not an easy environment in which to be extremely energy efficient because of the heat. But I think the Estidama developments and the EHSMS programmes they are rolling out in hotels are all signs to show that Abu Dhabi wants to move forward, but I still think there’s a change in mentality that needs to come with this.
How could the hotel industry be persuaded to be greener?
There must be an incentive but the incentive doesn’t have to be financial - it could be getting a logo or an accreditation, or a prize. Money is not always a driver here; people are already quite well off so giving them more money than they have already doesn’t always work.
Where do you think other hotels could improve on sustainability?
We are the only hotel in Abu Dhabi that has solar energy panels. It’s very hard for me to understand how in a country that has sun 360 days a year, the use of solar energy is not more developed. The problem is how sustainable are the plans, as it’s not only about hotels, it’s the whole environment. We can save 10-30 % of our energy in the hotels, but at the same time if we are putting a 2000m² grass field in front of the hotel that almost cancels out the effort that we make. If Abu Dhabi really wants to be a sustainable city, then Abu Dhabi really needs to look at the complete picture.