Hospitality Leadership and Design Conference

Dubai 2021 - Sofitel, The Obelisk

HLDC is firmly in the swing of its international roster of events, with December 2021’s Dubai conference showcasing a prestigious roster of panellists and esteemed attendees.

The conference took place on 8th December in the elegant surrounds of the newly opened Sofitel The Obelisk. Guests were treated to an informative and inspiring series of discussions, with topics ranging from facilitating a luxury guest experience and the role of technology, to discourse on enhancing client engagement and operations.

Keynote address

Sarah Duignan, director of client services at STR, gave a fascinating analysis of the hospitality landscape as the industry recovers from a very trialling period. The outlook for the Middle East was particularly encouraging, with ADR and RevPAR growing strongly and steadily.

“Dubai is one of the best-performing markets in the world when it comes to occupancy,” said Sarah. “Expo, the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup and high season allowed average rate to hit 984 dirhams or £190.”

In terms of pipeline, the future looks rosy for the Middle East which, Sarah explained, is the fastest-growing region in the world on this score. “82,901 new rooms are expected to open in the Saudi Arabian market,” she said. “In the UAE there’s just shy of 50,000 rooms coming, and approximately 35,000 of those are in Dubai.”

These properties are predominantly quite advanced in their construction, too, with 70% of the hotels in Dubai’s pipeline already out of the ground and the vast majority of Doha hotels expected to be open in time for the World Cup.

“Year-end next year, Dubai is the only market of those that we forecast on across Europe and the Middle East that we expect to grow by comparison to 2019,” Sarah concluded. “Dubai is topping the table for 2022.”

“Dubai is one of the best-performing markets in the world when it comes to occupancy”

Luxury 3.0

Pallavi Dean, founder and creative director of Roar, led an intriguing discussion on the 5*** hotels of the future, with: Anton Bawab, head of operations, The Red Sea Development Company; Haitham Mattar, MD of India, Middle East and Africa (IMEA), IHG Hotels & Resorts; and Sandeep Walia, COO, Middle East, Marriott International.

The somewhat controversial opening statement that “good architecture is far more important than great service” offered a catalyst for debate. “I would say both are important, and one shouldn’t be at the cost of the other,” Sandeep put to the group. “I think success would be a good, healthy combination of design and technology on one side, and service and human touch on the other.

“If you look at the luxury or even premium space, technology is increasingly important. Guests want the option to check in on an app, choose their room or view, use it as a key. The design is equally important and needs to be efficient, particularly as guests are spending more and more time in the resort and hotel. However, in this industry we cannot take away the human touch element.”

“In my opinion, good service is ubiquitous,” said Pallavi. “To provide exceptionally good service these days, I think your staff needs to speak four languages fluently. So, how do we get that consistency in service?”

“I think the service staff needs to have one languag,e not four – it’s the language of anticipation to guests’ needs,” Haitham countered. “I think this is really critical. It’s really important to have a balance of design and great service.”

“Design is an enabler,” suggested Anton. “The discussions we continually have with our designers are, ‘design it beautifully, but make it functional’. The back of house, the part that is not visible to all of us, is as important as the part that the guest touches, and it enables it. You can have all the beautiful furniture and fixtures, but if you have to bend over and contort yourself to plug in your laptop under the desk, that is not luxury. The unsentimental part – the back of house, the colleague facilities, –are equally important, if not more important, in enabling us to deliver the great service we want to offer.”

The discussion turned to technology – how it might be used to promote sustainable habits, and whether in fact this is compatible with ‘luxury’. One particularly interesting perspective was that hotels are lagging behind the technological progress seen in the travel industry, and need to do more to ensure a seamless guest experience.

“With technology, I think there is so much that has evolved, especially when it comes to airports with facial recognition,” said Haitham. “But then you arrive at the hotel lobby, and you have to sign a registration card and give your ID. There’s a lot of synchronisation that needs to take place in order to make the hoteliers work with the government and authorities and make that seamless, taking that whole anxiety out of travel.”

The panellists went on to discuss the manifestation of sustainability in luxury hospitality. “Today’s generation are looking for sustainability,” said Haitham. “I want to experience luxury, but I want a sustainable product. I want to protect the environment, I don’t want to use up everyone’s water.”

