New Opening: Vida Downtown Dubai

A look inside Emaar Hospitality's new brand hotel for a younger crowd

From left to right, the executive team: Patricia Mutie, executive housekeeper; Spencer Lee Black, executive chef; Joby Thomas, director of finance; Riad Haidar, director of food and beverage; Stefan Viard, general manager; Dragos Paraschiv, director of human resources; Samir Arora, resident manager; Lloyd Fernandes, director of engineering.
From left to right, the executive team: Patricia Mutie, executive housekeeper; Spencer Lee Black, executive chef; Joby Thomas, director of finance; Riad Haidar, director of food and beverage; Stefan Viard, general manager; Dragos Paraschiv, director of human resources; Samir Arora, resident manager; Lloyd Fernandes, director of engineering.
The 3 in 1 restaurant features dark wood and earthy tones.
The 3 in 1 restaurant features dark wood and earthy tones.
The Vida Deluxe Room, where natural light is emphasised and the Simmons and Muldorfer bed is a brand standard.
The Vida Deluxe Room, where natural light is emphasised and the Simmons and Muldorfer bed is a brand standard.

Emaar Hospitality Group’s new upscale brand Vida promises to inject some life into the traditional hotel model, with fresh design, out-of-the-box hiring, top technology and a warm, homely feel

When a new brand launches, here at Hotelier we are always intrigued. When it’s at a conversion property, where the ownership and management company remain the same yet introduce a new concept, we are even more interested. How different will it be? Why the change? And what gap in the market will it fill?

The hotel in question is Emaar Properties-owned Vida Downtown Dubai, formerly the Qamardeen Hotel, first run by Southern Sun before Emaar Hospitality Group took the management in-house last July.

The hotel closed in September for a major refurbishment, with the Vida Hotels and Resorts brand officially unveiled at Arabian Travel Market in May and the new hotel opening six weeks later on June 16 2013.

The marketing collateral at ATM proposed a brand targeting the younger generation; the cool, corporate traveller that combines work and play. Before I visited the hotel, I’d imagined a very urban, clean, white interior, perhaps with funky lighting and gadgets aplenty.

Upon visiting at the beginning of July, what I actually found was a very warm, friendly welcome into a property that, while uncluttered and modern in some areas, was far more homely and relaxing than I had expected.

General manager Stefan Viard, who has spent nine years in Dubai working first for Jumeirah before joining Emaar Hospitality Group with the Address Hotels+Resorts brand five years ago, says this is exactly the impression he is hoping to create. He says that while the exact look of the Downtown hotel may not be applied to subsequent properties in the portfolio, the feel will be.

“What is defined is the ‘homey’ style; it needs to be comfortable,” he says. “No lobby will be bling; once you come in you should feel relaxed and comfortable to be here.”

Another brand standard is the open business centre; a Z-shaped wooden table in the lobby complete with huge iMacs, designed to encourage networking and be easy to use. There are no reception desks as such; instead check-in is carried out via iPad anywhere in the lobby area, with passports scanned via iPad and the key-cutting machine in the lobby lounge.

“The check in procedure is very personalised, you can check in anywhere you want but we would not have a counter between us,” says Viard. “This is really the living room of the hotel and we try to keep it like that so you feel [like it is] a home away from home. That is the whole concept. What you like at home we try to do here as well.”

This is not a “home away from home” for everyone though. Vida Hotels are aimed at the “age group 25 upwards to 40, 42 years of age, that should be the ideal,” reveals Viard.

Brands such as Citizen M and Andaz by Hyatt were researched, admits Viard, and one can only assume Starwood’s W — which has branded its lobbies as Living Rooms — was also a source of inspiration for the concept.

“The Vida brand is all about being alive and inspired; we want to be a young vibrant brand for young entrepreneurs. We want to be an additional portfolio to the brands we have already with Emaar Hospitality, we felt we could look into a different market as well, a younger market, a fresh look overall, all very bright, the music is upbeat — that’s how we came to the name Vida, which means ‘life’ in Spanish, so ‘alive and inspired’ is our tagline,” he explains.

