By Karen Osman
What goes into the planning for Ramadan and how does it affect businesses of stand-alone and hotel restaurants?
A time for reflection, prayer, and giving thanks, Ramadan is a special time for many people around the world where the simple pleasure of eating is foregone during daylight hours as a reminder of the plight of the less fortunate. Everyday life takes on a different rhythm as Iftar and Suhour, taken with family and friends, are integrated into the diary. As a result, food and beverage operational teams plan many months ahead to ensure that a plethora of options are available for both those fasting and those looking to partake of this cultural experience.
Whether a stand-alone restaurant or an eatery within a hotel, there’s no doubt that business trends and patterns fluctuate during the holy month. To what extent is dependent on a number of factors as Andrew Joyce, director of food and beverage for Hilton, Middle East and Africa explains: “Ramadan has a slightly different impact in different parts of the Middle East and of course which part of the year Ramadan falls (will also make a difference). Generally, it can be a period during which sales increase, although the impact definitely affects the trading periods as the focus is on the early and later evenings with the Iftar and Suhour events.”
Amal Mikahil, director of marketing and communications at JW Marriott, Kuwait echoes the seasonal sentiment stating: “I believe the earlier Ramadan comes in the summer season, the more the Kuwait market as a whole is impacted with a business decrease.”
Regardless of the time of year, certain business segments are likely to see a drop in performance. “Because people are fasting and don’t work as many hours, there isn’t the trend of having meetings, workshops, day-trips, teambuilding or even internal meetings, so work-related activities in Ramadan drop quite considerably. There’s also no wedding business during this month,” explains Abdin Nasralla, vice president of Meydan Hotels & Hospitality Division.
This year, Ramadan falls wholly in August, traditionally low season in the GCC hospitality business. In light of this, and with many operations closed during the day, the task is set for food and beverage teams to enhance their evening options to capitalise on local custom and make up for lost trade, from the addition of seasonal menu items to large-scale operations such as ‘Ramadan tents’ catering for hundreds. Done well, this can result in significant increases in evening dining business during this period.
Mövenpick, Bur Dubai reported an increase of 20% in covers for dinner during the month of Ramadan, 2010 compared to the previous month.
“In the evening, business generally increases because you specifically cater for that event. They come for Iftar and for Suhour and that certainly has an impact on us and increases business for sure,” explains H. Peter Drescher, vice president food and beverage for the Middle East and Asia for Mövenpick.
He continues: “We redecorate our ballroom in a very typical Arabic fashion. What is interesting is that before, Ramadan was mainly a family event and today you have corporate events with people coming out as a corporation and celebrating Iftar — this didn’t really exist previously.”
Capitalising on every opportunity during the evening affair seems to be where most hotels succeed in achieving their targets for the month. The team at Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa drives business using every facet of its food and beverage division. Outside catering, family tents on the beach, Iftar in the main restaurant and their newest addition, Divaz — a floating venue that cruises the ocean — all provide options for families, corporate companies, UAE residents and in house guests.
“Compared to the previous month, we see an increase of about 10% to 15% in covers if we combine restaurants and the outside catering events we do during the holy month of Ramadan,” explains Ralph J. Hayes, director of food and beverage.
Similarly, Andreas Mueller, GM of Taj Palace Hotel in Dubai, classified as a ‘dry hotel’, has seen a positive impact year-on-year for Iftar with covers and revenue doubling from 2009 to 2010.
The trend is region-wide, with Thierry Perrot, general manager of InterContinental Cairo Citystars also reporting an increase: “Revenue increased on average by around 12% in 2010 as well as the number of covers increasing [in 2010 vs 2009] by around 17% for both food and beverage, and banqueting.”
InterContinental’s counterpart at Festival City, Dubai also has big plans and while certain outlets do close, the team is confident that effective planning will pay off: “We create a five-hundred-seat outlet so that helps easily with the closure of the other outlets,” explains John Philip Rees, executive assistant manager, food and beverage.
He continues: “We’re working with a local company and we have some sponsorship lined up. From a profitability standpoint, we analyse the Ramadan tent in line with our normal outlet budget profitably percentages and it delivers about the same.”
Raffles Hotel in Dubai witnesses significant success with its approach to repeat business as Andrew Whiffen, executive chef explains: “We’re lucky to have an extremely skilled Arabic kitchen team who do a very traditional Iftar and Suhour. Because we get a lot people who come to us on a daily basis for Iftar, we work on a six menu cycle so certain items are there daily, but other items change on a daily basis which we’ve found very successful. ”
Success in Saudi Arabia
In Saudi Arabia, AKMC Al Shohada Hotel in Makkah generates more business for the food and beverage division during Ramadan than any other month of the year.
“Ramadan is the best month as it represents approximately 24% of the total budget of food and beverage. The average spend increases by 35% and the number of covers increases by nearly 200% when comparing Iftar to dinner normally,” explains general manager, Sameh Elnashar, who also sees a 70% increase in his room service business.
He continues: “We usually open one restaurant and two banqueting halls for Iftar which accommodate up to 1500 people and one restaurant for Suhour for 600 people as well as a full lobby for Ramadan special dishes and drinks.
