SNEAK PEEK: Anantara's Eastern Mangroves resort
February 16th, 2012
Louise Oakley takes a hard-hat tour of the upcoming Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa by Anantara in Abu Dhabi and finds a surprising urban sanctuary aiming to be the hotel of choice for the capital’s corporate and government business
Standing back under the January sun and looking up at the Eastern Mangroves Hotel & Spa in Abu Dhabi, Anantara director of operations Middle East and Eastern Mangroves general manager Michel Koopman declares simply: “She is beautiful”.
It’s the first time I’ve heard a general manager refer to his hotel in the feminine, and rarely do I see someone look so admirably at a property in the midst of construction. “This hotel is a she to me,” he emphasises, sensing my trepidation.
Three hours later, after a hard hat tour of the hotel — no stroll in the park considering the vast 1.6 kilometre site — I begin to understand the sentiment and why Koopman is so proud of this project, his 17th hotel.
Koopman is shooting to open the hotel in May 2012 — quite a feat seeing as the management contract for Tourism Development and Investment Company’s (TDIC) Eastern Mangroves Hotel was only awarded to Anantara in July 2011, after the contract with previous operator Angsana by Banyan Tree was cancelled.
It is full steam ahead though, with 1200 workers on site testament to this, and even as we walk the property, Koopman and hotel manager Nehme Darwiche, who joins from Anantara’s sister hotel in Abu Dhabi, Desert Island Resort and Spa on Sir Bani Yas island, notice new completed features and finishes that weren’t there just a matter of days before.
“We were specifically asked to take on this management agreement, normally they go out to tender,” says Koopman, commenting on the short lead time.
“We took it on a year ago but it’s obviously a very important project to our owners TDIC. We have a good track record here, we have two existing properties, we have more than 600 associates we can draw from.
In the team we have a lot of experience in pre-opening and in the Middle East; we feel that we have no issues with the time frame of opening the property successfully in line with the expectations of our openings.”
But, following a spate of hotel launches in Abu Dhabi – namely Rocco Forte, Westin, Park Hyatt, Jumeirah and St. Regis, each offering something new, and all sitting at the top end of the market – what is Thai operator Anantara bringing to the capital with Eastern Mangroves?
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For Koopman, the hotel is immediately set apart from the Abu Dhabi competition by its location, space and design.
The mantra of location, location, location certainly rings true at Eastern Mangroves; it’s the first landmark you see driving from Dubai over the Sheikh Zayed Bridge into Abu Dhabi, it’s close to the airport and the corniche, and sits opposite the neighborhood housing Abu Dhabi’s elite, meaning the core market of embassies and government business is right on the doorstep.
On this Koopman is clear: Eastern Mangroves is a corporate, government hotel, and everything at the property is geared around meeting the needs of these particular guests and the Abu Dhabi locals — for which Anantara aims to be the preferred hotel.
There are extensive leisure facilities, all part of the Lifestyle Club, but these are designed primarily with the requirements of in-house guests in mind.
For a corporate hotel, the location is enviable, set on the banks of the Eastern Mangroves, nature is a whisper away and the landscape is what inspires the interior design — of which water features form an integral part.
A mangrove pattern occurs in various guises throughout the hotel — from patterns made from mangrove roots on carpets in the corridors to the mangrove leaf on the hotel logo — and Arabian elements also feature heavily, with lots of symmetry, repetition and mashrabiya.
Golds, cappuccinos, sands and caramels dominate the colour scheme with accents of colour highlighting specific areas. Overall, the design is clean and uncluttered, luxurious but subtle, with an emphasis throughout on quality and generosity of space.
As we walk the building, Koopman pulls back plastic coverings and protective wrappings to enable me to feel the walls, embellishments, doors and details — quality of material is evident in the weights and textures of the structure and finishings.
His passion for the property is infectious, and the knowledge Koopman and Darwiche bring of the design and Arabic culture is inspiring — the pair walk the site three times a week and as we go, they make numerous observations and pass instructions to various contractors following in hot pursuit. The project is alive, and this team clearly live and breathe every detail.
Koopman is keen to emphasise that investment “has been generous but not silly, over the top like you see in some of the developments here”.
As if to explain, he recalls a friend’s comments upon seeing the guest rooms, which start at 65m² in size. “A friend who is a company chief executive officer said to me: ‘if I stayed here, I would feel like I was in luxury but I wouldn’t feel like I was wasting my company’s money,” says Koopman, summing up the elegant but understated feel of Eastern Mangroves.
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Food and beverage
The approach to food and beverage is similar to that of the overall design — all built for quality not volume, a long-term project with very specific aims. It is the restaurants, however, that Anantara has been able to exert most of its influence over, having come on board with the operation at such a late stage.
The signature restaurant is of course, Thai, and sits just 52 people. Adorned with Thai silk falling from the ceiling and decorated with Thai golds, arts and statues, Pachaylen will be very authentic with only Thai staff I am told.
Koopman explains: “What’s the problem with most Thai restaurants? They have 600 dishes listed on the menu so what happens? Everyone orders the same familiar thing as there is too much choice. So we probably won’t have a menu. A lot of the service staff in the Thai restaurant will be chefs, we want the chefs to explain the food”.
The all-day dining restaurant, Ingredients, also takes a different approach, with kitchens as opposed to buffet stations, says Darwiche: “It’s all mise en place, meaning food is served à la minute”.