“I have to disagree, I’m a bit of a romanticist about luxury,” countered Anton. “We’re having that dialogue internally all the time – luxury and sustainability. Luxury and environmental friendliness don’t go hand in hand. You go on your vacation twice a year, you want to splurge. But there is more to it than the bed sheets and the towels and the water flow. Where do your employees live? How much carbon do you burn when they travel to and from work? Where do you buy from and how do you transport it? How do you organise your supply chain? It starts with how you build, so we’re building off-site to reduce our impact on the island.”

“I think the service staff needs to have one language, not four – it’s the language of anticipation to guests’ needs”

21st Century Luxury - Balancing Design Vision with Value Engineering

Filippo Sona – Partner and COO, Wood Couture, fostered a compelling discussion on luxury with Jese Medina-Suarez – creative director, principal, EMEA, Campbell House; Olga Sundukovy – co-founder & co-creative director, Sundukovy Sisters; Justin Wells – founder and CEO, Wells International and Kristina Zanic of Kristina Zanic Design Consultants.

One key topic was bespoke design. “This is where our industry is going,” said Justin. “To create bespoke design is what we love to be doing. We’re not just specifiers at the end of the day, we’ve got great suppliers that we love to work with, but we’re always trying to reinvent. Trying to do something new and freshing requires a bespoke approach.”

“For us what is really great is looking at what’s local,” added Kristina. “More and more we’re looking at our location, and what we can source there. As designers we need to keep researching, we need to look at our supply chains, we need to look at who’s out there and what they’re doing in terms of product and price point.”

“There should be a balance,” agreed Olga. “We need to provide quality and some iconic pieces, but then of course we as artistic designers adore creating things from scratch.”

Discussion turned to the fluidity of a luxury product. “Something that could be taken as great service in one country, isn’t in another,” said Jese. “It’s the same with design, and the way that spaces unfold within a hotel. What is luxury in one place is not in another.”

The conversation concluded with a focus branding, and how greater agility is perhaps needed from more established and larger brands.

“Brands are doing a great job because they make you a promise,” said Jese. “Before you even get there you have expectations. But there are also lessons to learn from brandless hotels, they sometimes work really well through word of mouth, which is a way of branding yourself as well.”

“Trying to do something new and freshing requires a bespoke approach”

Leveraging luxury through design

Moderator Esra Lemmens – founder of the Esra Lemmens Agency – explored the ways in which design can be employed to communicate or enhance the exceptional experiences guests expect from luxury hospitality venues, with: Hakan Ozkasikci, senior VP, design and technical services, Kerzner International; and Isabel Pintado, senior VP, design and innovation, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

The panellists kicked off with a discussion around guests’ evolving expectations of a luxury experience and the importance of staying agile. “I think the common thread is that the awareness levels of the guest have increased,” suggested Hakan. “There’s no destination that is too far, too high, too deep. Thankfully, we’ve got Instagram and other forms of social media and, the people who can are very generous in terms of sharing all that information visually with the world. This has put a lot of pressure on the operators as well – this awareness level, the shift of that.”

“The background of our guests is very varied, but what they have in common is that they are exposed to luxury in their own lives,” said Isabel. “To surprise them and delight them is a little harder. We have to try to be a step ahead of them, to give them a service that makes them feel they belong and are immediately embraced as part of that community.”

“How do you cater to these needs while being feasible?” Esra put to the panel. “In our world, in One and Only, we capped our growth,” Hakan responded. “We’re not going to build more than 35 One and Onlys throughout the world, even if it takes de-flagging or re-flagging or rebranding some of the existing properties. We will maintain that calibre, there will be no half measures. We decided that as the strategy for the next five years. It’s a really bold undertaking in that sense, trying to grow the brand while capping that growth rate. But consistency is key.”

A common thread throughout the discussion was authenticity in luxury. “Creating authenticity starts with respect, from the very beginning,” Hakan shared. “Respect of the local culture, respect of the people who inhabit that particular location, and respect of the nature and the forces that shaped it. If it’s a conversion, then you have to dig deep into the history of that building. Who designed it and how? What did it formerly look like? Once you strike all those milestones, that is going to constitute the basis of a project. And you have to cast all of the egos aside – ours, the designer, the developer, the contractor – and focus on the intention and what we are trying to accomplish. The natural outcome is going to tick all of the boxes.”

