FIRST LOOK: Le Royal Meridien Abu Dhabi's new look

How the UAE hotel went about incorporating global brand standards

From left to right: Kiran Kumar, director of PR and marketing; Mahmoud Abulwafa, area director of human resources; Christina Bowen, director of food and beverage; Justin Galea, executive chef; Shaun Parsons, general manager; Matt Griffis, director of rooms; Arjun Dsouza, director of revenue; Mai Nassar, area director of sales and marketing; Osman Abdelrasek, director of finance; Raghuraj Sawhney, director of engineering.
From left to right: Kiran Kumar, director of PR and marketing; Mahmoud Abulwafa, area director of human resources; Christina Bowen, director of food and beverage; Justin Galea, executive chef; Shaun Parsons, general manager; Matt Griffis, director of rooms; Arjun Dsouza, director of revenue; Mai Nassar, area director of sales and marketing; Osman Abdelrasek, director of finance; Raghuraj Sawhney, director of engineering.
Renovations of the tower's 200 rooms began in 2011 and were completed in three phases.
Renovations of the tower's 200 rooms began in 2011 and were completed in three phases.
Contemporary art installations in the renovated Le Meridien Hub.
Contemporary art installations in the renovated Le Meridien Hub.
 The renovated rooms feature new carpets, beds and furniture as well as updated technology.
The renovated rooms feature new carpets, beds and furniture as well as updated technology.

Le Royal Méridien Abu Dhabi has just been refreshed with a brand new look, incorporating Le Méridien’s global brand standards and setting the stage for the next era of this 18-year-old capital city hotel

One of the oldest hotels in the UAE capital, Le Royal Méridien Abu Dhabi was desperately in need of a makeover. So when the 18-year old hotel closed for renovation in March 2013, the industry couldn’t wait for the big reveal.

When you walk into the hotel now, the transformation really does stop you in your tracks. Words such as “night and day” and “unrecognisable” were used by guests and associates Hotelier spoke with when describing the new look.

Gone are the muted beige and dull brown decor and marble columns, replaced instead by clean white lines, floor to ceiling windows with light streaming in and an open lobby, called the Le Méridien Hub, which encompasses the check-in desks and what can be called a business centre.

“It’s a completely different product to what it was 12 months ago. The transformation included the public areas, the restaurants, and the guest rooms, which we just finished about a month ago,” says Le Royal Méridien Abu Dhabi general manager Shaun Parsons, who joined the property in July 2011.

A New Look
Over the past year, the hotel has had all 200 guest rooms in the tower, its lobby cafe and all day-dining restaurant, as well as the main lobby area renovated. While a big chunk of the make over was completed as part of phase one — with the hotel having re-opened on October 1 — at least four new F&B outlets are due to open in Q1 of 2014 during phase two.

The renovation is also part of Le Méridien’s new brand strategy, explains Parsons, saying: “Le Méridien as a brand is about unlocking the destination for our guests.

Everything we do in terms of public and communal space is centred around coordinates, culture and cuisine and unlocking the destination is driven by who we partner with, creating spaces that allow for creative thought and inspiring discussions.”

The renovation was also part of a strategic business decision, given the pace of growth in the capital. “In Abu Dhabi, there’s so much happening in the city and it changes from month to month so if you don’t do certain things to keep up with the market, you lose out, and that’s largely where this renovation came from,” admits Parsons.

Key among those changes was the introduction of The Hub, which now serves as the hotel’s lobby, business centre, and check-in area.

“As part of the design, we’ve done away with the traditional business centre since it is no longer part of our concept. We brought the business centre into the Hub itself and the Latitude bar [when it opens]. There will be a communal table in there where you can sit at computers that we’ll provide and this is all moving towards becoming more aligned with our digitally creative guests,” explains Parsons.

Rooms division manager Matt Griffis believes that eliminating traditional check-in desks has also helped streamlined the front of house area. “With the front desk before we used to have sit down desks, which in a corporate hotel is very time consuming. It’s not very productive. So we now have these front desks in The Hub where we stand up and it’s much more efficient, much more user friendly for the guests and also for the associates as well,” he says.

