New Opening: Four Seasons Resort Dubai

What will set the luxury hotel apart from its competition?

A rendering of the finished product.
A rendering of the finished product.
The grandiose lobby area.
The grandiose lobby area.
The hotel's 'Kodak moment'. On entering the main doors, guests have views through an arched window to the private beach.
The hotel's 'Kodak moment'. On entering the main doors, guests have views through an arched window to the private beach.
A rendering of Shai, an Arabic-inspired feminine lounge.
A rendering of Shai, an Arabic-inspired feminine lounge.
The interiors of the hotel were designed by San Francisco-based BAMO.
The interiors of the hotel were designed by San Francisco-based BAMO.

Four Seasons’ long-anticipated Dubai debut property is just days away from opening, and promises to offer the highest levels of service and luxury in the emirate. Hotelier Middle East pays a visit to Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach to find out the secret that will set this hotel apart from its incredibly tough competition

At the Hotelier Middle East Great GM Debate in September, there was talk among delegates about an upcoming property slated to ‘set a new standard in luxury for Dubai’. Sentiment ranged from curiosity and excitement to nervous anticipation, with nobody quite certain what the differentiating factor might be for another hotel entering the land of beautiful luxury accommodation.

Physically the 237-key building is as refined and alluring as expected, with traditional Spanish-Islamic-inspired architecture by Wimberly, Allison, Tong & Goo Architecture firm (WATG), and interiors by BAMO. Entering the property, and what Simon Casson, regional vice president and general manager calls “the Kodak moment” strikes.

An immense arched window beyond the lobby rotunda gives onto expansive gardens, an infinity pool and the pristine beach beyond, while in the forefront, a Venetian glass chandelier cascades under an octagonal dome above the grand staircase.

Described by Casson as “a diamond” in the company’s global portfolio, and set to open on time on November 16, Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach is the fruit of a search by the 54-year old Toronto-based luxury operator for the perfect location.

While the firm thought it had hit jackpot with a signing in Festival City some years ago, construction was called off in 2009 by developer Al-Futtaim Group Real Estate as a result of the global economic downturn. The hotel would have adjoined the Four Seasons Golf Resort, which in the same year, was taken over and rebranded by InterContinental Hotel Group.

And so the search continued, and it wasn’t until 2012 that construction began on Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, after a positive turn of events landed the company an even more prestigious location than originally anticipated — at the north end of Jumeirah Beach.

“This location is not acquirable,” asserts Casson, speaking to Hotelier during an exclusive first look at the property. “The location is in the hands of the ruling family; it’s the gift of the ruling family.”

And Casson is no stranger to the honour of being placed at the helm of such a hotel, having arrived in the GCC from London in 2004 as pre-opening general manager of Four Seasons Doha, when Qatar was barely known.

Having very fondly held his position in the neighbouring destination for nine years, 47-year-old Casson now arrives in Dubai at what would seem like the pinnacle of his career, as he oversees 7000 staff in Four Seasons properties across Damascus, Beirut, Riyadh, Qatar and St. Petersburg, as well as Dubai and the rest of the UAE.

Coming from Doha, he is well-versed in the frustrations of setting up shop in the Middle East — an experience he claims has been a major advantage.

“I think the benefit of having done a Middle East, and more specifically a GCC opening before, was huge; from a governmental point of view, what it takes to set up. If you’re a hotelier that has only worked in the Americas it’s very difficult to understand how all your staff will come from overseas.”

The staff didn’t just come from overseas; Casson personally went to find them. He visited 20 countries, including Nepal, Indonesia, China, India and Russia, and so far has met with every single one of the 400-strong workforce in person — 50% of whom were previous Four Seasons employees — and he is still working on recruiting 100 more staff for the hotel.

“You can literally exactly profile what you want, but if you say, as everyone does, that people are really the most important asset, will you delegate that choice to someone else? Then what you say and your actions are not aligned,” he comments.

Meeting staff in their own country is the only way to break down the fear factor for those embarking on their first job abroad, Casson believes. Not only does this make them feel more welcome at the property when they arrive, but on meeting the general manager “something changes there”.

“I’m not looking for technical skills, because by the time they come to me they will have been through three or four different interviews. I’m looking for passion and a drive. How are you as a human being? Are you the sort of person I would want in the business, and are you excited about it?

“Very rarely does someone show up and want to be bad at their job. I’m pretty sure that they want to be great. What stops people from being great is normally leadership.

“If they find an environment where they have a voice, where they believe that their voice is important, and where they can advance and grow, regardless if they are from Nepal or Nottingham. If they can grow, whether they are a man or a woman or what colour their skin is, if they find that environment then normally employees will soar. Something magical happens where service goes to a different level,” he says.

It is this new level of service that separates a Four Seasons hotel from a Ritz-Carlton or St. Regis, or any other hotel that would normally be expected to rank in the comp set as a five-star luxury Dubai property, according to Casson.

“There are something like 200 five-star hotels in Dubai, but here, the five-star classification is facilities-based. You could tick all of the facilities boxes and still not be five-star in the eyes of the luxury traveller,” Casson explains.

“You have BMW and Mercedes, but Four Seasons is a Rolls-Royce type of company. The essence and the fabric is exactly the same, so why do people pay three times as much for a Rolls-Royce? It must be something intangible you’re buying into, and it’s aspiring luxury in the hotel business; it’s a whole service differential.”

