By Emma Davey
Despite the ambition of the Middle East hotel industry to be bigger, taller and grander, its next success may come from small luxury projects, as TRI Hospitality's Emma Davey explains.
Hotel growth in the region is likely to be among the fastest in the world, with TRI research indicating that confirmed new hotel rooms may see the tricurrent hotel stock in the GCC almost double over the next three years.
This is admirable growth when you consider that it was only around 35 years ago that the first international hotel companies began to establish themselves in the major gulf cities, with InterContinental the pioneer for most locations.
As the hotel market moves into a different era and the opportunities for new build hotels within themed master planned communities abound, we await the advent of a new exciting hotel product.
Without doubt achieving the tallest, the largest and the glitziest has been Dubai' s domain, with others in hot pursuit to claim the accolade as their own - the nature of hotel development is surely challenging the publishers of the Guinness Book of Records. But the word "intimate" is one that would rarely describe the concept of most current designs.
So when will the region be ready for the smallest, most intimate, private and less shouted about hotel?
Looking beyond the region to understand what this intimate product might be, two potential concepts are examined for their suitability in the region today.
The small luxury hotel
The concept: A highly exclusive small hotel, providing unquestionable privacy for VIPs, individually stylised rooms, personalised menus, tranquil spa and an undeniable focus on seemingly effortless comfort, extended luxury and truly personalised service.
The property is not necessarily identifiable by brand but by its essence; the experience moulded perfectly to the hotel's surroundings. Often founded in unique structures such as historic buildings, old castles and palaces and located in major cities and tourist destinations, the hotel has clear presence yet understated kudos.
Hotel brands: Worldwide hotels of this calibre may be found in the collections of Six Senses, Aman Resorts or Hospes Hotels. Other individual unbranded properties are represented amongst member groups such as the renowned Relais et Chateaux or Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
In the region: There is little to represent the small luxury hotel in the GCC at present although the 82-room Six Senses Hideaway at Zighy Bay in Oman is a definite contender, and the recently opened 24-room hotel at Desert Palm in Dubai is another consideration. Markets such as Morocco hold more promise with properties such as the 19-room Kasbah Agafay Hotel and Spa.
The prognosis: This type of hotel requires a specific location and environment. European cities are brimming with small luxury properties, as there hoteliers can take their pick of unique historically valued buildings in locations that are of interest to the type of VIPs attracted to the product: politicians, billionaires and press averse high profile individuals.
Older cities in the Middle East region, such as in the Levant or some areas of Northern Africa, may be able to offer opportunities for converting existing historic buildings as long as the cities themselves are engaging or the outlying locations are exquisitely beautiful.
However, in the GCC with the focus on maximising build opportunities in the face of ever increasing construction costs, it may be difficult to manufacture the right environment for such a niche product in a city location, although the opportunities in Oman and outlying islands in Abu Dhabi may yet present the perfect site.
The guesthouse experience
The concept: A home with open doors, accessible to all budgets, offering up to 20 rooms, each room different but reflecting aspects of the location whether that be historical, cultural or practical.
The guest house offers an opportunity to peek into a way of life, to be involved with the surroundings. Friendly, comfortable and sometimes luxurious, the personal touch is ever evident by the individual involvement of the owner or manager catering to your needs.
Often a family run business, with the family also residing in the same property, brands are not commonly found in this segment. Locations are varied but will typically be near to areas of interest to tourists, historians and nature lovers, either in detached homes with gardens or in popular residential areas on the outskirts of major cities and towns. Some properties may be part of a working farm, an ancient mill or once owned by a famous historic figure.
Worldwide: Reputable guest houses are typically listed by local or national tourist organisations and often bolster the tourism industry where hotels are out of the reach of many budgets or do not offer the experience sought by guests.
In France, these types of properties are referred to as chambres d'hotes and in England, the rather less attractive but easily understood, bed and breakfast.
In the region: Morocco has the best examples with its riads offering a traditional experience and hospitality with some properties being exclusive and expensive. The XVA Gallery located on the historic bastakiya creek area - the heart of Dubai's trading past - offers six rooms around a courtyard among an artistic environment and a small café.
The Orient Guest House, also in the bastakiya area offers a similar local experience, whereas the 20-room La Maison D'Hotes in Jumeirah provides a guest house experience close to the beach and immersed in residential surroundings.
The prognosis: This type of product can be wide ranging in its offering and therefore appeal to a variety of budgets. It is not necessary to be positioned in a historic building but a purpose or functional use in its surroundings would distinguish it from other properties in the area.
The aspect of strangers frequently visiting the home may result in some cultural difficulties, particularly in the Gulf, but potential may exist in Bahrain where local houses belonging to historically important people are being renovated as museums and galleries.
However, the most interesting opportunity could present itself in Oman where old forts could be renovated and extended to a unique guest house experience for visitors travelling around the country. Dubai too, will emerge with unique and charming guesthouses, no doubt.
SLH has become a big competitor for Big time hotel owners.