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Tue 19 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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Learning the lingo

Senior executives at W Doha in Qatar reveal the challenges overcome during the first year of operation, from brand language to consumer awareness, and highlight MICE as a priority for 2010.

Learning the lingo
It took a while for regional guests to become accustomed to the informal W style.
Learning the lingo
Peter Katusak-Huzsvar.
Learning the lingo
Marieke Schellen.
Learning the lingo
Wael Rashed.

Senior executives at W Doha in Qatar reveal the challenges overcome during the first year of operation, from brand language to consumer awareness, and highlight MICE as a priority for 2010.

The opening of W Doha was postponed by more than a year; what challenges did that throw your way?

Marieke Schellen, director of casting:When we did our first recruitment drive, we told the staff it would open in March 2008. We then had to call and email them to say it had been postponed; we managed to hold onto most people and some waited nine months for us to open.

Sourcing the right accommodation was also difficult, because we wanted everyone to feel comfortable. We needed staff to bring the W concept to life and that meant keeping people interested because Doha is a little bit more boring than say Dubai, so we wanted to make sure they were enjoying their life here.

Peter Katusak-Huzsvar, director of operations:During pre-opening it was the ever-slipping deadlines [on construction]. People cannot keep to deadlines in the Middle East. On the construction side, there was also a lack of supervision and there were no real updates - the opening date was changed around nine times, starting in December 2007 and ending in March 2009.

Then there was the issue of recruitment - it was a logistical nightmare because each time the date changed we had to contact recruitment agencies, cancel flights and once people had come on board, we had to pay them a salary. Also, when a hotel is not opened, it's a challenge to keep people motivated.

What have been your key challenges since opening in March 2009?

Schellen:Ensuring our staff uses the right lingo, plus ongoing training. I could easily give you 30 words we use and there are phrases we use on top of that: ‘Well hello' instead of welcome and ‘My name is Marieke - what is your wish' is what we use when answering phones or queries at the front desk.

Everything has its own terminology. We have a ‘whoops jar' so if someone makes a mistake with the lingo, they pay five Qatari Rials into the jar. Sometimes people still get confused - our drivers are ‘wheels' and it took them a while to get used to that.

Katusak-Huzsvar:One of the key challenges is brand awareness. I think we over-estimated the brand awareness in the market. Of course, there is also the economic crisis and the impact on business of local companies cost cutting - particularly on entertainment.

Another issue is that the area around the hotel is still under construction so the noise level can be quite high. In reaction, we are trying to do some funky things like giving our guests cool headphones and eye masks. We have sent letters to the engineering office to see what we can do to get the noise reduced. Wael Rashed, area director of sales and marketing, Gulf and Saudi Arabia:I don't think of challenges, although obviously there are many. There is no fun selling [a hotel] during the good times, but it's fun when you have to go out and hunt for business. It's been great to see our baby grow - from 0% occupancy when we opened and then every month growing our occupancies and our market share.

It's probably best to open during a recession and grow your market from there, rather than a recession hit when you are already open and for occupancies to drop from 80% to 30%. The situation could have been better when we opened, but we took it one step at a time and now the prospects are looking a lot more positive, particularly going into 2010.

How has the market in Doha reacted to the W concept?

Schellen: We couldn't use the uniforms the staff in the US wears because they are a bit too sexy; however, our male staff don't wear ties. We like to be a bit more informal, although some guests wondered why we were not wearing ties and thought that maybe we were not as professional.

Katusak-Huzsvar:We discovered the traditional market doesn't like [the W greeting] "Well, hello there", so we have had to change a few things plus in terms of amenities we have had to make things a bit more lavish. Instead of M&Ms, we provide the traditional fruit basket and we had to remove risqué items such as the ‘intimacy kit' from the rooms.

Rashed:People stay at W Doha because it's a luxury lifestyle brand - it's trendy and fun and we really go all the way to present the hotel and the concept. There are a lot of financial institutions that use us because they travel a lot and have become W enthusiasts and they know that whenever they travel to a new destination, their safest bet is to go to the W because it's the ‘in' place.

Are you worried that with so many hotels opening next year, there could be an oversupply of rooms in Qatar?

Rashed:There could be, but we will ensure we are on top of every piece of business and strengthen our relationships with all of our partners. We opened in March so we couldn't commit to MICE business in advance, but we have been targeting the MICE market since October.

We are quite unique with our meetings offering - we call it ‘The Sensory Set Up'. We look at how we can add to the experience with massages from our Bliss spa in the coffee break. We come from a different angle; we are professional, but a bit more fun. Even if a corporate doesn't want something creative, it is our duty to give them something creative.

It's all about being innovative. W is about wow and it's important we deliver that wow factor in everything we do. When I'm talking to a client and I get stuck, I simply ask, ‘How can I wow you?'.

In the coming year I would like to see MICE represent 25% of our business - that will come from both the regional and international market because Doha is growing and focusing on MICE. This is not a leisure destination; it's for corporates and sports and is setting itself up to become a leading MICE destination.

However, what we do want is MICE business to extend into leisure so delegates come here for business and then stop a few extra days to relax. We also have a huge convention centre opening here in 2011, which will help too.

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