Room Refurb
The main portion of renovation work was the transformation of the hotel’s 276 guestrooms and suites.

“The rooms were changed dramatically. Before, although they were very clean and well maintained, they were also outdated to the point where the TVs looked like they had been installed 18 years earlier, so it was about improving the technology as well,” says Griffis.

The rooms were completely overhauled, with new carpets and furniture, new technology, as well as changes to the bathrooms.

“We just made the rooms a lot more fresh and modern. Before we had furniture pieces that were cluttering the rooms.We now have a separate bath and shower in the bathrooms, which is a big selling point because even today there are hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai that have the main shower over the bath tub,” says Griffis.

Updating in-room technology was a key part of the room renovations, with the hotel embracing interactive televisions and greater connectivity.

“With the rooms being so untouched, in-room technology wasn’t great so the transformation between then and now is huge,” exclaims Griffis. “We’ve installed media hubs in the rooms so guests can connect their laptops or phones directly to the TV. We are very soon installing IPTV, interactive television, which is going to be fantastic for guest rooms.”

“Even with the air-conditioning system, we have sensors so as soon as a guest walks in, the lights and the air-conditioning go back to the setting the guest wanted. Introducing things like that may sound miniscule, but from what we were before, it’s a massive change, and very much appreciated by everyone,” he adds.

Managing guests during the renovation was no easy task for Griffis either, who admits the team had to work hard to ensure the construction caused as little inconvenience to guests as possible.

“We’ve certainly had some challenges during the summer months. Our main lobby was closed, and we still had some heavy renovations upstairs in the guest rooms and of course the guests are not happy about the disruption and you just have to manage it on a case by case basis.

In the summer months, when we have a lot of leisure guests, not having a proper functioning lobby or rooms is an inconvenience for anyone whether they’re here for work or leisure... it’s almost like micromanaging guests. You have to put yourself in their shoes; what may be good for one person may not be good for another,” he says.

“I think you also have to tell the truth and be honest to the best of your ability. Of course you’ve got so many different variables, you’ve got contractors and project managers telling you there won’t be a lot of disturbance on certain days and other times there will be,” he adds.

Griffis and his team also informed guests about the renovation prior to their arrival in order to prepare them for the changes at the hotel.

“We were trying to prepare our guests as best as possible for the inevitable disruption they can all experience when they get here. We were sending out emails for our guests in advance trying to find out if they needed any assistant with transportation, any special preferences they had for their room and informing them that we are under renovation,” he says.

The extra effort seems to have paid off for the team, with guest satisfaction soaring during the summer months, when construction was at its peak.

“We have a measurement tool within Starwood called the Guest Experience Index and from the month of July through to October, it was consistent over the four months even though we had heavy renovations — our outdoor swimming pool was closed due to our Ramadan tent — we certainly had a lot of physical challenges in the hotel.

But we had four of our best months for guest satisfaction because of our consistency and personalised one-to-one touch with our guests,” he says.

Managing Staff
With several new elements being introduced at the hotel simultaneously, training staff and managing the team during the transition period was something the executive committee had to plan carefully.

“During the course of the renovation, our plan was to reduce the number of associates by 30%. So we decided we wouldn’t ask anyone to leave, but whenever someone resigned, they would not be replaced.

“We started this three months before the renovation so by the time the renovation started, we were right on point with the manning level,” comments Starwood Hotels & Resorts area director of human resources Mahmoud Abulwafa.

Rooms division manager Matt Griffis adds: “We didn’t really have to move too many staff around. You sort of have the natural attrition within the department. Because we have been under renovation constantly for just under three years, we haven’t really had a full team particularly in the housekeeping department because you don’t really need a full team when you’ve got 80 or 90 rooms under renovation.”

Over the course of the renovation, however, Griffis kept the housekeeping team involved right from the start.

“Because we made changes from the first phase of the renovation and then the second phase and then the third, you’ll notice subtle differences in each of the rooms. The fabrics have changed, the armchairs, all sorts of things like that.

