Interview: Emaar Hospitality COO Philippe Zuber

Zuber explains why company needs a response for every market segment

Emaar Hospitality COO Philippe Zuber
Emaar Hospitality COO Philippe Zuber

Emaar Hospitality Group has been widely respected for its operation of the luxury Address Hotels + Resorts brand for several years, but now it is rapidly diversifying, with Vida Hotels up and running and Manzil and Dubai Inn on the horizon.

Chief operating officer Philippe Zuber reveals why the Dubai company needs a response for every market segment as it starts to venture overseas

All eyes were on Emaar Hospitality Group at Arabian Travel Market (ATM), after it added another hotel brand to its portfolio, contemporary Arabesque concept Manzil, and revealed the location for its first Dubai Inn, in Zabeel, Dubai.

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The group has long reserved ATM for major announcements, since first unveiling The Address Hotels + Resorts back in 2008, celebrating the opening of Armani Dubai in 2010 and more recently, adding boutique brand Vida to the collection in 2013. But, the group has been less forthcoming when it has come to Hotelier’s repeated requests for interviews; until now.

Finally, after a year in his post as chief operating officer at Emaar Hospitality Group, Hotelier has pinned down the rather affable Philippe Zuber. A Hyatt veteran, with postings taking him from LA, Hong Kong and Casablanca to Paris, Berlin and Seoul, Zuber’s first role in Dubai was two and a half years ago as general manager of The Address Downtown Dubai; the allure to the emirates being, quite simply, “Emaar”.

Since then, Zuber was fast-tracked to the area GM role for The Address Hotels + Resorts, and in September, promoted to COO. Strategic when it comes to his career, Zuber says the attraction was to take responsibility for mixed-use hotel developments.

“I was at the stage of my career where I had to choose whether to stay on single unit hotels, which I was very used to and had already [built] an extensive career [around], or if I embarked on what I believe is the future, which is hotels that are related to an entertainment area, whether a mall, golf, anything which is something different, as well as having a residence component.

If it’s international, any new build will have to have this business model. I did not have this expertise at that time so I joined this company, Emaar Hospitality, because I was willing to prove myself in this particular segment,” Zuber explains, adding of the Downtown flagship “it’s a dream hotel to be GM for”.

As GM and area GM, Zuber has played a critical role in helping Emaar deliver an impressive performance record across its portfolio of 12 hotels and resorts, comprising 1900 rooms.

According to Emaar Properties Q1 2014 results, the hospitality and leisure business recorded AED 483mn (US$132mn) of revenue, more than 21% of the developer’s total revenue and a 16% increase on the division’s Q1 2013 revenue.

Growth was attributed to the addition of serviced residences to The Address Hotels + Resorts brand and the launch of Vida Hotels and Resorts.

Occupancy too achieved record highs, reveals Zuber: “The Address is definitely [a market leader] and is continually proving its success. We achieved 92% occupancy across all our different brands, that’s pretty much a great achievement, and a significant growth compared to last year — 17% [growth]”.

It’s this solid base that has paved the way for both the creation of new concepts to launch in Dubai and the progression of international expansion, says Zuber, when I question why the small operator now has five brands; The Address, Vida, Dubai Inn, Manzil and Armani, though the latter falls under separate management.

“We believe that’s the way a hospitality company should develop to really value the different segments and to make sure you have a response for any kind of need,” says Zuber.

“The market is very sophisticated when it comes to hospitality today and everyone has a need at a certain period of time and can mix from one segment to the other at any point of time. It is just the way the new generation of travellers is choosing something to respond to a specific need.

We as a hospitality company, and being extremely interested to expand internationally, want a response for each opportunity. So these multi brands are definitely part of our development strategy to be able to ensure that whatever the site, whatever the opportunity we have for our brand, we have a response.”

Dubai Inn, a brand focused on the affordable segment and being developed in partnership with Dubai’s Meraas Holding, was announced back in June 2013 following Tourism Vision 2020’s mandate to attract 20 million visitors to Dubai by 2020.

The rationale is simple; with more than 66.4 million passengers passing through Dubai International Airports in 2013 and the number expected to exceed 100 million by 2020, and 62% of the total branded inventory in Dubai, not to mention 50% of the upcoming inventory, being in the upscale category, the emirate needs to broaden its offering.

But, while Zuber says the price point will be similar to that of brands such as Ibis, Citymax and Premier Inn, he is keen to stress that Dubai Inn will not be an economy brand.

Indeed, he is reluctant to use any of the current terminology for what is typically a three-star product, replacing budget, limited service or focused service with “value”.

“We don’t call it budget at all; we call it a value brand,” asserts Zuber. “Budget is not respectful of the clientele that will be using this and the value that we’re going to put into it, the emphasis on the quality, on the size of the room, the service that is going to be provided, you’re not going to have at any point a perception of budget, it’s going to have a perception of value.”

All Dubai Inn hotels will feature 26m2 rooms with 42" televisions and free WiFi connectivity, self check-in, a digital online tour guide, a 24-hour boutique selling essentials and souvenirs, a Laundromat that will also be a place to “socialise”, and an F&B concept that will be “unique in its functionality”.

