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Thu 30 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Bringing something to the table

As hotels insist on more exclusivity from their tableware, can manufacturers and suppliers continue to meet the demand? Lee Jamieson explores a future of increasingly bespoke products.

As hotels insist on more exclusivity from their tableware, can manufacturers and suppliers continue to meet the demand? Lee Jamieson explores a future of increasingly bespoke products.

In F&B, trends move quickly. Menus come and go and outlets constantly seek to gain the edge over the competition through service standards and presentation.

"There has been a major shift in the tableware needs of Middle Eastern hotels over the last few years, from traditional established designs to Far-Eastern sizes and shapes," explains Radisson SAS Hotel Dubai Deira Creek director of kitchens Uwe Micheel.

Every single client wants products that no other hotel has.

"There have been a number of key drivers behind this, including the need for the latest design and the practicality of the product in terms of its cleaning and servicing."

As president of the Emirates Culinary Guild, Micheel has a good overview of the occasionally problematic relationship between hotels and suppliers. In this fast moving industry, hotels need to adapt quickly and economically to the changing demands of their customers.

This is problematic for tableware suppliers who need to be one step ahead of current trends in order to satisfy these demands.

Exclusivity and innovation

According to Procurio General Trading sales and marketing manager Mirna Sarkis, there is a "single, overriding factor" currently driving the industry in the UAE.

"Every single client wants products that no other hotel has, so we have to work hard with our business partners to come up with designs that are unique to individual hotels," Sarkis explains.

This thirst for exclusivity is particularly prevalent in Dubai, where suppliers are often faced with devising entirely new concepts for each new project.

"I have a client who serves cocktail drinks in vases with really long straws," continues Sarkis. "Another very prestigious client serves soup from a porcelain vase. When it comes to serving items, hotels are really pushing the boat out, creating a need for custom designed products."

In their search for unique and contemporary tableware, hotels are making bold and striking purchases, from "odd-shaped" crockery to illuminated objects. Supplier Desert River reports an increased demand in their range of illuminated table accessories including their cordless colour changing champagne coolers and table lamps.

"This demand for contemporary tableware objects is all part of a bigger concept," explains Desert River managing partner Claudia van der Werf.

"Modern hotels are trying to attract a younger, trendier crowd, and the shift from classical to contemporary tableware is part of this. Hotels are looking for minimalist objects to enhance the whole dining experience."

With new hotels springing up all the time, it is more important than ever for hotels to differentiate their dining experiences. Hotels in the region are acutely aware that their tableware is an extension of their brand, their business values and their commitment to their customers.

Sarkis describes the modern dining experience as an "orchestra" of food, tableware, service and design - and hotels and suppliers need to work creatively to create "the right tune" from the products.

"There are some new chinaware products coming in from Germany," says Sarkis.

"German design has traditionally been very basic, but now they have to keep up with the global competition. Their new designs really bring the table to life, which makes the actual food more appealing. Of course the quality of the food is very important, but people eat with their eyes before tasting anything on the plate."

The search for new and interesting chinaware has created strong demand across the Middle East's network of hotel suppliers and distributors. While the emphasis is on new shapes and divided plates, some hotels are adding a splash of colour onto their ceramics.

White crockery will always remain the mainstay of tableware, settingn the perfect backdrop against which to display the chef's owhn artistry, but some carefully placed colours and designs can help lift the presentation.

"We have recently launched our new range of chinaware from Hankook Ceramics," says Abrao general manager Zia Muhammed. "This is an elegant, modern, pure bone china, with an option to custom design at marginal cost.

"But we are seeing more requests for custom design from hotels, thereby allowing lesser-known companies to become successful. These smaller brands are willing to explore new custom design manufacturing ideas, where larger manufacturers are constrained by bulky production schedules."

Time for change

Across the Middle East, the supply and demand of tableware is changing the face of the industry.

