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Tue 11 May 2004 04:00 AM

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Form follows function in Le Meridien’s hotel philosophy

With several new regional projects in the pipeline spanning from dubai to kuwait, Le meridien hotels are on the up.

Introduction|~|neelmain.jpg|~|Mark Zohair Neem has designed and managed the construction of many hotels all over the world and now sees the Middle East and Dubai in particular as the place to be in terms of taking the hotel industry forward.|~|When it comes to the design and construction of five star hotels, there’s far more to it than bricks and mortar alone. Strategic planning, deciding on room sizes, incorperating the latest technology and lay-out issues play a huge part in the whole design and building process.

Mark Zohair Neem, Le Meridien’s vice president director of design, construction & engineering, Middle East and West Asia told Construction Week exactly what it takes to design and build some of the finest hotels in the world.

How long have you been working with Le Meridien in the Middle East and what were you doing previously?

For two years so far. Before that I was at Starwood where I was based for 19-years. Prior to that I was based in Brussels and London and of course from the headquarters in Boston. I started my career with Intercontinental at the Pan Am building and during the late 1970s and early 1980s it was the biggest and the best hotel company inthe world. Basically, everybody got their training from Intercontinental, including me.

I then moved onto what was ITT Sheraton in Boston and I was responsible for North America, I later took over South America, Latin America and the Caribbean where I was reporting directly to the president of those divisions. Later, I moved in to Europe where I was responsible for Europe, Africa and the Middle East and then began to focus on the Middle East. I moved to Cairo in 1996 then joined Le Meridien later in Dubai.

What does your job entail?

My job starts when an owner of a piece of land says “I want to build a hotel.” My job is to go in there and do the evaluation, the due diligence, prepare the schedule, the briefs, facilities programmes and select the specialist consultants and the architect alongside the owner. I also do feasibility studies with my software, which allows me to produce a quick P & L statement for revenue projection if the owner wants them.

I have developed my own software program over the years based on my experiences, which allows me to work out what a five star hotel needs in terms of a space programme for the back of the house, room sizes, public areas and everything else. It all has a correlation to everything. To me a hotel is not a building it’s a machine. Everything within it needs to work very precisely.

Time and motion studies for example, show that the location of a kitchen’s equipment is very important. Space planning actually determines the success of the property.

In terms of Dubai, don’t you think there are enough hotels here already or is the market still growing in your opinion?

Based on projections, which have been made by the government and individual feasibility studies by private companies, substantial growth in terms of tourism is expected in Dubai. The infrastructure is being built to prepare for that. You can see that in the airport, the airlines and the convention centre.

What Dubai really needed is a huge conference centre and that is what we at Le Meridien had been saying for years. Dubai has needed conference facilities like they have in London, Chicago and New York and it has now become a real business centre.

I talk to many business people and they tell me that they come to Dubai and out of around 10 of the meetings they have only two of them are related to Dubai so Dubai has become a venue for global meetings.

I think with the airport expansion they should be looking at building more business centres and meeting rooms so people can come into the airport, have a meeting and then fly out.||**||The future|~|at2.jpg|~|Kuwait’s Art & Tech hotel is due to open in June of this year and will be the first hotel of its type in the Middle East. Above is an artists impression of the lobby.|~|What about Abu Dhabi and the Northern Emirates?

Abu Dhabi has a different focus and I don’t think Abu Dhabi’s focus is really on tourism. For example, if you drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai on a Wednesday and a Thursday night there is an exodus and there are many cars with Abu Dhabi license plates driving into Dubai. I think there is a future plan because the road is very good now and the growth will continue along Sheikh Zayed road until Dubai and Abu Dhabi finally meet.

What about region-wide?

I know Qatar pretty well because I was involved in the operations of the pyramid shaped Sheraton hotel there and Qatar has grown substantially. Qatar has recognised the fact that tourism does play an important role and that’s why they have built all of these other hotels. The government has personally taken an interest in all that, plus, the airport and the airlines. The country is switched on now. Oman is unique in the Middle East and Kuwait is also starting to boom now.

Tell me about the new Art & Tech designed hotel in Kuwait?

The first Art & Tech designed hotel in the Middle East will open in June this year. Art & Tech designed hotels contain artistic features that symbolise the art and culture of a particular country. We take the culture of a country and show it throughout the hotel in terms of artwork, the headboard of the bed or on the etched glass.

