Iconic hotels: The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain - Gulf Business
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Iconic hotels: The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain

Iconic hotels: The Ritz-Carlton Bahrain

It already stands as a focal point for the burgeoning tourism industry in the nation but Dean Carroll discovers the beating heart of the hotel – a determination to leave its guests with lasting memories

Next year, Bahrain will be the Arabic Capital of Culture. Plans are in place to expand the airport, build a cruise ship terminal and erect a second causeway to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. By 2021, the government wants tourism to account for 17 per cent of the economy. It currently stands at 11 per cent. In short, the nation is on a mission to diversify its economy and to do it as quickly as possible. The feeling is this will overcome the perception that civil unrest is common- place in the kingdom, although security is certainly very tight wherever you journey in Bahrain.

But while the wider economy might be transforming at a rapid pace, the atmosphere at its most famous and long- standing luxury hotel can only be described as tranquil. Immediately upon arrival at the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrain, the luxury and attention to detail blanket you like a warm jumper. Every member of staff you encoun- ter seems to know your name and all are determined to make sure your stay is an experience you never forget; more than 100 of the 600-strong team having worked at the hotel for over a decade. It is no surprise then that the secluded property has played host to Gulf Cooperation Council summits and a plethora of household names from Michael Jackson to George W. Bush, as well as many high-profile weddings and conferences.

Built in 1994 and operated until 2003 by Le Meridien, the state-owned property was then franchised to Ritz-Carlton. It now boasts nine restaurants within the huge resort, a 600-metre private beach and a private island. You would expect such facilities to be attached to a 600-room hotel but, in fact, it has just 260 rooms. This means the hotel remains a place of sanctuary even once the large volume of visitors from nearby Saudi Arabia punctu- ates the midweek calm at weekends. The monthly beach parties are low key too, meaning there is exactly the right amount of fun for those wanting a haven away from the frenetic pace of modern life. It is no wonder then that the hotel’s claim, suggesting 40 per cent of guests are return customers, seems entirely plausible.

There are no noisy jet skis or speed- boats. For, the only water sports available are non-motorised including kayaking pedalos and paddleboarding. That is not to say this is a place without surprises. On one side of the resort, there are 23 high- end Caribbean-style villas. At the opposite end of the site, you will find the main hotel. A contemporary, almost brutalist, piece of architecture it was designed by the famous Frenchman Pierre-Yves Rochon – the man often referred to only by his initials ‘PYR’.

Paradoxical elements are ever-pre- sent throughout the resort. You can ask for an airport pick-up where the driver will greet you with bottled water, magazines and in-car wi-fi. Or alternatively, for the millennial traveller, you can opt for a self-service mobile check-in. In the same manner, you can participate in high-impact sports like squash and tennis or indulge in the hammam after experiencing one of the many massage options on offer at the spa.

On the food and beverage side too, all tastes are catered for. Fine dining is avail- able at such premiums establishments as the Plums bistro, where the chef will on occasion create and print a personalised menu for individual guests. Another high-end example is the Primavera Italian extravaganza where two-Michelin star chef Oliver Glowig is the consultant chef. Here, the more curious gastronomes can take a culinary tour of Italy ‘from north to south’. In contrast, you can enjoy an informal lite bite at Trader Vic’s or a ‘Cognac-cigar experience’ at the English- styled Burlington Club.

For those wanting to escape the wall- to-wall pampering at the hotel Bahrain offers some gentle attractions such as the authentic souks in the capital city of Manama, rustic Arabic restaurants where you sit on the floor and eat with your hands, museums, abandoned military forts, a wildlife park and the 400-year-old ‘Tree of life’ – which inexplicably sits alone in the middle of an arid desert landscape.

Of course, for the action-seeker, there are the delights of the Formula One race- track to take in. Not to mention a large go-kart track. The really adventurous can even journey halfway across the 30 kilometre causeway to Saudi Arabia in order to take in the unique views such as the salubrious royal palace on a man-made island. Be warned though, without a visa you will have to turn around at the 15km point and head back to Bahrain. When the delights of the Ritz Carlton await you, this is no great hardship.

In Interview with General Manager Christian Zandonella

The hotel is widely considered to be the market leader in Bahrain. Do you expect the competitors to raise their game in the coming years given that Bahrain is developing so quickly – and how will you stay ahead of the pack?

“We have a lot of luxury brands coming to Bahrain and that is great for the destination. What we are going to do is reinvest in our product. We are modernising, we are improving with new areas like our contemporary Thai Lounge next to the beach. You wouldn’t expect to find this bar with a DJ when you first enter the hotel and this approach will continue throughout the property. We will make sure we stay fresh.”

Is there a company motto or ethos – some DNA running through the organisation?

“Our marketing revolves around the motto ‘Let us stay with you’. We want guests to remember the experience, to take those memories back home. Simply the way a housekeeper arranges toys for a child can make a difference and result in a thank you letter from a guest. If we can create a memory during a guest’s stay then we have achieved our goal.

“Another example might be if someone from housekeeping enters a room and a guest is not feeling well. Then the primary goal is not to clean the room but to make sure the guest is taken care of. The secondary job is to clean the room.”