Building a brand
With the concept in place and the conversion already underway, Viard’s main priority was to recruit a team to deliver this vision.

“Then we started to really work on brand guidelines, behaviours, what kind of staff do we want to recruit, do we want the normal hospitality experience you have in Dubai or do we want something different — and we went for the different way and we are quite excited about that,” says Viard.

Emaar Hospitality Group relocated the former Qamardeen staff either at neighbouring Al Manzil — also now managed by Vida under Viard, at other properties or by sending staff on vacations during the renovations. Back of house and administration staff are shared between the two Downtown hotels anyway, so Viard’s main focus was on front of house, with 60-70 new staff targeted in order to present a different profile to meet clients’ needs.

Recruitment trips took place to Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Morocco, but the typical interview process was replaced with a talent search. “We started the interviews with group exercises, to see that they speak English, that they are outgoing — one task was to draw your perfect manager.

What is your perfect manager? They came up with ‘he needs to be smart, he needs to be nice, he needs to make money because if he makes money we will make money, if he looks good we will look good’. It was quite funny; they were very outspoken,” Viard recalls.

Then it was on to the “so-called X-factor”, with candidates singing, dancing, cooking, painting, playing football modeling etc, all in front of one another.

“It was so energetic, people were clapping and dancing and even those that were not recruited said that was the greatest interview they ever had because they did something they had never done before. The last stage was a one-to-one interview where we checked the skills, but we did not expect them to have been to hotel school as we did not look for that.”

The challenge with recruiting a group of non-hoteliers is that Viard could not initially use “normal hotel terms” and instead, had to investigate different ways of training.

“That was another question— how do you learn best? Classroom training may work extremely well for you but it does not work for me. So we adapted our training towards these individuals. We could not use what we had from Emaar Hospitality before; we had to rewrite the entire training process,” says Viard.

With the different talents on board — including apparently the second Adele and a Michael Jackson impersonator — Viard says the next step was to ensure the responsibilities were adequate to meet the creativity of these recruits.

Multi-tasking was critical, with the traditional roles of receptionist, bell boy, concierge etc abandoned in favour of two main front office titles —front service executives and guest engagement. The traditional receptionist is now guest engagement, taking care of everything in the lobby. The FSE does concierge, bell desk and both takes and delivers room service orders.

“We pay you a little bit more but you need to do a little bit more as well, you’re not just answering a telephone,” says Viard. “The service feature is definitely that we are quite efficient; multi-tasking is something I’m quite proud of,” he says, adding that colleagues are referred to as ‘dream makers’ — another new term for hoteliers!

Reconfiguring the hotel
Meanwhile, a transformation was underway in the property, as our before and after photos show. Prior to the new décor and accessories, the main change in the hotel was the room configuration, which was scaled down from 187 rooms to 157 rooms to create additional F&B space — reflecting how important offering a relaxed dining experience is to the Vida brand.

“Whether it’s handled through a third party or ourselves, F&B is a very strong focus because we feel it is important for the clients we have to have everything under one roof. You don’t have to go to other areas of Dubai to have a good meal, you can have that here at Stage 2 or 3 in 1 or at the other two outlets that are going to open,” says Viard, referring to La Serre, a bistro and boulangerie managed under the Emaar Lifestyle division and headed by chef Izu Ani, responsible for launching La Petite Maison in Dubai.

The name 3 in 1 does not refer to the fact this restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner; rather it describes three different dining areas – the main dining room, the poolside and the boulevard. “During the day we’ll have a DJ in the lobby to show the upbeat vibe here, then during the evening he’ll play next to the pool area.”

In the guest rooms, the main investment was in technology, with Viard very excited about Emaar Hospitality’s partnership with InnSpire Hotel Solutions, which he says “revolutionised the way we interact with our guests”.

The aim is for guests to be able to integrate their existing handheld devices with the hotel. They can be anywhere, from their room to the poolside, and still use the InnSpire system via their own handheld device.

Practically, this means guests can order their room service by using the on screen menu, book their laundry and buy gifts simply with a few clicks, without the need for downloads or apps. It also cuts down on the use of paper, with the entire in-room collateral now digital.