Ingredients only accommodates 132 covers, but the focus is on really meeting guests needs — there will be “liquid breakfasts” for busy execs, a low seating area for those just wanting coffee and dessert, olive oil, salt, pepper and coffee gurus on hand, and a range of quality Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Japanese cuisine.
“Everyone will find their own comfort food and also a sense of adventure,” says Darwiche.
The hotel will also offer a pool menu, outdoor terrace, an upmarket bar called Impressions with seating for 80 guests, an area dedicated to 16-20-year-olds with treats such as hot chocolate and macaroons, and high tea with an Emirati touch.
“They love their sweets so much in this part of the world,” says Darwiche. “Did you know there are 90 different types of dates? We want to be the hotel that offers the [Abu Dhabi residents] what they have at home.”
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The concepts are clearly defined so now, Koopman and Darwiche are focused on delivering the finished product ahead of their ramping-up period, which will most likely begin in March 60 days out from the targeted May opening.
“We’re really shooting for the month of May, perhaps a bit earlier, perhaps a bit later, so now what we’re doing is we have division heads on board and sales and marketing is already in full swing because we have a regional office so they’re already here selling the other properties,” says Koopman.
“And then we hire our associates eight weeks out, our unit heads eight weeks out, our section heads 12 weeks out, and department heads now around 16 weeks out.
“[We do] orientation in the ballroom, brand training, culture training, skills training, trial runs, then we give them all a few days off and then we open the hotel,” says Koopman.
“We’ll complete at least 1000 room nights before we open. We want at least four or five people to have stayed in each room before we open. And we will serve 2000-3000 meals,” he adds.
Koopman says the hotel has already received a lot of applicants, tempted by Anantara’s accessible, entrepreneurial spirit.
“One of our key goals is to be an employer that people love to work for,” says Koopman. “We have a lot of talented people join us because they are tired of large corporations where they don’t know anybody…our owner, Minor Group CEO Bill Heinecke has been here every two months, he walks the site with us, has dinner with us.
It’s a very approachable company, a very entrepreneurial company, it’s a company with not many policies and procedures — of course we have the way that we work but we are all here to take care of our guests, give them an amazing story to tell, take care of our associates and take care of our environment.”
Being a small, young company has its advantages, says Koopman, who acknowledges that the approach to business is very different from that at industry giants such as InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), where he worked previously.
“You cannot compare us to an IHG where you have a massive reservations system pushing it and they spend millions of dollars pushing that and the websites, I just came from that company, I know how much they spend and we obviously don’t do that,” explains Koopman.
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For the Eastern Mangroves opening, the focus will be on personalised contacts and the right connections with government officials, with Arabic speakers being recruited and relied upon in the sales force.
“We open in May so we miss the request for pricing (RFP) season, which means that in the first year we’re going to go in the back door via local corporate contracts and go very strongly after the embassy markets and the government markets, but we also see a lot of potential with our quality of products and actually packaging with Qasr Al Sarab and Desert Islands [Anantara’s two existing UAE resorts] for the European leisure market as well as the European corporate market,” says Koopman.
The hotel’s competitors include Abu Dhabi’s Shangri-La and Fairmont, plus Emirates Palace for government contracts and Park Rotana for corporate business, and Koopman acknowledges that 2012 will be challenging because of increased supply.
“I think in 2012 there will be definitely pressure on the market but we’re not in the business for one year, we’re in the business for the long term. I’d be more worried if I had to fill a 500-room box hotel or if I have to fill a hotel on Saadiyat Island with no corporate market — they are all built for the future,” he says.
“We feel very comfortable with where we are and the amount of people who see the product when they travel. It’s a great location.
“We don’t have to fill up a hotel with 500 rooms. We have 222 rooms, we’re not going to run it at 80% in the first year for a few extra dollars.
“One question you asked earlier is what’s more important rate or occupancy, definitely rate because it’s long term positioning that really makes this hotel successful and our owners have been very specific — we have to maintain our asset.
“TDIC has spent a fortune on all our hotels so we are the custodians of the brand and the assets and that’s what we need to do,” says Koopman.
“I know the market and I’ve been to every hotel, they’re all fantastic hotels, but I think what we try to offer is something that is generous but understated, luxury but not in your face, and its something that is really for Abu Dhabi.
“We can compete at the top of the market with this product — we can, we should and we will,” Koopman confidently concludes.
Eastern Mangroves by the numbers
- 1.6 kilometre site including luxury apartments as well as the Anantara hotel
- 1200 workers on site ahead of a May opening
- 222 rooms, starting at 65m2 in size and AED 1200++ in rate
- AED 55,000 ($14,973) for one night in the 10-room 2245m² Royal Mangrove Residence
- 1 Thai restaurant, with 52 seats and no menu
- 5 Kasara Suites, Anantara’s new club product
- 1000 room nights will be completed before opening
- 2000-3000 meals will be served during the ramping up period
Location — close to the airport, the city and the natural beauty of the Eastern Mangroves.
Space — the generosity of space for a 222-room hotel.
Natural light — the design maximises daylight.
Thai restaurant — Koopman believes good south Asian food is hard to find in Abu Dhabi.
Anantara Spa — promises to take guests on a full spa journey.
Royal Mangrove Residence — its size and space guarantee luxury and complete privacy.