What is the national make-up of your hotel guests?

“At least 40 per cent of our customers are from Saudi Arabia. We also have many regional visitors from Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. More internationally, the United States and the United Kingdom are the top two when it comes to business travellers. From a leisure perspective, Germany and Russia are the leading markets for us. The Germans love sunshine and we have a certain guarantee of that here.”

How is that likely to change in the future with geopolitical and economic shifts – the expansion of a wealthy Chinese population, the currency crisis in Russia and the low oil price in the Middle East – for example?

“The emerging markets are not so interesting for us at this point. The flight connections just aren’t developed yet. There is no appetite to be aggressive about this. Although we have some connections with India – that could be the next obvious market for us. We are dependent on what the national carrier, Gulf Air, does. Like anywhere, the more destinations they have the easier it is for us to do business.

“We haven’t seen the oil price hurt us too much yet. We are very close to Saudi so if the situation continues and that leads to budget cuts, and a slowing of investment, then we will of course be affected. Right now, we are still in a happy place.”

And what is the average occupancy rate here across the year?

“It is anything between 60 to 100 per cent depending upon whether it is midweek or the weekend. There is a real fluctuation.”

Are you planning any expansion of the hotel within this plot?

“We still have some land here and we are always looking at options with our owners but right now there is nothing on the table.”

How much does the original design by Pierre-Yves Rochon affect the decisions you take when constructing new areas or doing renovations?

“Whatever we do or alter, we consult with him. He comes here whenever we are making changes. The external design is post-modern and contemporary whereas the inside is classic and timeless. It doesn’t age if you take good care of it.”

How important has F&B become to the hotel industry as a whole and what specific strategy are you deploying at the Ritz Carlton – many high-end hotels now opt for celebrity chefs so that they can put their name up in lights and garner extra publicity? Are you doing things differently here?

“All our restaurants are managed but we have a new partnership to test the ground with Oliver Glowig, who is a two-star Michelin chef from Rome. He is consulting for us in our Primavera restaurant where the entire team there is now Italian. We didn’t hire him because he is a celebrity but because of the quality.

“We are talking to different restaurateurs and chefs at this point so we are always actively looking for the right partners. But we don’t want to have the same concept as someone else. It has to be something that doesn’t exist yet.”

Can you set out just what makes the Ritz-Carlton in Bahrain an icon – is it on a par with the likes of Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi or the Burj Al Arab in Dubai in terms of being a centerpiece that draws in people both locally and globally, and puts the destination on the map?

“Well, we don’t declare ourselves to be an icon. That is up to the guests to say. This hotel has seen so much history and has so many stories from GCC summits, for example. We are fairly strong in our performance. We know that our product is right.”

What is it like here during a Formula One race weekend, how does the place change?

“People are very well-behaved as the Bahrain race attracts only the true motorsport fanatics. In other F1 locations, 80 per cent of things happen off the track with parties and other distractions. Here, the focus is on the race and some of the F1 teams even stay with us.”

It’s often said that hotels designed and built as icons never actually make any profit because they are simply loss leaders designed to bring prestige and prominence to cities or countries. Is there an element of that in some of the mega hotels across the world, do you think?

“To be very honest, I think the days of trophy hotels are over. There were a few cases in the past where investors did not look for a return on investment but it’s very rare now. They do serve a purpose though in that they raise the profile of a place.

“Look at all of these people that travel to Europe to see all these sights that have become the main attractions. Places like the Eiffel Tower, in Paris, just wouldn’t get built these days. Think of Venice. Millions of tourists visit such places so they do have a right to exist but the state of the global economy means investment is now business driven rather than driven by passion. Here at the Ritz Carlton, we have a very healthy business. The hotel is very profitable.”

What are your thoughts on the technological disruption we are seeing across all industries? For taxis it’s Uber, for hotels it’s Airbnb. Do you welcome this disruptive technology as necessary change that drives up the standards of all or is it a concern in the hospitality industry?

“We should be concerned as an industry. It is real competition in European spots like London and Barcelona. Someone is going to suffer and it’s going to be the three-star hotel on the outskirts of Paris, for example, because they don’t have the booking engine, the brand power or the distribution channels.

“It’s not necessarily a threat in our luxury space though as we offer services that are unavailable on Airbnb like room service, airport pick-ups and so on. The Middle East is far from being converted because the hotel products here are already so great.”

Is it true that you started as an apprentice at the Hilton in Munich?

“Indeed, I started in 1995 at the age of 16 having previously worked in my parent’s ice cream shop. I am a server by profession. I didn’t go to university. Hospitality is so people-driven that you can’t study half of this stuff. Sometimes you are involved in politics and personal drama, you cannot possibly study these abstract situations in a school classroom.”

Finally, how much room is there to be creative as a general manager when the hotel is part of a chain – do you have autonomy to stamp your own personality on the premises?

“The key is to hire as many creative people as you can. With a big brand, you are unlikely to fail because we measure so many things. It pushes you to perform as a team but a big hotel will not usually collapse due to one person’s performance. With that in mind, you can be creative as you have stability. But for me, F&B defines a hotel – hence, our progressive culinary approach.”

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