A Marc of excellence

Emaar Hospitality Group chief executive officer Marc Dardenne reflects on the successful launch of the Armani Hotel brand and talks to Louise Oakley about how to deliver on expectations of excellence, proving why he has scored the second highest place in the Hotelier Middle East Power 50, 2010.
A Marc of excellence
Sat in Armani/Lounge, Dardenne reveals that Emaar Hospitality Group has launched a Lifestyle Dining arm.
By Louise Oakley
Thu 28 Oct 2010 04:00 AM

Emaar Hospitality Group chief executive officer Marc
Dardenne reflects on the successful launch of the Armani Hotel brand and talks
to Louise Oakley about how to deliver on expectations of excellence, proving
why he has scored the second highest place in the Hotelier Middle East Power
50, 2010.

I meet Marc Dardenne in the lobby of the Armani Hotel Dubai
and immediately, this down to earth hotelier is keen to play down his role in
the success of the designer property. Little does he know he has just been
ranked second in the Hotelier Middle East Power 50, 2010, the list of the most
influential people working in the Middle East
hotel industry today.

I decide to keep this to myself, and before you know it, we
are sat in the stunning Armani/Ristorante discussing the launch of Armani,
which I am told went exactly the way Dardenne had “dreamed for”, and the
development of the Armani brand, not to mention the further establishment of
The Address Hotels + Resorts brand and Emaar Hospitality Group’s new Lifestyle
Dining division.

As well as being chief executive officer of Emaar
Hospitality Group (EHG), of which Dardenne was the founding member, he holds
the titles of CEO of the Address Hotels + Resorts and CEO of Armani Hotels +
Resorts. Today, it is the latter he is most keen to discuss.

“The opening was on April 27 and was understated, in line
with the Armani brand. From an opening point of view, I am extremely
satisfied,” reveals Dardenne.

“From a business point of view, the first couple of months
have been extremely successful and have really met our expectations. Food and
beverage has taken off really nicely,” he says.

“We also really wanted to make sure we can deliver on
expectations. We know if someone comes to an Armani hotel, expectations will be
very high, and we want to not only meet these expectations but over deliver, so
our approach was to try and really build up the business and I think from the
first month we have done that,” says Dardenne.

All eight F&B outlets, the spa and 160-rooms opened at
once at Armani Dubai, making it the first time in Dardenne’s career he has
launched completed F&B facilities. Although this put pressure on
operations, he says “at the end of the day I think it was the right decision”.

“We wanted to make sure the customer gets the full Armani
experience, not only as a hotel guest but as a food and beverage guest.”

As well as expecting the full Armani experience, guests at
Armani are some of the most discerning and as such, deserve “the next level of
personalised service”. Each guest is assigned a lifestyle manager, who Dardenne
says is neither a butler nor concierge, but an extension of both.

“We have a team of lifestyle managers who really manage your
whole lifestyle when you stay here at the hotel. If you would like to be left
alone, you are left alone, if you would like to receive all the attention in
the world, you have it. It goes beyond doing hotel reservation, restaurant
reservation; it goes up to arranging a visit to KidZania for your kids or
obtaining items that are not readily available.

“Butlers
really are here to serve; they unpack and repack your clothes. A lifestyle
manager is more about connecting with customers and creating a relationship
that goes beyond, that will really pull people back to the hotel hopefully and
really develop the loyalty to the hotel and to the brand, and create that
emotional engagement that people will have with our employees, our associates
- who we call actually brand ambassadors.”

These ambassadors are representing a brand that is “about
simplicity”, “humble in a sense”, and “approachable”, says Dardenne.

Simple, humble and approachable are unlikely to be words
that would spring to mind to describe Armani for the average Dubai visitor or expatriate resident. I have
a hunch that luxurious and expensive would be more likely, and so question
Dardenne on how he thinks the hotel is perceived. After all, how accessible is
the hotel to tourists? And as a boutique hotel with only 160 rooms, F&B
revenue is of vital importance, but are residents considering the hotel as a
dining venue?

“I think the general perception of tower security puts that
into people’s mind,” says Dardenne, when I ponder the hotel’s accessibility.

“You are right to say people might have a perception of that
security aspect but actually, it’s very easy to reach the hotel,” he says.

And he rightly defends its approachability based on the
attitude of Giorgio Armani himself at the hotel opening.

