New opening: Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah

Property fuses brand heritage and a lighter, relaxed resort feel

The expansive lobby area.
The expansive lobby area.
The light, modern room interior, with beds from Dubai Furniture Manufacturing Co.
The light, modern room interior, with beds from Dubai Furniture Manufacturing Co.
All day dining Mezzarie has a contemporary feel.
All day dining Mezzarie has a contemporary feel.

Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah fuses the traditions of its 100-year heritage with a lighter, relaxed resort feel as it strives to compete in Dubai’s densely populated luxury market

Hotelier’s first visit to Waldorf Astoria Dubai Palm Jumeirah was back in December, when we joined a sneak preview opening event thanks to a last minute invite from owning company Al Habtoor Group. The owners wanted the hotel open before the Christmas and New Year holidays and lo and behold, guests were welcomed from December 24.

Ostensibly, at that point the hotel was very close to completion, although rumour has it that the launch date was somewhat short notice for the team. Upon our return to the hotel in May this year, general manager Jan Moenkedieck, who has previously been GM at Hilton Abu Dhabi, Conrad Cairo, Conrad Tokyo and Hilton Dubai Creek among others, says the speed was something he had to take in his stride.

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He was recruited in September 2012, and says that this coupled with his existing market knowledge was “definitely advantageous”. Still, he had a new team of 500 people to get up to speed on “true Waldorf service”.

“We were always clear that this project will be expedited in a way that we’re working with professionals that understand how construction and hotels can work together. So we were not surprised by the fact that we would be launching this hotel very quickly, and as you know from opening hotels, you fly the plane and you build it while you fly it, right?,” Moenkedieck laughs.

“That’s the role of the general manager —to coordinate with the many stakeholders that were there. So we opened the door on December 24, had our first guest walking through, checked them in, and they were happy and we’ve not looked back since.”

A quick peruse of TripAdvisor prior to our visit in May was telling, however; early comments praised the beautiful hotel product, recognised it as high quality and advised making the most of low rates during the opening phase, but there was a pattern of disappointment in reviewers’ perceptions of the knowledge and skill level of staff.

Checking the most recent reviews for June and July, however, and there is a noticeable change, with positive comments in all areas and the 319-room hotel rated at 41 out of 475 hotels in Dubai. Now, TripAdvisor is certainly not a faultless barometer, but it does provide a decent insight into the perceptions of a new property. Moenkedieck replies to every single review, good or bad.

When asked about the service comments in those early reviews, he says: “You obviously start from the very beginning with a new team, so we hired about 500 people and started training them. Our brand standards are very detailed, our training standards are very detailed, so we brought in a big support team in terms of HR and training to make sure that people deliver. So overall I think people not only appreciate the hotel as such, but they also appreciate the calibre of people and the overall service approach that they receive”.

The main philosophy behind the “true Waldorf service” concept, steeped in 100 years of history, is to be “anticipatory”. This, by its very nature, requires staff to be empowered, and it is this confidence that in Hotelier’s experience, takes new staff some time to develop. A highly respected GM across the UAE, Moenkedieck acknowledges it is down to him to foster this.

“Overall I think organisational climate clearly starts from the top. It is me who sets the organisational climate here in this hotel and I’ve observed people thriving best in an environment that is very consistent, that has a lot of trust and respect, but in terms of work environment, provides the right amount of authority that matches the responsibility and the accountability level.

There needs to be the right balance of that. People need to be empowered and they need to have authority. People also need to have the ability to succeed or to fail and once they have all of those abilities you will see that very few people actually choose to fail; most people really strive to succeed and to accelerate and build their career. You then add the right amount of control from my side and then I think you’ve got the right organisational climate.”

The GM’s influence will be critical to the implementation of the “personal concierge”, with the traditional butler service being “lifted into the 21st century”, says Moekendieck. The aim is for the hotel to get in touch with guests prior to arrival to find out their preferences and “deliver on what’s really important to you rather than being a static servant” throughout the stay.

“That’s a key signature for Waldorf Astoria. It doesn’t exist in this shape and form, and from a pure operations point of view it takes care of a lot of issues that potentially evolve because once you have that person to feed back to, you don’t wait until your departure to tell people your stay went terribly wrong,” he observes.

Getting this right will be essential to driving the team to meeting the very ambitious goal of being “number one”. In this respect, the product — designed by KCA International, also responsible for Burj Al Arab and Al Qasr, Madinat Jumeirah — is impressive and has been well received by the industry.

As Moenkedieck explains: “It was always very clear in everybody’s mind that this was always going to be a very luxurious hotel, our target and our aim was always to be number one, which is an ambitious target in a highly dense luxury marketplace like Dubai but we were clearly not afraid, so we selected materials, design and operating equipment with the thought in mind of being luxury and being really good at what we do”.