“AKMC Al Shohada Hotel also experiences high demand for outside catering for both Iftar and Suhour for corporate clients.”
There’s no doubt that a lot of time and effort is spent on such investments. The Meydan and Bab Al Shams, both part of the The Meydan Hotels & Hospitality Division in Dubai, take a long-term approach, investing heavily in creating specific concepts and venues that can be used in subsequent years as well as capitalising on business from corporate Iftars and outside catering.
“There are a lot of things we buy — not for one night or one month but we buy them for years, so with regard to costs, they’re covered. We cannot do business without it making financial sense. Now we focus on the concept and the theme to go with the occasion and that’s what attracts people to us,” explains Nasralla.
The renowned ‘Al Hadheerah’ venue, which as an Arabic concept lends itself perfectly to the occasion, has managed to sustain itself over the last few years with only an 8% drop in business between 2008 and 2010, which, the vice president is keen to emphasise, is due to the movement of Ramadan into the summer period which sees many residents travelling.
While large hotels often have the resources and the manpower to reinvent themselves for Ramadan, smaller businesses may have to be even more creative to bring in the business. As well as looking to attract customers, they will also bring effective time management into the equation, using the period to prepare for the busy season following Ramadan.
Walid Maalouf, general manager of acquisitions and development for the Hospitality Development Company (HDC) in Qatar, responsible for restaurants including Burj al Hamam and Pampano, explains: “Ramadan is a quiet period across the region and most restaurants need to adjust their pace with the late opening hours that extend into the early hours of the morning. We therefore use the time when we are not operating to revamp our outlets while encouraging our staff members to take annual leave, in advance of preparation for Eid celebrations and the new season”.
That’s not to say that the team is resting on its laurels. While opening hours are restricted from the norm, different initiatives come into play.
“We adapt our venue offering by introducing a special Lebanese buffet and set menu at both Iftar and Suhour,” explains Maalouf.
“We are preparing a special take away menu for our restaurants and also a home delivery menu for Burj Al Hamam. This will undoubtedly lead to an increase in business.
“We will also be serving shisha at the restaurant for the first time during Ramadan, since shisha plays an integral part within Arab culture, and is in particular demand during this period.”
The franchise restaurant and café, Paul, managed across the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan by lifestyle retail company Azadea, is perhaps an ideal example of where a non-Middle Eastern concept adapts its business to the region. “For our business, it is decreasing definitely, because the franchise that we operate doesn’t necessarily have the feeling of Ramadan. What we try to do is provide an alternative. We do a set menu and provide Ramadan juices. We open for take away in all the shops from 9:00 am until Iftar,” explains Rudy Haddad, F&B operations manager.
Referencing one of Azadea’s other brands, a Turkish concept called Köşebaşı, other initiatives are taken to drive business. “For Köşebaşı, we do delivery at the Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) location and we open until 3:00 am. Normally we open until 12 midnight but we have significant business between 12 midnight and 3:00 am — I would estimate 20% during this time.”
While cafés and restaurants that don’t serve alcohol may have an easier time adapting to local customs, how are licensed restaurants and clubs affected? Nick Hancock, assistant F&B director for AMZ Group which manages Margaux in Dubai, explains the impact: “We open from sunset to midnight and covers decrease approximately 8–10% in the summer months during Ramadan because we have fewer hours to fit them in. The average cheque doesn’t change much as we have our full menu on offer.”
Hancock goes on to say that adapting to local customs has a positive effect on business: “With all of the publications printing Iftar and Ramadan guides, it gives us the opportunity to advertise and get our name out in the public whilst celebrating a local tradition.” Yet there’s no doubt that an aggressive plan for post Ramadan and beyond is a must. He continues: “We have been working hard to set things up such as our Friday Brunch, Ladies Night which is already a real hit and a new concept call ‘BBM Saturdays’ which is basically a ‘bloody mary’ brunch concept that has taken off in New York and London.”
Cavalli Club, Restaurant and Lounge also adapts its operation for the holy month by shifting its focus from the partying scene to its restaurant which provides an Iftar buffet in addition to its à la carte menu. Operations manager, David Lescarret, explains the venue’s strategy: “Ramadan is a time that can be utilised by companies to cater to corporate needs such as company events and staff Iftars. The number of restaurant covers is actually higher during Ramadan than throughout the rest of the year. An increase of 25% is noted during this period, testament to the steady stream of followers the venue commands for its cuisine alone. As no doubt is the case with all licensed venues across the UAE during Ramadan, there will be a reduction in the sale of alcohol which will obviously affect our monthly revenue.”
With so many factors to consider, teams across the region have to work harder than ever to make their offering as attractive as possible in competitive conditions. Hotels, as opposed to independent restaurants seem to be best placed to provide a variety of options yet stand-alone restaurants have proven that careful analysis of potential revenue streams and strategic use of resources will do much to soothe the nerves of company finance directors. When the planning is done, then we can all take the time to step back and appreciate the meaning of Ramadan as hotels and restaurants play an integral part in bringing friends and family together.