“Mr Armani was extremely approachable. He must have taken
1000 pictures. He said if he is approachable, his brand is approachable and
that’s really what we are trying to do in terms of managing the hotel.

“I myself want to be approachable to my customers, the
ambassadors, the guests; that’s the management style we want to have, which is
somehow different to the other ultra luxury hotels,” says Dardenne.

He says that the outlets have been attracting local
residents and guests alike, with the performance of Armani/Ristorante, the
signature Italian, “going beyond expectation”, 60 covers at the Indian
restaurant Armani/Amal every night, and the general feedback being that the
F&B is not as expensive as people might have initially thought.

“Overall, F&B performance has been good. But obviously
they are all very large restaurants and I think now, with the season coming
back, it will really be a place to visit.”

A series of new F&B initiatives are set to entice more
diners, with a brunch starting at Japanese restaurant Armani/Hashi in the
middle of October; a noodle restaurant planned for Hashi for lunch business
once offices open in Burj Khalifa and more residents move in; theme nights
coming up at Armani/Prive; the launch of Apertivo at Armani/Lounge at the end
of September; the opening of the terraces at Armani/Amal; and the opening this
month of the Armani Club, a cocktail lounge.

I get the sense that rooms business has been growing more
slowly, and Dardenne won’t release figures on occupancies, although industry
whispers have claimed they are very low. He is realistic, accepting it will
take time, and also says that he is exercising deliberate caution when it comes
to building up the business.

“We are very happy in a sense that the interest was very
much there and has gradually improved. Obviously over the summer, like any
other hotel, especially during Ramadan, it was fairly quiet but it has picked
up in September, and October and November are going to be very strong months
for us.

“Really we are very cautious about building up the business
with the type of customers we want; with the amenities we provide in the rooms
and the type of finishings we have to be very careful - again it’s about
delivering and over delivering expectations, delivering the lifestyle
management concept.

“So far, we are on par with expectations and very confident
about the last quarter of the year and really building on this year, next year
should be definitely an improvement on results,” says Dardenne.

Achieving rates is not a concern, he continues; instead, it
is about developing the customer base, which is proving to have a far more
international profile than that of EHG’s other operating brand, The Address
Hotels + Resorts.

“Rates depend on seasonality but overall, we feel the rate
perception has been very well received, it’s not a rate issue,” he says. “Customers
that are willing to stay in an Armani hotel need to be developed and
approached. We want people to say this was great value because the experience
was so special.”

New launches

Dardenne is currently in the process of exporting the Armani
brand to Milan
for the opening of the second hotel in the first half of next year. Discussions
are also underway for Armani hotels in other fashion capitals such as Paris, London and New York, and again,
Dardenne will lead the development of these.

Back on home soil, as well as running Armani and five
existing Address Hotels, Dardenne is also spearheading the launch of EHG’s new
Lifestyle Dining division.

“We saw it as a business opportunity to launch restaurants
independently run, separate from the hotels. We started with the Downtown Deli,
which is a concept that has worked nicely for us at Dubai Mall, and most
recently we launched Madeline, which is very much a French concept in Dubai
Mall and that has taken off actually extremely well.

“Again it’s a casual concept, it’s in a mall so it doesn’t
serve alcohol, and the idea is really to take some of those concepts and then
really duplicate them and then, if the opportunity is there, to really
franchise them in the UAE, but also outside of the UAE.

“Now we are working on several other concepts that we are
potentially going to launch in the next few weeks,” adds Dardenne.

Not surprisingly, considering the Lifestyle Division is a
product of Emaar, not all the brands are so modest. Dardenne reveals that he is
preparing to open a grill restaurant and lounge on the 122nd floor of Burj
Khalifa in January.

“Our new restaurant Atmosphere has the bragging rights of
being the highest restaurant in the world,” he declares, adding that the
concept could be taken into other cities - as long as it was in the tallest
building.

 EHG reportedly has a
very lean corporate structure, so Dardenne really is hands-on with all his
projects. I ask how he juggles his roles, “I think it’s having a great team on
board, having people that are really passionate about what they do, being
really passionate about what you do yourself - you have to love what you do and
I love what I do.

Dardenne epitomises humility, thus proving he is the
perfect Armani brand ambassador and fully deserving of his place in the  Power 50.

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