Interview: Madinat Jumeirah GM Margaret Paul

October is a landmark month for both Paul and the property

Margaret Paul
Margaret Paul

Dubai’s iconic Arabian resort Madinat Jumeirah this month celebrates its 10th birthday with a new logo, improved restaurants, refurbished hotels and the birth of its fourth property, which will mark the completion of the family. Resort general manager Margaret Paul reveals why this year is such a magical milestone both for Jumeirah Group, and for her personally

It’s no wonder that since it was established 10 years ago this month, Madinat Jumeirah has upheld its reputation as the first port of call for visitors to Dubai looking for an authentic taste of Arabia. Connected by three kilometres of waterways and landscaped gardens, and set across its own private beach, Madinat Jumeirah – the Arabian Resort of Dubai radiates a certain magic normally reserved for fairy tales.

Guests zig-zag through the candlelit corridors of Souk Madinat Jumeirah, up winding staircases and over foot-bridges taking in an Aladdin’s cave of stalls selling candles, trinkets, jewels and Persian slippers.

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They idle at the side of lapping waters, watching lazy dhows float up and downstream, dropping and picking up visitors from the 40 or more restaurants and bars along the way. Thirty per cent of these visitors come back year after year to stay at the hotels, Al Qasr and Mina A’Salam, as well as the Dar Al Masyaf comprising 29 summer houses, and seven Malakiya Villas.

And then there are the added extras such as Talise Spa and Talise Fitness, and extensive conference and banqueting facilities with two grand ballrooms, a 1000-seat Amphitheatre and a dedicated entertainment centre and multi-purpose venue, Madinat Arena.

Soon Madinat Jumeirah will be an even more attractive prospect to visitors, as it enters phase four of development with the birth of another grandiose hotel — the name of which is expected to be revealed soon. Resort general manager Margaret Paul assures that while “the fourth baby” will have its own identity in terms of architecture and look and feel, “it will blend with the other hotels in the resort”.

“It will look as if it has always been there. It’s similar in height to Mina A’Salam so not a high rise – it goes up to the seventh floor. It’s on a piece of land facing Burj Al Arab and the ocean so it’s a winner already. A lot of the rooms will be ocean-facing.

“Each of the hotels has its own personality and character, so they are quite different, which is why they’re so successful.”

Piling has been completed on the site and the main construction of the 434-room hotel has commenced. Paul has seen a plan and two model rooms for the property, which is set for a quarter one 2016 opening, and while no team has been appointed for the yet, having experts from the other hotels to hand means Paul is not alone.

“The beauty is that I have expertise at my fingertips. I think it’s a little early to talk launch, but that’s the excitement of a new hotel. You get these creative juices flowing,” she comments.

While this abundance of expertise is a blessing for Paul during a pre-opening, managing communications and brand alignment with 3200 colleagues across the resort was admittedly her biggest challenge when she first took on the role two years ago.

“I think communication is very important and I think that one of the biggest challenges when I arrived was to think about how I was going to communicate to such a big audience.

“Keeping it aligned. Keeping the strategy aligned. Keeping the goals aligned is important. Everyone wants to be successful and everyone has different ways of driving that success, so I do believe in the hotels there are different styles of achieving that success, but ultimately as a resort we’re working together for our key goals; our key targets.”

The first thing Paul introduced when she joined the resort was a communications plan within which she outlined a meetings schedule for her 32-strong ex-com team.

“Every month we have a leadership forum where our senior team sits down and we don’t talk about operational issues.

“We look at our balance score card targets and how we’re doing on our strategy if we’re working on any projects.”
Paul goes on to say that while the separate hotels may focus on specific aspects of training, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of their teams, sales and marketing and revenue are the disciplines that “must apply across the board”.

“You need to have a helicopter view about what your rates strategy is, and how you’re managing your commercial plan. [This must] look over all of the parts of the business, otherwise it’s not effective,” she says.

Last year MadinatJumeirah joined forces with hospitality education system Lobster Ink to offer online training to staff, which Paul describes as “a great initiative”.

“We started with F&B and now we’re rolling it out for front office. It means [staff] can manage their time with the training. It’s quite competitive because you have to keep advancing your training and you gain points as you advance.”

Despite solid communications and training plans, one aspect of the resort that is becoming gradually less aligned is the food and beverage offering. The resort’s outlets now fall under a newly formed restaurant division, which Paul describes as “a great pioneering adventure Jumeirah has taken up”.

“Commenting on whether the shift in positioning of the resort’s outlets has impacted her role as general manager Paul says: “I don’t think it affects me as such. I think our goal remains to give our guests an exciting and innovative F&B experience that should be seamless.

