When the Tulip Inn Ras Al Khaimah opened on September 8 2016, not even hotel manager Hani Shahwan could predict the influx of bookings, so much so that he was forced to open the entire inventory to accommodate his first guests.
“We were only planning to open 50% of our inventory, but because our soft opening coincided with the Eid holiday, demand was so much higher than expected, and we had no option but to open the whole property.” Shahwan says this required calling on the hotel’s sister properties to bring in extra staff to manage the additional bookings. “This was extremely high occupancy for a soft opening, we topped out at more than 70%. After Eid the occupancy did drop for a short while, but then we had another holiday, and again our occupancy jumped higher hitting 85%.”
Shahwan credits this strong opening performance to both the present state of the mid-market, and also the strength of his sales team that had been working tirelessly in the pre-opening phase to attract corporate clientele. “In total, 40% of these bookings came from our corporate clients; this is a great achievement for our sales team, especially as they accomplished this in just three to four months prior to opening, it says a lot about both this destination and this property.”
The Tulip Inn is the first branded three-star hotel to open in Ras Al Khaimah, signalling what Shahwan believes will be the beginning of a wave of new branded mid-market openings in the emirate. “This is a booming destination and there is clearly a demand for three-star hotels here. There is a lot of four- and five-star options too – and the demand remains high for luxury hotels, but the growth market is coming to the mid-sector properties.”
He points to the strategic location of the Tulip Inn, situated in the middle of the city, as being a key factor in its recent success. It is near government buildings, the industrial free-zone, shopping malls and the beach is close-by too, he says. “To be honest, our initial strategy was to target the corporate market. This made sense given our central location, but then we also saw increasing interest from the leisure market here in Ras Al Khaimah.”
Shahwan adds: “This was helped by our flexibility when it comes to demand, if there is more corporate demand we will target corporate clients, and when there is greater demand from leisure markets, we will pursue leisure clients.” He continues: “So seasonally we can appeal to different guests and even different nationalities. For example EU guests in the winter will want different packages to the local market in the summer.”
Shahwan is well-aware of the importance millennial travellers have for the success of his property, and the need to accommodae their needs. “Millennials are our targets for the foreseeable future. This is a fact, and we cannot ignore them. But there are challenges for hoteliers that are unique to the millennial travellers. For example they prefer to book last minute. Previously we had never heard of this, people used to plan for their vacations in the mid- to long-term, but these new guests are different and so it is now difficult to forecast. This is the mind-set of the new travellers, they pick a flight and a hotel at the last minute, then they go, travel is just easier now for this generation.”
Where there are challenges, there are also opportunities, as Shahwan suggests, pointing to his initiatives to connect with the industry to accommodate his new market. “We just had a meeting with FlyDubai, they are faced with similar challenges, and as a result they are going toward more inclusive online packages.” He adds Tulip Inn has now partnered with FlyDubai to receive last minute bookings. “Ultimately we have to face this millennial trend, or we will be phased out of the market, it is not easy for a hotel to operate this way, but what else are we going to do?”
Shahwan also notes Tulip Inn needed a new channel to manage cancellations, requiring a solution that offers these newly available rooms to millennials seeking a last minute booking. “They can book now and arrive in four or five hours, plus they need airport transfers too, all at the last minute. This is the way it is now, but once we have this agreement with FlyDubai it will be easier for the guest. It may become difficult for us with tighter schedules, but we will find solutions to these new requirements.”
Commenting on his digital strategy, Shahwan says that Tulip Inn ‘will be everywhere,’ noting that social media is a key platform that is ‘easy, quick and very good’ at reaching our target audience faster’. He comments: “We have all the mainstream accounts of course – but soon we will be even more active, as we are hiring more e-commerce experts, I think this is very important for the future – it goes without saying – if you are not on social media you are out of the market.” Guest review websites are also the target of Shahwan’s digital strategy, as he states his ambitions to “stay at 8.0 and above on all the major review sites”. In order to accomplish this he refuses to remain complacent: “Hitting 8.0 and above is a big target, to ensure this we are meeting clients throughout their stay to discuss their happiness, not only enquiring at check-out. We have to make sure that we are on the right track. It’s not only about waiting for a review to come online – here at Tulip Inn we are proactive about gaining positive feedback while the guest is here in the hotel.”
When pressed about the difficulties Ras Al Khaimah is likely to encounter from the attractions of neighbouring emirate Dubai, Shahwan is keen to highlight the key differences between the two destinations and why Ras Al Khaimah is set to benefit from their close proximity. “Firstly, this is an adventure location – we have mountains and outdoor activities for our guests. We also have beaches, a water park, a zoo, a mall and more, making this one of the top destinations for millennials in my opinion.” Commenting to how residents of Dubai and Abu Dhabi will help grow the strength of Ras Al Khaimah as a destination, he notes that: “people come here for many reasons, notably the weekend market from Dubai and Abu Dhabi accounts for as much as 95% to 100% of bookings alone.
“There is a huge market for local travellers. Getting out of Dubai is a big attraction for expats living there and we are offering something entirely different to suit their needs. This includes a diversity of attractions, such as horse riding, camel riding, hiking, camping, mountain climbing and safari treks. Residents frequently want to go out of their own cities, they desire an exciting weekend break and Ras Al Khaimah is here to deliver just that.”