We want to create a modern hotel with modern rooms with local overtones. The technology part is related to things like the LCD, interactive TVs, high-speed internet access and the high tech bathrooms.

We’re focusing on the bathroom’s because 70% of the waking time a guest spends in a room, they spend in the bathroom according to our studies. As a result, we want to provide good features and great power showers.

How long does the process take from when Le Meridien identify a market opportunity until a hotel is fully constructed and ready to open?

On average the process takes between three to four years. At times it can be quicker but depending on the location and if the site is complicated it can also take longer. We have a project right now where a land owner came to us and said: “I’ve got this beautiful site; six acres of land in the middle of the city in India,” but on top of it is an old 40-room palace, which was built by the Maharaja. It’s a heritage building so this is a real challenge but the land drops down 10 meters on either side.

However, the initial concept is accomplished quickly. Myself and the managing director of WATG sat down and developed a concept, which took us half a day to prepare. Of course there is a lot of detailed work going in to it but the initial concept is easy to do if you have a lot of experience.

Many hotel architects focus on the outside of the building but for me the form follows the function and I feel I need to get the function right. The lay-out inside has to be right. That’s the main thing for me.

In terms of the Middle East, does Le Meridien just manage properties or do you also build them?

In the Middle East and in West Asia we manage only but that’s where our expertise lies, in managing hotels. We do not want to go into financing and putting money into hotels because we’re not bankers, we’re operators.

Our strength is the people we have working for us. An owner comes to us for the brand name because we have that stopping power. In terms of the input we have, we go the whole way with that purely because we are protecting the owner’s interest and investment.

The owner is basically giving us authority to manage the construction and design because if it’s not designed correctly we cannot operate it and we cannot make the money for him because at the end of they day he’s looking for a return of investment and we cannot do that if it’s not designed to our standards.

We do get owners who come to us with an existing hotel and say “We’d like you to manage it,” so I do my due diligence and the surveys and we end up recommending to the owner any possible improvements we see fit. Renovating an existing hotel is more difficult than doing a brand new hotel because you have a clean sheet of paper and be more flexible with the design.||**||Technology|~|nbbody.jpg|~|An artsists impression of Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi’s Noodle Bar.|~|What are Le Meridien’s upcoming major projects in terms of architectural design?

The Grosvenor House Hotel at the Dubai Marina is one of them and another one opening soon is the Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi. The Art & Tech designed hotel in Kuwait is opening in June 2004.

In Makkah there’s a huge complex with 1300 rooms and suites coming soon, which will be known as Le Meridien Makkah Towers. There are also two other properties in Kuwait, which are currently in the planning phase. Meridien hotels are also coming up in Karachi, Hyderabad and Kathmandu. The Kathmandu project is already underway and they have already built the first phase, which comprises the golf course, clubhouse and spa.

What factors do you have to consider to make your hotels unique for the Middle east market from a construction/design specification point of view?

The size of the rooms and the quality of the finish is critical to us as well as the quality of the bathrooms. To be competitive in the Dubai market rooms are critical. Customers are very demanding here because they have a huge choice and we need to be the best as far as room is concerned.

We have also developed a bed, which has been tried and tested, with our customers which, were implemented in all our existing and new hotels. Equally important are the public areas, the restaurants and the quality and the variety of the restaurant. The spa also plays an important role, particularly in resorts but also in the business hotels.

How much would your average Middle East hotel project cost?

The average hotel size in the Middle East is around 220-rooms so if you exclude the cost of the land, which is one factor we can’t control and include everything from construction, to IT systems, to pre-opening working capital and training it could be anywhere between a US$50 -$60 million average investment.

How much influence is technology having on hotel development these days?

Technology does play an important role because again, technology is something that is demanded by the customer. The internet is like providing a telephone in a room these days so yes, technology does play a significant role.

It’s not only playing a role in what we offer our customers but in how we manage our business better. From my office I can access a hotel and look at its security systems and property management systems so we’re able to better monitor what’s going on to help the hotel.

Technology is now a key consideration when we’re building a hotel and it makes a difference on the infrastructure you put in to the building. I always put in the fibre optics and the Cat 6s now because that is the future.||**||

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