GM INTERVIEW: Emirates Palace's Bugra Berberoglu

The Abu Dhabi GM reveals the "lab of creation" behind the iconic hotel

Berberoglu has managed Kempinski hotels across MEA.
Berberoglu has managed Kempinski hotels across MEA.
Room rates are the highest in the emirate, says GM.
Room rates are the highest in the emirate, says GM.

Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi is one of the Middle East’s most iconic hotels, yet as general manager Bugra Berberoglu reveals, it is also a “lab of creation”, where every aspect of service and product is continuously questioned in order to innovate beyond the competition

As general manager of the revered Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, managed by Kempinski, Bugra Berberoglu is, by his own admission, in a privileged position. At just 40 years of age, second-generation hotelier Berberoglu heads up a team of 1450 employees at one of the region’s, if not the world’s, most iconic hotels.

It’s a position many hoteliers aspire to, but one that few will ever have the chance to experience. But, what is it really like to manage such a property in one of the world’s most talked-about cities? Hotelier paid Emirates Palace a visit to find out.

Abu Dhabi's GEM
Berberoglu has been general manager at ‘the Palace’ for 18 months now, during an arguably less than positive period for Abu Dhabi’s hotel sector.

At the last count in October, the key hotel performance indicators in the UAE capital continued to show a decline, as occupancy dropped 5.6 percentage points to 75.5% and ARR fell 11.4% to US $145.06 against the same period last year, dragging RevPAR down by 17.5% to $109.47 — according to Hotstats MENA Chain Hotels Market Review.

Declines can in part be attributed to new supply in the city, such as Emirates Palace’s neighbour Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, but while Berberoglu is realistic about shifting performance expectations, he is also confident that none of the new properties stand a chance of competing against Emirates Palace, now or in the future.

“I have visited them all; they are all very nice hotels and all of them are from reputable companies but the number one spot in Abu Dhabi is taken by Emirates Palace. Yes, there is competition but we are leading Abu Dhabi and we will continuously,” says Berberoglu.

He admits that in October, occupancy and rate were slightly down on the previous year, and overall is expecting to record average occupancy of 62% for 2012, a decrease from the 65% achieved in 2011. But where rate is concerned, Berberoglu says the hotel is out in front.

“Our closest competitor to our rate is approximately half our rate. There are a lot of new hotels and it’s becoming more and more difficult in the market, but we are confident with the service and the fantastic product we have, we should be able to continue to protect the rate.”

Berberoglu is also realistic about the potential growth of the market: “We might have some decline in the next two or three years in occupancy and rate but this is for the good of the city and this is in line with the vision of Abu Dhabi,” he observes. “You can never have two good years in a row, but I think the good days are to come.”

When good is bad
Berberoglu’s confidence in the future success of Emirates Palace should not be mistaken for complacency, however. He’s well aware of the need to innovate when it comes to both service and product; something he says the hotel industry is not actually well known for.

“To be on top continuously, that’s my job; to innovate, to question the way we do things, and make sure for our customers and guests who come into this hotel the wow experience is delivered, so that makes the difference.

“The hotel industry is not known as one of the most innovative sectors,” he comments.

“We know what we do, but try and remember the latest invention in the hotel industry.

“You can’t”, he continues; “because it was back in 1960 at a Hilton hotel, when someone plied the toilet paper to make a triangle, and the rest of the industry copied it, some perhaps adding a sticker”. Berberoglu may be laughing, but he makes a serious point.

“We are not very inventive. We need to change this. I am a young hotelier; when I look at the managers of the internet companies or technology companies, they need to constantly innovate,” Berberoglu observes.

To counter this, he’s introduced a “lab of creation” at the hotel; an informal setting for staff to question every process and service at the hotel.

“We have a seating area where the staff sit on the floor, they have coffees, cookies, they take their shoes off, no managers, and they go there only to innovate,” he says.

There are four key areas to target: customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, sustainability and to have a better hotel overall. In the first four to five weeks, it was “free talking”, with staff coming up with “hundreds of ideas”.

“They were fantastic ideas; I was so pleased and happy to see this actually working. With those ideas we created workshops. If the idea is to offer a great welcome reception, or to celebrate our guest’s birthday, then we have workshops to go into detail, analyse how we do it and implement a plan. I’m looking forward to the outcome, there are already four or five ideas that we have implemented.

“What we do every day is question the way we do things. The way we did things five years ago, six months ago, yesterday, might not necessarily be the right thing to do today. We need to question what the guest wants from us, what are we here to deliver and how can we do that. That is what we are trying to achieve at the lab of creation,” asserts Berberoglu.

This entire process is aimed, of course, at exceeding the Emirates Palace’s guests’ wildly high expectations.

“To deliver this wow expectation you need to have people believing and working hard towards it. There are ways to motivate staff and this is what we are trying to do to deliver every day to every single guest the wow expectation.

“‘Good’ and ‘very good’ comments in this hotel are taken as ‘not good’,” continues Berberoglu. “[Our guests] are paying a premium; they are paying more than the other hotels, so every single guest [has to be] exceptionally satisfied and exceptionally happy,” he says.

The hotel at a glance
- 1450 Fixed employees
- 600 Casual contractors
- 65% Average occupancy 2011
- 62% Average occupancy 2012 estimated
According to the hotel’s general manager Bugra Berberoglu.

Personal perspective
There is no doubt that Berberoglu’s job is one that moves round the clock; just walking the one-kilometre long property takes a sizeable portion of the day.

So, having grown up with his father’s hotel in Turkey, taken his first job at Florida’s Boca Raton after completing his studies at Lausanne, working with IHG for nine years, and managing Kempinski hotels in Chad, Djibouti and Jordan before moving to ‘the Palace’, what is it that keeps Berberoglu motivated?

“In my career it is a very privileged moment to lead this beautiful hotel. Just looking at pure facts; there is nothing compared to it and for a long time there will be nothing compared to it.

“Hoteliers need to be self-motivators; every morning you have one million reasons not to get out of bed but I personally get out of bed for only one reason and that’s when I walk in the lobby around 8am I smile — because this is what I enjoy, what I love, I love to be in hotels and this is what I do.

I have been very fortunate and this business has been very good to me and I try to give back by giving my best.”

Entrusting the day-to-day operations to his “very capable” hotel manager [Alexander Schneider], means Berberoglu can focus on the long-term strategy of the hotel.

“[My job is] to secure the coming 10 years of the hotel — making sure we are undisputedly the number one hotel in the world and continue to build on what we have achieved so far. When you are making strategic decisions [it is a slow process] —this is like a big ship, to move 5% from the course it takes a lot of effort and time, so what is difficult in my job is you don’t see the results immediately.

“That’s why I have to self-motivate and be with the people and constantly push them to better themselves,” he continues.

“If there was someone to shine it is the team not me. I like to lead by example — I actually enjoy getting involved in things, pulling up my sleeves... I enjoy talking to my staff, I would rather talk to my staff than give an interview,” he laughs.

Sensing that this media-shy GM may prefer to get back to his job, Hotelier asks one final question: what’s Berberoglu’s recipe for success? “For hotels to succeed you need to have happy employees, this is number one.

They have to be happy to show their happiness to the guest, so the guest — because they are served by passionate happy people — will appreciate the service and they will come back. Happy employees, happy customers, good financial results, it’s all hand in hand. Without happy employees it is hard to have good financial results,” he concludes.

 

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