“It’s a new direction for us as a company and it’s already operating, but we’re looking forward to that progressing.”

The resort’s 10th year has been marked by a number of refurbishments and upgrades to its F&B outlets, including the iconic Pier Chic, set to re-launch this month. The floor is to be opened out to give all diners a panoramic sea view, and two pods are being added halfway along the pier; one to offer pre-dinner drinks and the other to be a post-dinner lounge where desserts and coffee can be enjoyed.

Additionally, Dubai’s first American smokehouse, Peri & Blackwelder will open at the end of October on the site of what was previously Barzar, and while Paul can’t reveal details, she hints that there could be plans for Toscana and Segreto renovations in the near future.

The company is also refurbishing Dar Al Masyaf, 50% of which has been completed. And having seen half of Mina A’Salam renovated last year, the remainder of the rooms were finished in September, and all 290 are back online.

“It’s not easy refurbishing while you operate. We didn’t make major structural changes to the rooms but we upgraded all the technology and we decided we needed a lighter, brighter colour palate. It was in line with Mina A’Salam celebrating its 10th anniversary last year. I’m really delighted with the outcome, we’ve had a lot of great positive feedback.”

Thanking all of the partners, guests and stakeholders that have contributed to the success of the resort has been central to the team’s 10-year anniversary celebrations, which began in May at Arabian Travel Market, Dubai with the launch of the resort’s new logo.

Each month since then, the team has focused on celebrating relationships, and during Ramandan in July, organised weekly iftars inviting groups from the community including the police, co-workers and various stakeholders.

“I think, why not celebrate? It’s had a great legacy of success,” enthuses Paul.

“We really wanted to talk about the future, so what better way to do that than with our new room products, our new restaurants, and our new hotel? So I would say it’s a combination of all of these things. Let’s celebrate, let’s give thanks, and let’s acknowledge and talk about where we’re going.”

And as she speaks it becomes apparent that Madinat Jumeirah’s 10-year birthday is not just a milestone for the Jumeirah Group and for the emirate, but it marks a special moment in 51-year old Paul’s life, whose own journey has been something of a Cinderella story.

Hailing from a modest town in the west of Scotland, Paul began her hospitality career as a room attendant during a university summer in the small village of Hofgeismar, Germany at Hotel Dornröschenschloss Sababurg or ‘The Castle of the Sleeping Beauty’, which supposedly was the inspiration for the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale.

The job, according to Paul, involved a number of unglamourous tasks like “sweeping terraces, making up rooms and serving coffee – it was a bit of a ‘do anything you’re told to’ job”.

After graduating from a Master of Arts degree in political science and German, Paul pursued her dream of joining the United Nations as a civil servant.

“I didn’t get too far along the process,” she admits. “There was quite rigorous assessment and so that sort of fell apart.”

She changing paths entirely, she decided after graduation to do a postgraduate diploma in hotel management and started working for Swedish chain Scandic Hotels as a restaurant manager, which is when she caught the hospitality bug: “It’s an industry you just get hooked on, it’s very energising,”

When thereafter Paul landed a job with Le Méridien in the UK she says “I got it in my head I wanted to go to Dubai”.

Having applied for a director of F&B position, she was rejected “because they really wanted a male”.

However, Paul continued to persevere, making phone calls and writing letters to put forward her case.

“They said they thought it would be challenging for a woman in the industry. The male candidate they chose actually pulled out at the last minute so they called me and said they’d changed their minds. It made me really determined when I got here, because if someone tells you that you can’t do the job it makes you more determined to do it.”

And so in the end, she did get to go to the ball, joining the pre-opening team of Le Méridien Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina in 1999, which opened at 83% occupancy from day one. Paul believes that at that time, she was the only female F&B director in Dubai, since a lot of women came up through the rooms division instead.

And while she admits there are still challenges for females in the industry, there are also plenty of opportunities, particularly with Jumeirah Group.

“I think I’ve been fortunate with Jumeirah because I think they’re really focused on getting that diversity between males and females.

“If you look at our 22 hotels and resorts we’ve got at least four female GMs, which is quite a lot.”

Paul admits that after returning to the UK following her tenure with Le Méridien, it wasn’t her plan to come back to Dubai or to stay so long. However, she explains that she has always been “fortunate enough to always do something bigger, better and greater” and landing the role of GM at Jumeirah Beach Hotel, followed by her current role has been nothing short of a dream come true.

“It’s been a terrific journey and I’ve been really lucky to have this opportunity. Sometimes I have to pinch myself,” she smiles. “What an experience!”

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