Mark Sawkins, general manager, Fairmont The Palm, Dubai. Mark Sawkins, general manager, Fairmont The Palm, Dubai.

Fairmont The Palm has undergone a metamorphosis ever since Mark Sawkins took over as general manager three years ago.

During his time at the Palm Jumeirah hotel, Sawkins has transformed its social perception, especially among the Palm Jumeirah residents; the hotel is not just abuzz with business as usual, but local residents frequent the premises to dine or take part in its fitness initiatives.

Sawkins says the “pace” of things in Dubai had a lot to do with what transpired. “I joined the hotel three years ago, and when I got to Dubai I noticed the pace at which things change here. So I was quite overwhelmed and inspired by the community we have around us when I first set foot in this hotel — with the guests staying at apartments and also the residential potential of The Palm.”

Then followed an experiment, which dictated the developments that would follow. “We did a little experiment with the Christmas tree lighting ceremony a couple of years ago and it surpassed our expectations — around 2,000 people showed up and it inspired me to do more at the hotel.

“I met FRHI’s then vice president of wellness and lifestyle Andrew Gibson — he is now with Accor’s deluxe division globally. We initially brainstormed on how to involve the community more. I wanted to sell more gym memberships, but we decided to take a different approach. I thought about the average Dubai resident, who tends to get busy with the work-home-family routine; motivating oneself to return to the gym can be a challenge. That’s when I realised we need to get people who want to make a lifestyle change to come to us,” Sawkins says.

A plan was set in place to bring in yoga and fitness professionals. “We thought of bringing in non-invasive beauty specialists and nutritionists as well — the key was to bring in strong brands which people believe in and are ready to associate with,” Sawkins tells Hotelier.

He adds: “We started by bringing Dr. Rita Rakus from London — she is renowned in health and wellness and looks after royal families in the Middle East and UK. She was on-board when we let her in on our concept and agreed to work on non-invasive treatments that leave guests feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. The best one we do is the red carpet treatment which goes on for a few sessions, and you leave feeling like a new person. But what happens to that person two-four weeks hence? So we partnered with London-based Bodyism which does the wellness-based gym concept that is balanced with nutrition as well,” he says.

An existing F&B outlet — Chef’s Palette — was also at hand to work with. “We use Chef’s Palette as a cooking school to teach cooking nutritional food. And we involved children as well, and not just grown-ups. Now we have overrun with participants.”

Another aspect of health and fitness was to include Aquaspin — a new fitness trend that involves spinning in a swimming pool. “We looked at experts from Bangkok and Singapore, and there was just one person doing it in Dubai. We tried out with a few sessions and now we have 16 classes a week, most of which are fully booked.

“We have a few hundred percent increase in revenue purely because of the fitness initiatives, and we haven’t even launched officially. Bodyism launched in May, while Aquaspin and Prima were launched [a little before that]. Once all of it comes together we are anticipating doing 400% more on the revenue front in this year’s budget over that of last year’s,” he reveals.

Sawkins believes in an ‘all access’ policy at the properties he runs, and while some general managers are not keen on opening up a hotel’s facilities to the wider community, Sawkins goes against that school of thought. “You can’t pick and choose when you want your community to come to your hotel; the community makes the hotel what it is,” he says, adding: “We grew up in a different era, the school of thought was — ‘no restaurant guests from outside’.”

“We have enough space for in-house guests... show me a time when the gym is packed with in-house guests? Everyone appreciates a gym that is buzzing and vibrant. That also encourages me to do more new and different things. We will also be expanding our gym facilities and add a new unit in our north wing of the residences,” Sawkins reveals.

Sawkins says profit comes automatically when you open the hotel to the community. “We have no objection, and my owners have been very good to me on this, because I worked with them for almost five-six years. So they have a lot of trust in what I want to do. And corporate office has also been supportive because these initiatives will then be branded out across the world.

“We are not shy in investing money because everything we do has an ROI of 9-12 months. On the F&B side you can work towards a 24-month period, but it has to be shorter for the fitness initiatives. The aquaspin bikes, which cost a lot, were paid off during the trial sessions itself. The key is to not price ourselves out of the market. We will make our money in the long run,” Sawkins notes.

The hotel will also offer tennis facilities in the near future. “We are looking at a tennis court within the hotel, which will be the only one on The Palm Jumeirah. We are going to do it indoors, and will partner with a big brand,” he reveals.

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