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Sat 23 Apr 2016 02:01 AM

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Lighting up the night: Mazen El Zein

Mazen El Zein was a bored Lebanese financier serving his compulsory year in the army when he launched a business that would see him create an ever-lasting reputation in Dubai’s nightlife scene

Lighting up the night: Mazen El Zein

How did an investment banker build one of Dubai’s first and most recognised nightlife brands?

“Pure coincidence — and 90 percent luck.”

You may not know Mazen El Zein by name, but chances are you waited in line to be let into one of his high-end restaurants, bars or clubs scattered across the city in many of its most sought-after locations.

Held under his hospitality management company, The Crystal Group, the venues include People by Crystal nightclubs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Eden Beach Club on The Palm Jumeirah, rooftop bar 40 Kong on Sheikh Zayed Road, and Muze restaurant and lounge and Arabic restaurant Em Sherif in Downtown Dubai.

That is not bad for a number cruncher who started his career with a stint in the army.

“I was not into the hospitality business. I didn’t even study hospitality. It came just at a moment where I was in transition between one job and another. I was in finance and I had a year where I was doing my obligatory military service in Lebanon, which was not taking a lot of my time, and I didn’t want to lose one year of my life doing nothing. So I decided with some friends to open a club in Beirut.”

That club was Crystal, Zein’s first success and persisting leading money maker. It turned out to be so successful that it led to the establishment of the management company and a large portfolio of venues.

After Crystal, Zein was unstoppable, opening two more nightclubs in Beirut in 2004, Palais and Metis.

Dubai was his first international jaunt, with C-Bar in 2005. In 2006, he added Taxi Café, Al Mijana Resort, La Plage Beach Club, La Guava Resort, and Kitchen restaurant in Beirut followed by signature nightclub Crystal in London. In 2007, he set up Crystal Beach in Saint Tropez and in 2010, launched Riviera Prive Pool Retreat.

In 2009, the global economic recession hit and most of Zein’s venues were either closed down or sold off. But according to him, this was just part of business, and selling in places like London came as a blessing in disguise.

People by Crystal sprawls across the 18th and 19th floors of the Raffles Dubai in Wafi.

“It was a good business opportunity to sell in London; it was a very good business opportunity. In 2009, there was a very big financial crisis hitting the city and we felt that it was the right time to exit and it proved to be a good decision because they had two or three [more] bad years [before] things got better," he says. "In Saint Tropez, we had a licence to operate for three years. So once the licence ended, the municipality didn’t renew for us and for many others. So we pulled out of the market.”

Turned away from the party island, the nightlife magnate instead set his sights on Dubai.

“We moved our headquarters from Beirut to Dubai four years ago because of the political situation. We felt that it might be better for us to be based in Dubai. We’re mainly focussing our expansion on the UAE market and we’re also looking at Abu Dhabi,” Zein says.

Those expansion plans include an 18,000 sq ft restaurant, bar and club in Emirates Golf Club set to open by the end of this year. Zein calls it an architectural marvel.

“It’s really something that will be very iconic,” he says.

Despite solid plans in the Arab city, Zein is longing to expand further internationally.

He is working to open branches of his Em Sherif restaurant in Abu Dhabi, London, Istanbul, Cairo and Bahrain. He is also canvassing for a second market for Eden Beach Club and recently signed a deal to open the rooftop bar 40 Kong in luxury hotel Four Seasons in Beirut.

Although the group no longer has operating venues in Zein’s hometown, he hopes that may change in the future.

“We have two assets that are closed, which are Pier 7 and Alcazar, because of the situation in Beirut. But we can reopen them at any time.

“As long as the situation is like this I’m not in a rush, let’s put it that way.”

Eden Beach Club at The Palm Jumeirah is designed to reflect the spirit of the Mediterranean.

And he does not need to be. Zein has a bigger issue in Dubai, enough to keep him on his toes: an oversaturated market.

“I was amongst the first to ring the alarm. Two years ago I said we are touching a bubble in the nightlife scene in Dubai. I think there are too many places opening, not only clubs [but also] restaurants, bars, everything in the food business, especially in the upscale market. I think, today, the supply exceeds the demand. I think there’s also a softening of the demand because of various reasons, some of them related to the global economy, some of them more specific to the market. And I think we’re going to have a difficult 2016 and maybe a difficult 2017,” he says.

Zein says the firm is increasing revenues year-on-year but in reality it is “a fake increase”.

“If you look into details, it’s actually a fake increase because we have been opening more projects. On a year-on-year basis, I think 2016 will be at best comparable to 2015,” he says.

But such challenges do not faze the Lebanese. He knows what it takes to survive them.

“You need to have a flexible organisation where you can adapt your cost structure very quickly and you can downsize your operations. It’s a survival market today, I would say. It is about controlling your cost, maintaining your clients, and maintaining your standards also, because I think the best products, once this [downturn] passes, will come out even stronger,” he says.

Market concerns are just bumps in the road for Zein. What he is really concerned about is what he calls “amateur competition”.

Zein started the Crystal Group in 2003.

“Our biggest competition and our biggest threat is not good competition itself. We always look at good competition. It’s especially what I would call ‘amateur competition’. That’s our biggest threat. Because you have many people who are not in the business, not professional, opening projects left and right, taking a chunk for a while and then closing, overpaying staff, overpaying rents, overpaying artists, and this is really very hurtful for the [industry],” he says.

The question that remains then is how an investment banker with no nightlife experience managed to succeed in some of the world’s most competitive cities.

“You really want to know the secret to success? It’s 90 percent luck. But the remaining 10 percent makes a lot of difference,” he says.

Mazen El Zein may have had luck on his side, but history shows he did not fall short in brilliance.

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