“I’m very proud of the HITV system, it’s unique in Dubai, it’s user-friendly, it’s what this generation is looking for,” says Viard. “You don’t want to have to explain to someone on the phone what you want, it’s pretty clear, it’s there.”

He’s adamant that upscale hotels need this level of technology.

“The travellers we’re looking for, the young corporates, executives, they need fast internet, it needs to be easy to access. it’s free WiFi for guests. The media hubs and all the major connections in the desk are quite an important feature; if you want to see a movie or some kind of presentation on a bigger screen it’s easier for you to just connect,” Viard explains.

But while he is “very proud of” the technology, it’s not the most important factor in the
room design. Practicality, comfort, ease of use and a great bed are core to Vida.

“The sleeping experience is one of our brand standards so there is no compromise on quality. The mattresses are Simmons mattresses, very high quality, with Muldorfer duvets as well as pillows,” says Viard.

On the subject of sleep, Viard admits that he has “had a few sleepless nights” during the pre-opening.

“We were taking quite a risk on some things, why not do the normal things and it would have been a walk in the park? But it would not be me as a person so I really enjoyed it and it’s the perfect brand for me at this point in time,” comments Viard.

“I see myself as a co-creator, a brand creator, being very much involved from the first phase to lead it is a fantastic learning opportunity for me.”

So, is Viard the typical Vida guest?

“I’m getting older and older,” he laughs, “but at the moment I think I fit in perfectly. When I am 55 I may not fit anymore — they’ll say ‘who is that old grandad sitting in the corner’ — but I think for the next couple of years, I am in the right spot.”

Hotelier’s top five features
1. The multi-skilled front of house “dream makers”, responsible for the entire lobby area from check-in to F&B service.
2. The neutral, calming tones of white, beige, cream and grey, which make the hotel a perfect fit for male and female guests alike.
3. The simplicity of the menu at 3 in 1, where a good quality, familiar meal is guaranteed.
4. The ability to order room service from the poolside, thanks to the tie-up with Innspire.
5. The plan for the DJ in the lobby by day and poolside by night, which brings the areas together and offers guests an experience.

F&B FOCUS:
Californian executive chef Spencer Lee Black, who previously opened Buddha Bar for Grosvenor House in Dubai, is a big fan of Vida Downtown Dubai’s “homey” feel, something he has been keen to extend to the F&B offer from the outset.

“A lot of the food has been stripped down to a very simple, homey type of cuisine. They asked me what the concept was and I said ‘rustic chic’ – in my head, it all made sense,” he recalls.

“I was in Dubai when we went extravagant and we were told to put things on the menu just to raise the price, adding things that were not needed, so now what I’ve done is I have stripped that away.”

Main courses will feature a protein, a potato and/or vegetables, such as grain fed chicken, broccolini and parsnip mash. The focus is on sourcing the best quality ingredients from the right people for the right price.

Black also wants to keep his menus a little healthier than the norm, with quinoa and lentils forming the base for some dishes, and pizzas made from buckwheat or wholemeal “so it’s not over processed”.

He has also come up with a range of 3 in 1 concepts, such as three shawarma in one, and mezze selections that can be ordered by the metre or by half a metre.

He says: “99% of everything we do in house; we try to make everything fresh, even to the
French fries and the ice cream.”

“It tastes better and it’s cheaper to do in house,” asserts Black. “It takes more manpower but that’s the thing with restaurants, food should be made fresh and it should be made in house. Hotels have a tendency to make everything from outside, when you’re a smaller property, boutique, we should be making it all fresh — I’ve forced everybody into it as much as possible.”

He’s sure that once the cooler months come and the restaurants open up onto the terrace, poolside and boulevard, they will be “busy every night”. And he’s confident that as long as they keep their offer distinct, third party outlet La Serre — expected to replicate the success and style of La Petite Maison — will complement the hotel outlets.

“If he works I should work, if I work he should work,” says Black. “It’s like with the opening of Grosvenor House... the minute we opened Buddha Bar everything got busy because all that foot traffic came,” he says.

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