A region renowned for its luxury hotel offerings is now in the middle of a transition towards a more diverse hospitality market, thanks to evolving consumer behaviour and a call from regional authorities to expand and diversify hotel offerings.

In light of that, “Midscale and budget hospitality — designing without compromise” was the subject of a debate which featured Studio HBA’s Justin Wells, dwp’s Maliha Nishat, MMAC Design Associates’ Christian Merieau, JT+Partners’ Joe Tabet and VS Design Studio’s Veena Kanchan, at the designMENA Summit.

Wells started the discussion explaining that in the region which is known for a five-star luxury segment, there is an appetite for boutique-style brands with guests searching for more authentic experiences.

“One of the thing that we’ve seen in this region is the re-education of the operators,” he said. “Working with operators around the world, they realise that the Middle East is a very global, sophisticated and demanding market, so operators themselves are now rethinking their own approach and how to offer something different within existing brand that is more relevant to this market.”

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Nishat said: “One of the things that we’ve been working on a lot lately is exploring locally sourced materials and explaining to our clients ‘this is where you should be spending your money. Focusing it on elements that would create what you may call today ‘Instagramable moments’. Getting the clients to put polished concrete on the floor and paints on the wall as opposed to wrapping every single wall in wallpaper, stone or timber is where I personally face a challenge.”

Merieau added that today it is much easier to design a mid-scale hotel than it was six or seven years ago, and with an increasing flexibility with operators, it has become “less communication and more creative process”.

Tabet added that the success of the budget hotel now depends on the mentality of the end-users and their expectations regarding the facilities.

“We now have two types of clientele —the internal guests from the GCC region and the international ones, and they have different expectations about the facilities they will get from a budget hotel. Facilities are something that is usually missing in a budget hotel due to the cost operation. So it has to be covered in other way, and that is where the location becomes very important. If it is located near to the mall and has a good link to public transportation, all of that influences the success of the budget hotel.”

Commenting on the development of the concept for the Rove Hotels brand, Kanchan explained that trying to create a unique brand identity was the driver for the design team to think ‘outside the box’. She said: “We were trying to achieve a budget hotel, which appeals to new millennial travellers, students and business travellers. They want something new to look at. All of these drivers helped us establish a very base palette, a plain canvas and divert a lot of the budget into the trademark pieces that display Arabic heritage.”

Apart from the customer experience, Merieau noted that designers are actually delivering and designing a working tool.

“We have to facilitate the work of operator, design a working environment that is suitable for both guests and operator and the process of interacting with guests goes beyond the storytelling,” he said.

Tabet agreed that the guest experience is key for any hospitality projects, regardless of rating. “That experience will justify the successes or the repetition or star rating on Booking.com. The sense of arrival and the experience from the moment you reach the hotel is crucial. How to make the comfort for the guest, from the arrival point to the lobby towards your room is the second level. The third level of experience is how you are going to get from your room to the F&B, and that raises the question of what do we do with F&B in a budget hotel.”

Kanchan added that with Rove Hotels, the main driver was the developer [Emaar], which supported the idea of playing it down with materials and putting the budget into bespoke art pieces in the lobby area and canopies. She said: “The idea was clear that it is a budget hotel, it needs to belong to the region, and therefore we needed to use the potential of the heritage, locally sourced materials and ideas. This project was a learning curve for me that we as designers can do so much just with paints, playing with colours and creating really interesting spaces.”