The demand for exclusivity has forced tableware suppliers to change their attitude - they can no longer simply supply goods; rather they are now expected to oversee entire projects from concept to realisation and must finely balance their logistic and creative abilities.

"For many years, suppliers haven't worked closely enough with their buyers," explains Cairo-based vice president of operations and human resources, Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts, Christian Grage.It is as if suppliers had lived their own insular lives and created products that were not always connected to the trends in real business. We need cooperation. The closer both parties work, the more successful hotels will be in delivering the experience that today's clients are searching for.

Radisson's Micheel agrees: "suppliers and hotels need to respect each other as business partners and respect deadlines from delivery to payment.

"The biggest challenge in the industry has always been the shipping time, but many suppliers are now beginning to keep stock in Dubai itself."

Industry suppliers tend to agree with Grage and Micheel's assessment and are working hard to overcome these difficulties. "As an industry, we need to listen to our customers' needs and follow market trends more closely," says Steelite's Stuart Wilkinson.

"Holding stock is becoming more important to our customers as they now require more timely delivery rather than having to wait weeks for something to arrive."

To improve its customer serviceability, Steelite has a strategic partner in the Middle East enabling them to deliver stock quickly and efficiently. However, such initiatives cannot reduce the delivery time for custom designed products.

"I think the biggest difficulty that most suppliers face is the lead time for product," explains Wilkinson.

"Custom designed products need to be designed, reviewed and then discussed to get the optimum design to meet the customers' needs. If this process is rushed, then the full benefit of using a custom designed product in their restaurant is lost."

Logistical problems

Logistically speaking, holding stock in the region is not an easy fix solution. High rental costs for warehouse space and the industry preference for imported brands means that this solution is only suitable for fast-selling, mass-produced items.

Instead, both hotels and suppliers need to understand the unavoidable logistical challenges and develop long-term relationships.

"Meeting deadlines is a major challenge in this region because I've found that decisions tend to be made last minute," explains Desert River's van der Werf.

"All of our products are made in Europe, so obviously we need to account for lead times. We can always airfreight items in or stock items in our warehouse, but ultimately it's about developing good relationships with our clients. We need to understand their projects so that we can stay ahead of their needs and encourage them to confirm their orders earlier."

But there is a far more serious problem lurking on the horizon: the soaring food and oil prices could affect the hotel industry's buying power at the same time as the products themselves become more expensive to produce and transport.

Although the region itself is currently awash with liquidity, there are concerns that the tourism industry may experience a fall in trade as economic downturn takes its toll in the West.

"Although initial quantity orders have decreased due to economic factors, I think that the Middle East is holding up quite well at the moment," says Wilkinson.

"Dubai and Abu Dhabi rulers are aggressively pushing the economy forward and promoting tourism. I think that any economic damage will be offset as the UAE and surrounding countries become hot tourist destinations."

Even if the tourism industry in the region does experience problems, suppliers are well-equipped to adapt and have lots of room to manoeuvre.

"In terms of supply, the industry is growing at the moment," says van der Werf. "With economic decline in mind this could change, but we will just find other products that meet the changing budgets and demands of the market."

What lies ahead?

Predicting future tableware trends is an almost impossible task because the hotel industry's appetite for more exclusivity and innovation currently seems insatiable in the Middle East.

Already manufacturers, suppliers and hotels are on the edge of what is economically and logistically possible. This raises a fundamental question: who is driving this market?

Traditionally, tableware purchases were driven by customer expectations. In turn, hotels sourced products from the available suppliers to meet the expectations regarding their businesses.

Today, the need for exclusivity and innovation has created a self-perpetuating industry in which the once very separate roles of manufacturer, supplier, designer and buyer now overlap. Perhaps future trends are now created by the suppliers' and hotels' desire to innovate.

"This industry is self-feeding," concludes Sarkis. "Hotels and suppliers develop projects and concepts together, so future trends are created in the relationship between us. We can't live without each other. It's like symbiosis where we share energy and ideas - it's an ongoing process."

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