“One of the things that most of our guests require is a sense of immersion into a local community,” Isabel added. “Being exposed to more than an artwork or photo of location, but immersing them from a design aspect so that the culture and traditions are engrained into the design. It’s also key that our concierge and team are aware of what lies beneath the surface of the location, so that when guests leave they have additional layers to their knowledge of what makes that place unique, be it through food, or transportation.”

Esra rounded off the panel by asking whether designers need to consider guest loyalty in their designs, or whether it’s purely an operator’s concern.

“It’s not really the designer’s responsibility, it’s our brief to them and the way we convey it,” responded Isabel. “The consultants are there to make something magical, but loyalty comes more from how we treat that guest and how we consistently brief different consultants to achieve that quality.”

Hakan shared a slightly different perspective. “If that level of humility and honesty is not there in the design, it’s not going to work,” he said. “That creates the loyalty, because the experience is then going to be unique and particular to that place. You have to be really honest in your design thinking so that loyalty comes with that.”

“Creating authenticity starts with respect, from the very beginning”

Hotel concepts fail because of a lack of design thinking in operations

Moderated by Campbell House’s COO, Monika Moser, this panel incorporated: Tim Cordon, senior area VP Middle East and Africa, Radisson Hotel Group; Marc Descrozaille, COO, India, Middle East and Africa, Accor; and David Todd, head of operations, Middle East and Africa, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG).

Monika kicked off proceedings with the opening statement that design does not always adequately address the client’s operation.

“I think one of the very interesting points here is the communication,” suggested Marc. “It’s a question of people finding a collaborative way of working. Bringing operations together with the designers typically doesn’t occur, and I think – in particular I’m referring more to larger organisations where we all tend to be very busy and are segmented – we probably don’t allocate enough time from the outset to understand the concept and the elements which really matter from a functionality point of view. Involving enough people in the process would be very beneficial.”

For Tim, ensuring that spaces are multi-functional would go a long way to solving operational oversights. “My suggestion would be to incorporate as much flexibility into the design as possible,” he said. “Having the ability to evolve a space from one use to another not only answers part of that question, but makes the potential profitability of the hotel far greater. I’ve never really seen that properly done. That flexibility would be what I’d pitch to a room full of designers about how we are creative in the use of those spaces.”

The panel were unanimous in their feeling that classical brands are not as agile as lifestyle brands when it comes to making adaptations in line with guest behaviours. “Lifestyle brands are an answer to the customer need because they’re rejecting this over-commoditisation/standardised approach,” said Tim. “And I think that’s where design has an enormous role to play in the future of the hospitality industry. To be able to make creative designs that shake off the traditional ideas that we’ve had in the past, but still are operable and profitable. I think that’s a real challenge.”

The overarching conclusion was that the success of a hotel comes down to a fine balance between the designer adequately translating brand characteristics within the interior, and the way in which the team operate subsequently.

“I think that each of our brands have their own service behaviours,” added David. “I think that the designer needs to understand the essence of that brand from the beginning. But once the design is done and it’s linked to the brand, it’s then about operations bringing this to life and embodying the brand in their service style, behaviours and interaction with the guests. It’s very important that the people bring the brand to life, and the design should stand the test of time. People are absolutely critical to bringing the hotel to life, the business to life, and driving the ROI, which is what the owners are looking for.”

“Once the design is done and it’s linked to the brand, it’s then about operations bringing this to life and embodying the brand in their service style, behaviours and interaction with the guests”

Future-proofing hospitality design

In the penultimate discussion of the day, Shadi Moazami , MD of MAIA, took to the stage with: Shaun Killa, design director, Killa Design; Marie Soliman, founder and creative director, Bergman Design House; Philip Gillard, principal and MD, HBA; and Pallavi Dean, founder and creative director, Roar, to discuss how the hospitality design industry might future-proof itself.

The general consensus among the panel was that the post-pandemic future for hospitality design does not look altogether that different. It would be unwise to design buildings for a moment, suggested Shaun, while Philip spoke on Covid as another in a series of catalysts that bring about change and transformation.