He is at pains to describe the hotel as “a classic contemporary, not a contemporary classic”. Classic elements have been interpreted in a contemporary way, so while there are hints of the Rococo, patterns and finishes generally are more subtle, and there is a “twist of Arabesque”.

“In the run up to finalising designs there were many different approaches to rooms and public areas and restaurants and we had a very close collaboration between design and architecture teams and myself to make sure we get that mix right of being a resort hotel, but still being a Waldorf Astoria in terms of having a bit of an urban feel and a bit of grandeur. We’ve really hit that sweet spot where people go in and it’s really grand and elegant but it’s got a very calm atmosphere. It really has the feel-good factor that makes it resort-like,” he says.

The resort to date has proved popular with the typical leisure clientele from Europe, particularly UK and US, Russia and the CIS countries. The GCC bookers and UAE travellers looking for weekend escapes have also been important, and Moenkedieck says the “lion’s share of our business comes through online”.

“We’ve focused a lot on online marketing and spent a lot of money activating these channels through targeted campaigns in Europe, especially, in the UK, and not only online campaigns but mobile campaigns in Russia and in the GCC market.

As a result of this we had some business materialisation. The Easter holidays were pretty much fully booked, we see that naturally weekends are our peak periods versus mid week because then you have the additional UAE travellers that are always searching for a great weekend away.”

The hotel introduced a summer rate starting at AED 700 (US $190)for a Superior Room, and at the time of going to press on 18 July, offered a Superior Room for AED938 ($255) on Friday 29 August, a rate higher than that available at Fairmont, Rixos and Sofitel properties on the Palm, but less than the rate at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, Anantara, Kempinski and One&Only The Palm, which was charging AED1627 ($443) for its Palm Manor King Room.

Looking ahead to the cooler months, offered a Superior Room for AED1876 ($510) at Waldorf Astoria on Friday 31 October — the lowest rate for a hotel on the Palm at the time of researching.

“We’re in a competitive marketplace and we understand that summer rates are significantly different and highly packaged so we do the same. At the same time we want to make sure that our premium positioning is maintained.

“We definitely look eye to eye if not slightly higher than luxury hotels. In the summer people love the half board packages and we are not shy to offer those and we offer a great dining option so you are not stuck in one restaurant — you really get to use the best of Waldorf Astoria,” says Moenkedieck.

F&B is one area that Moenkedieck is keen to promote post-summer, with brunches, special meal periods and various initiatives in the planning.

There are six outlets, including the Peacock Alley tea lounge, a must-have in all Waldorf Astorias in homage to the first ‘alley’ linking the first Waldorf and the Astoria hotels in New York, and two signature restaurants, Social by Heinz Beck, an Italian Michelin starred chef, and Lao, a South Asian restaurant headed by chef Mai.

It’s a refreshingly simple mix of restaurants, with all of them being less formal than one would expect and already attracting decent covers. As executive chef Bertrand Valegeas says: “It is better to have fewer restaurants full than eight or 10 with 20 covers”.

Both Valegeas and director of F&B, Jeremie Laurent, joined Waldorf Astoria in September 2013, expecting a March 2014 opening. They were new to Hilton Worldwide, but have extensive experience in Dubai, with Valegeas previously at Park Hyatt and Laurent with The Address.

Their main challenge was staffing, particularly front of house, says Laurent, who brought 70-80% of his team from overseas and has worked hard to bring multiple nationalities together “as a family”. In the kitchens, 70% of the team came from within Dubai, says Valegeas, as well as some chefs from Heinz Beck’s three-Michelin starred La Pergola in Rome.

Moenkedieck explains the partnership with Beck: “It’s operated by Waldorf Astoria but it’s under the Heinz Beck patronage. He provides the culinary expertise with his recipes and his people in the kitchens and oversees the execution during start-up and at several times during the year”.

The concept of Social, he continues, is “fine casual”, which he is quick to defend when Hotelier suggests this could be confusing to the consumer: “The reality is we’re taking Heinz Beck’s three-star Michelin talents in terms of food and we’re bringing it into a casual environment so it is fine casual. In a few years we will look back and ask ‘where did that fine casual come from?’ and we’ll say ‘oh yes it was Social by Heinz Beck at the Waldorf —that’s what it’s going to be.”

This desire to make a mark sums up the approach of the team at Dubai’s first Waldorf Astoria, with quality over quantity being the key driver for this first 12 months of operation.

Stat attack
- 319 Rooms and Suites
- 52m2 Minimum room size
- 160m2 Waldorf Astoria Suite
- 200m Private white beach
- 740m2 Grand ballroom
- 2000m2 Waldorf Astoria Spa
- 500 staff

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