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Wed 28 Oct 2009 04:00 AM

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Opening of a lifetime

Aldar Hotels and Hospitality managing director Paul Bell explains why the launch of The Yas Hotel is like no opening he has previously experienced and reveals some highlights of one of the Abu Dhabi hotel industry's most closely-guarded secrets.

Opening of a lifetime

Aldar Hotels and Hospitality managing director Paul Bell explains why the launch of The Yas Hotel is like no opening he has previously experienced and reveals some highlights of one of the Abu Dhabi hotel industry's most closely-guarded secrets.

What sets this hotel launch apart from any other you have worked on?

It's unlike any pre-opening experience I think any of us have ever experienced. We're in a situation where time is very tight [because of the Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix] - our colleagues at Aldar Developments have pulled off a miraculous development coup by delivering these things on time.

Normally in these situations you would have a long period of soft opening running up to a heavier trading period. In these circumstances, we are in a situation where we will be experiencing much higher levels of occupancy at an earlier stage than any  soft opening we've ever been involved in. That requires us to do a lot of planning; it requires us to make sure we have our staff on site earlier, which we have. We've recruited just about everybody. I would guess we had 85% of the team on site in September.

Architecturally, what are the highlights of The Yas Hotel?

There are two towers to the hotel, one of which sits on the land side of the track and the other one at right angles to it sitting in the marina on the other side of the track. You've got a building which effectively expands the track itself; the cars go through the building and the two towers are linked by a two-storey bridge - the upper storey of which is a VIP link between the two towers and the lower story is a bar / restaurant that will be sitting six metres above the track. It's on a hairpin bend so that will be the slowest part of the track -  that's an incredible vantage point.

Effectively you can see the track from every room, we have pool decks on both of the towers; you can see up to 70% of the track from there. It's the only hotel that has back-of-house access, we have a bridge that goes directly into the pit area of the track so it allows access which is unprecedented anywhere else.

It's a phenomenally complicated building with a very complex external structure; it's got a screen which we call the grid shell, which has got more than 5000 pieces of glass in it. That's an incredibly complex piece in its own right and then inside of that, you have two towers of a hotel.

How does the Yas Island location affect your management strategy?

The hotel has been positioned as an upscale hotel. It happens to be sitting over a track on an island which is being developed as a leisure destination. There are lots of other things around the hotel; there's obviously Ferrari World which is going to open at some point after the first quarter of 2010. I think it's being billed as the world's largest indoor theme park. It plays without doubt a key part in our strategy of how we're going to operate the hotel and run the hotel at the expected levels.

There's the Yas Island links golf course which is being developed; there's the  143-berth capacity marina  and, of course, there are the other six hotels [two by Rotana, two by Rezidor and two by InterContinental Hotels Group] which we have developed which are about 200-300m away from this hotel, so there's a destination being developed in its own right there.

What does The Yas Hotel offer in terms of leisure facilities?

The Yas Hotel is sitting on a marina, there is a lot of emphasis on boats and yachting and watersports. We also have a full gym, a huge spa and we have access to the wetland areas around The Yas Hotel. There's lots of things we're putting together at this point; we haven't got a full programme finalised because we're focusing very much on the race period currently. But there are a lot of things we can do linked to its location,  events from Abu Dhabi Motorsport Management (ADMM) Ferrari World and the driving school.

What can you tell us about the outlets?

There are 14 F&B outlets in total - bars and restaurants - and basically we've put together what we think will be a very attractive offer not just to the people staying in the hotel but to the populous of Abu Dhabi.

We've got some interesting ideas; we're collaborating with Raymond Visan of George V and Buddha Bar  on the bars for the hotel. We think they'll be firsts for Abu Dhabi. One of the themes we want to deliver through the hotel is that this is a different experience, this is about excitement, design, speed and "uniqueness".

What do you mean by "uniqueness"?

Unique's an overused word and we tread carefully with it, but we're not aware of another hotel in the world that puts you as close to a major sporting event. You can't sit in the middle of Wembley when there is a game on, you can't sit in a bedroom overlooking the final at Wimbledon, you can't sit at any other Grand Prix in the world and be as close to the action as you are in this hotel.

According to research by IDeaS Advantage published exclusively in Hotelier Middle East, full occupancy of surrounding hotels during a Grand Prix weekend is not guaranteed. Do you expect The Yas Hotel to be full over the race weekend?

We are full in the hotel over the race weekend; there are no rooms available in the hotel. For the other hotels, I can't tell you that everything is full, but I know that we are almost there and I know there are enormous waiting lists in some of the hotels.

I guess it depends what you mean by full occupancy, but from our perspective we've got 2250 rooms on the island, assuming all of the rooms are available - you get the odd room out of order in new hotels now and again as you know - [it is].

As far as our hotels are concerned on the island, the demand is significantly more than the supply.

Does that mean that you've been able to achieve room rates well in excess of the average in Abu Dhabi?

Rates for the race period are controlled by Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority and our rates are in line with that. We've also done some work on rates that have been charged at other F1 events elsewhere in the world; we certainly don't believe that our rates are anything outside what you see anywhere else. We also recognise that because of the position of our hotel sitting right on top of the track, this is bound to be a period at which our rates are at their highest because the demand is at the highest as well.

How will you ensure the service meets the inevitably high expectations?

One of the things that we would like to create at this hotel is a real excitement and buzz because it's that sort of location. And therefore we want the service to be exactly that. We want there to be an excitement or feel about what we call "the yasittude"; we want there to be a distinctive feel to the service and we've very much directed our training in that way. It's about hiring attitude and training skills, rather than hiring skills and training attitude, which is a difficult thing to do.

This building is going to be seen by an [enormous] global audience in its very early days. We're going to have to live up to that and that's going to be a big challenge for us.

This is the first year so I guess we're going to learn a lot of lessons. There isn't anything we can compare it to and we've done as much planning as we possibly can, but I'm sure there are things that we're not yet aware of and we're going to have to react to those things as they happen.

What are the future plans for Aldar Hotels and Hospitality?

The 2030 plan for Abu Dhabi is an enormous plan and has a huge amount of opportunity within it. From an Aldar Hotels perspective, our opportunity is to create scale in the market and to create a position in the market which enables us to perform and an opportunity to give our shareholders and stakeholders the kinds of returns they are looking for.

We have other hotels that are already under construction in Abu Dhabi that are going to be managed by other brands [including Marriott, Mövenpick, Ritz-Carlton and Oberoi]. We do have plans to operate other hotels; I don't think anything will be opening within the next 18 months or so, potentially slightly after that we'll have another property which we're going to manage.

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