“It is going to be affordable, convenient in very, very great locations across Dubai,” says Zuber, explaining that the first site is opposite the Al Murooj Rotana. “We believe we are going to hit the market by having something that has no equivalent today.

“We will start with four hotels [under the agreement with Meeras] and we are aiming to develop extremely fast, this is a brand which only makes sense if you have 15, 20 or more. We really want to have a fast grower with this brand,” asserts Zuber.

The latest new brand launch, meanwhile, was Manzil, billed as a “modern boutique hotel brand that celebrates authentic Arabesque design aesthetics and culinary flavours”. It is due to debut in place of Emaar’s existing Al Manzil hotel in Downtown Dubai in November, following a four-month closure for refurbishment starting on July 1.

It follows a similar strategy to that taken with Emaar’s former Qamardeen hotel in Downtown, which opened as the first Vida hotel last year, where performance has “absolutely surpassed any of our expectations”.

“Our thought process was being an Emirati brand and being based in Dubai, we need to celebrate a little bit more the Emirati culture and the Arab hospitality, and we need to respond as well to all those young entrepreneurs that are there, who have a strong commitment to the culture but want to like the modern life. So the whole way that we are developing this concept is very respectful to the local culture and very modern in its interpretations,” he explains.

“So it will have a link between tradition and the future. All the Arabs will be extremely proud about this brand but any non Arab will love it because it will represent what Dubai is all about. It’s a big mix between both and we are proud to say that there is no equivalent in the market today.”

When asked if recruiting Emirati staff for the hotel would be important, Zuber says Emiratis will need to have a presence, but that like all Emaar Hospitality’s hotels, there will be a mix of nationalities, though Arabic speakers will be prioritised. He admits the hotel will serve alcohol but on this subject, he’s a little more cagey.

When asked if there is conflict between serving alcohol in a hotel brand promising to celebrate Emirati culture, he says before trailing off: “No, because when we say contemporary Arabesque we are in full understanding of the respect of the culture and what the whole culture means, but if it’s done in a very discrete elegant way, it’s not disruptive in any sense, we don’t feel it’s…”.

Here he pauses, changes tact, and suggests that actually, the serving of alcohol is not an issue.
“We should not be [so keen] to always put this subject on the table, that it’s ‘either or’, says Zuber.

“It’s important that we can host different kinds of clientele and the way we are doing it, we are very cautious of not doing that [serving alcohol] in a way that is disruptive to any of our clientele.”

Zuber says there is also the ambition to take Vida, Dubai Inn and Manzil beyond Dubai, though only once the brands are established in the emirate first. Dubai, it seems, is very much a training ground for Emaar Hospitality’s brands. As an owner-operator, the company is able to create, adapt and establish its hotels, before looking to expand regionally and internationally via management contracts.

Plans have been in place to take The Address abroad for several years, but no properties have opened yet. Back in 2010, when the group was under CEO Marc Dardenne’s management, Hotelier reported that two hotels would open in France, in the Languedoc, and in Marrakech by 2012.

At the time, Dardenne said deals were being signed in Budapest and Istanbul and that in addition to 10 more deals in Middle East and Africa, The Address would expand to Europe and Asia.

On his wishlist at the time was a resort on The Palm Jumeirah; we now know the group came very close to operating the Seven Tides-owned resort on the crescent, which eventually launched under the Anantara flag.

Currently, confirmed projects stand at just three; The Address Marassi Golf Resort & Spa in Egypt; The Address Masai Mara in Kenya; and The Address Residence Emaar Square, Istanbul.

In Dubai, The Address’ domination of Downtown is continuing, with The Address Sky View, The Address Boulevard and The Address Fountain View — all hotel and residence products — under construction.

Sky View is already the talk of Dubai residents, with a sky bridge stretching across the two towers expected to be reminiscent of the dramatic observation deck at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, and featuring an infinity pool as well as dining and nightlife establishments. Meanwhile, a second Vida is also under development in Dubai, Vida The Hills.

Zuber comments: “The interest for Vida as a brand internationally is very, very strong, and understand that our brand is only six months old so we have a lot of demand for international expansion for this particular brand. Manzil will be exactly the same but people will realise what Manzil is when it will be ready and they are able to enjoy it”.

He says there is now a “very strong appetite to expand further”, particularly with The Address. He won’t be drawn on locations, but admits “we are very interested in Abu Dhabi”.

“Our brand is only five years old and it took us this very short period of time to really establish a brand that is loved by our customers, they are very loyal, they speak very highly about the quality and what they perceive as customers.

Now we are much more confident for expansion and development, we are developing asset light, but as well [funded] by Emaar, and we have now the trust from external [owners] that we can do management agreements.

So this is now the time that so many people are coming to talk to us because they see the success and want to have us manage their own brand. This is the result of the team, they have done a fantastic job, and now the development is really kicking in.”

Retention and growth of this team is another priority, he continues, as Emaar Hospitality’s portfolio grows. Currently, there are 4200 employees, but Zuber says “we will double this in four years time”.

“We are going to have to engage a lot of initiatives to really attract the best of the talent in Dubai and overseas to really support the growth, and each of the associates are really going to have to have the DNA, and this culture of quality and this culture of lifestyle, that we are putting across all our products and which is really recognised by everybody,” he asserts.

“We have received really very high-end recognition and so we really need to continue this statement.”

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