So we had to make sure they know the difference between a room on the eight floor, a room on the 12th floor and a room for example, on the 19th floor.

“We took the associates in at an early stage. Once the rooms began to develop, we started to take them in and show them the rooms so they could see the differences between the various floors. We then did our training in the rooms,” he explains.

With the renovations split into two phases, Abulwafa was also able to implement a clear strategy for recruitment and training.

“In May we started planning the recruitment trips, which we divided between myself and the general manager. Once the associates were selected, we did not bring them over immediately because of the costs. We asked them to arrive one month before the opening date where we had planned the training to be ready for the opening,” he says.

“Now we are in the second phase of recruitment, which concentrates on the F&B, Daniel [Van Der Heijden, deputy general manager] is in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Mumbai for the interviews, and Christina [Bowen, director of food and beverage] is going to the Philippines. Now that rooms are finished, the second phase concentrates on the F&B, so that’s our focus now” he adds.

Focus on Food
In addition to the extensive overhaul of guest rooms and public spaces, the hotel is also redefining its F&B offering, a topic general manager Shaun Parsons is very passionate about.

“What we are trying to do with the F&B here is bring an element of soul to the property.

The rooms are the heart but the F&B is the soul of any true, strong hotel regardless of its type — whether a resort or city hotel.

“If you look at the food and beverage side, that’s probably where we are being more ambitious than anywhere else,” claims Parsons. “With rooms it is going to be tough to show enormous growth — the market is incredibly saturated with suppliers. With F&B, we are looking at major growth in the range of 15-20% — it’s where we really see our opportunity for significant revenues,” he reveals.

Executive chef Justin Galea, who joined the team just before the restaurants closed and has been working on perfecting each concept, has also created an ethos for each restaurant to ensure each outlet is different from the other.

“My input into these venues, and theirconcepts and cuisine is to set the rules and the ethos of the venue and then make sure that we stay true to them,” he asserts.

“For example, cool and funky isn’t something you find in the rules, but it has to be for the food in Wheat. Cafe Palmier has to be theatrical. Market Kitchen has to be cutting edge.

Amalfi is the opposite of all of them; it has to be true to its origin – Naples, Campania, Sorento, Capri. It’s the only restaurant I know that by name tells you exactly what it has to do.

And then Stratos, the revolving rooftop restaurant ... when I was told I had a rooftop revolving restaurant, it just made me think of something out of a Bond film. It’s chic, avant-garde, and the food has to reflect that,” he enthuses.

Having previously managed the Westin Dubai and Le Meridien Mina Seyahi Complex in Dubai, Parsons believes he has the experience to see what the hotel really needs in terms of its F&B offering.

“With the F&B that we’re developing, we’ve got everything covered. So ideally, as a guest, once you’ve checked in here you don’t have to leave because you’ve got everything at your doorstep.

And I think if we can develop some weekend F&B programmes, we can attract people to come here that might traditionally go to resort properties instead. If you have a really engaging F&B programme in place, people will stay with you if they know they can have a good time at the hotel,” says Parsons.

Deputy general manager Daniel van Der Heijden agrees, saying: “I think it’s all about what exists in the local market and the target audience. From a hotel side, our target audience is corporate travellers, but on the weekends, we also have the local crowd and leisure guests so there still has to be a variety of venues that caters to everyone. At the same time we are trying to do things a little differently and not just be the next restaurant on the street or in other hotels.”

Ultimately, it all comes down to the core of ‘unlocking the destination’ in innovative ways believes Parsons.

“Looking at what we’ve done previously and replicating that with this new product is not going to work. We need to deliver a lot more than what we did before because if we are delivering what we did before, we are going to get the same old results or possibly less because there’s so much happening. I’m looking at ways in which we can innovate, ways in which we can create new and engaging experiences for our guests to unlock the destination,” he concludes.

Stat attack
- 270 Number of rooms
- 400 Number of employees
- 40 Nationalities employed by the hotel
- 11 Number of restaurants at the hotel
- 8 Number of iPads available in the Le Meridien Hub
- 12,114 Number of Facebook fans

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