“What Covid has taken away from us is one of our five senses – our sense of touch,” added Pallavi. “It took that away for a long time, and made us reflect on how we might enhance our design to overpower the other senses, or convey tactility visually.”

Discussion turned to adapting to changes in the industry, particularly in appealing to different audiences and age groups.

“I think more than adapting, it’s embracing the change, because when you say adapt it’s almost like something is wrong and is forcing us to change,” said Marie. “It’s vital to understand the persona of the traveller. Young travellers and young wealth want an experience that almost unfolds around them.”

The panel moved on to key trends that are set to emerge in the next 5-10 years. These ranged from profound changes to business travel and business hotels due to advancing technologies after Covid, to the blurring lines of business and leisure properties and the emergence of the ’ultra-luxury’ sector.

One real barrier to these trends reaching their potential, the panel deduced, was the rather slow-moving nature of the industry. “One of the things that we’ve really been focused on the last 12 months is repositioning and refurbishing existing assets and really breathing new life into them so that they have another 20-30 years,” said Philip. “A lot of the challenges we’ve been facing in that respect are that they want the same again, just a little bit better.

“That doesn’t shift the needle – it doesn’t move or transform the industry. I think we need to show and lead by example so that we can make those changes. But we can only do that by making a deep change, and making those big commitments so that the operators and developers feel comfortable and understand.”

“What Covid has taken away from us is one of our five senses – our sense of touch”

“Take only memories. Leave only footprints.” The Red Sea Project – Perspectives on Designing for the Inner Journey

The concluding panel discussion of the day was led by Tal Danai, founder & CEO of ArtLink, and saw an enlightening conversation surrounding the design of the ambitious Red Sea Project. Melissa Messmer – senior director of interior design at The Red Sea Development Company; Alex Yoo – senior director, Design & Project Management, Global Design, Middle East & Africa Marriott International and Seth Matson – vice president Design & Technical Services Luxe MEA at Accor shared their thoughts.

Melissa kicked off proceedings by delving into the overarching concept of regenerative design. “The way that we look at it is that we’re not just an owner/ developer company, we’re stewards to this environment and to this project that we’ve been handed,” she said. “We have a unique opportunity to create a destination that has been in existence forever but has never really existed. How many of us have been part of creating a destination from scratch and transforming a nation culturally, socio-economically? When we’re talking about regeneration we’re not just talking about the physical realm but really about the social realm.”

“I think the ultimate goal is to render the term ‘regenerative tourism’ obsolete, so that we get to a point where sustainability is intrinsic and ubiquitous, where it is woven into the DNA of the design,” Alex added.

Conversation turned to the importance of creating an emotional connection through design, and the interweaving of design and culture.

“I think that sustainability starts with not leaving a trace on the place that you enjoy,” suggested Seth. “That comes from being attuned, being respectful of a space, and feeling like you are in a defined location that has a particular quality. That’s very much in tune with what we’re trying to do at Raffles. The whole experience isn’t necessarily just about the design in terms of materials and finishes, but how the spaces create an emotional response and connection.”

Tal Danai called on Melissa to expand on a previous comment surrounding the equivocation between simplicity and generosity. “We’re very fortunate to have architecture that makes a statement, so when it comes to interior design it’s really about supporting that statement and doing it in a simplistic but sophisticated way,” she said. “I think when you’re talking about true luxury it comes down to the simplest of vocabulary. You don’t need a lot to be luxurious. Opulence is out. People want to do what no-one else has done before, to go where no-one else has been before.”

When asked what guides them in their designs, there was a universal consensus that empathy is fundamental. “Facilitating emotional states has been the key,” said Seth. “To say that we think about guest experience is a cliche, but you really have to put yourselves in someone’s shoes and imagine you’re the person that’s just checked in.

“At the end of the day we’re building hotels, not rockets, but if people can come to our destination and somehow be touched and transformed by these experiences then we’ve stewarded this beautiful destination with this beautiful culture and opened it up to the world in a whole new way,” concluded Melissa.

“How many of us have been part of creating a destination from scratch and transforming a nation culturally, socio-economically?”
Copyright Lewis Business Media Ltd © 2024