Casson, speaking steadily with clarity and acumen, seems to live and breathe the Four Seasons hallmarks he describes.

“I can’t distinguish between me and the company, but clearly the company has ended up defining my perspective. A company that talked about a different way of treating people; a really strong culture based around people, and that married with service excellence.”

Joining up his own vision with those of his staff will be, for Casson, crucial to positioning the Four Seasons brand on the Dubai market.

“You can put a sign on the door, but a Four Seasons requires a coalition of the willing to bring it to life. I have a vision but I’m not going to be opening the door, making the bed or serving the coffee. The secret is how do you infuse that vision into 500 people so they care about it as much as I care about it? And therein lies the dilemma, the joy, the opportunity and the risk.”

Casson, however, is confident that Four Seasons service levels will be in place from day one of operations, given the repetitive training the team has gone through during the lead up to the big day.

And so, I return to the initial question, and the brand promise Four Seasons outlined at the start: will this hotel set a new standard for luxury in Dubai?

“This remains the decision of the guests. I think we aspire to that and if we’re going to achieve it, it will be through people and service. The rest is hardwired in and delivered to us by a smart owner who picks a great location, builds a great building and has the money to make it beautiful inside.

A lot of hotels have that, so it’s the people, and that’s why I spend so much of my time focused on those parts because that’s what will make the difference at the end of the day,” Casson concludes.

Dining off F&B

Already the dining options are stirring excitement among potential guests, particularly given that competition in terms of licensed food and beverage outlets is scarce in the large residential district where the hotel is located. Guests will no doubt be surprised and delighted on discovering the diverse options offered by its 10 restaurants and bars.

Five of these are to be managed by third-party companies and will open in a neighbouring stand-alone restaurant village, housing two concepts by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and two additional venues: Coya, which was founded by restaurateur Arjun Waney, and Nusr-Et Steakhouse, considered one of the best steakhouses in Istanbul. And finally, for Dubai’s elite party-goers, New York nightclub brand Provocateur, a small, exclusive lounge, will feature top international DJs.

However it’s the five outlets managed in-house, and set to open this month, that are the focus for the culinary team, and in particular director of food & beverage, Florence Zwicky and executive chef Gilles Arzur, who worked together previously at the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles, where they enjoyed serving up special dishes for President Obama and The Jackson Five, among other VIPs.

The creative concepts begin in the all-day dining restaurant Suq, which has been designed with six live stations in a “traders style market experience”, explains Zwicky.

“The idea is that it’s a market, so with the retail component we can develop different ideas. We’ll start with a bakery and cheese, and beyond that we’ll make our own pasta, we’re roasting our own coffee, and then perhaps comes a sauce, a spice mix. So these are things that will develop as we see what the community is looking for,” she adds.

Zwicky explains that the offering inside Suq may depend on seasonality and the goods on display will rotate depending on this. “We may not do everything all the time. We don’t have to stick to a certain programme because Four Seasons is not mandating what we do. We have a lot of creativity and freedom locally,” she adds.

Executive chef Gilles Arzur agrees he had a fair amount of autonomy when designing the menus and being part of concept creation, along with Zwicky and corporate office.

For example, another differentiator for Suq will be that the brunch is led by live cooking stations rather than a buffet style.

Arzur comments: “I hate chafing dishes. Food stays fresh for 10 to 30 minutes but after that it loses quality. I think with live cooking stations we’re going to be able to do some different offerings. We’ll have holding for a few minutes, but everything is going to be live.”

In terms of brunch, Zwicky claims that buffet options will be available every day at lunch time, with beverages offered on an à la carte basis. With both Zwicky and Arzur arriving earlier this year, adapting to the Middle Eastern concept of a brunch has been interesting, while sourcing ingredients and creating Arabic-inspired cuisine has been nothing short of a challenge.

“In California we grew everything we used basically in our back yard. We’re probably a bit more challenged in terms of what is available to us here,” Zwicky comments.

For Arzur on the other hand, the supply chain is “always difficult to establish at first”, however his main frustration has been creating an Arabic flavour, something he admits he has limited experience with.

“The Arabic touch is my challenge. I have basic knowledge but I’m not an expert and that’s where I have to trust the people I have hired around me. It’s not fusion food, I told the sous chefs I want the Arabic flavours to be authentic,” he confirms.

Despite the variety of cuisine on offer, Zwicky and Arzur are clear about avoiding fusion menus. While Seafu, the hotel’s beachside restaurant has both Asian and Mediterranean dishes, Zwicky explains both flavours will be kept separate.

“A lot of people think, ‘Asian and Meditteranean, ok they’ll offer a fusion menu’ — and we won’t. So it’s the subtle differences that we’re going to underline.”

Aside from the two restaurants, there are three lounge and bar concepts. Shai, which Arzur describes as a “lounge with a feminine approach offering light bites”, and Hendricks bar, which he describes as a “masculine, British” venue, with gin and whisky paired with food. Finally, rooftop bar Mercury, is what Zwicky calls “the jewel in the crown” with 125 open air seats and a 360-degree view of the city.

Coming from the old glamour of Hollywood in Beverly Hills, to the new glamour of Dubai, both Zwicky and Arzur are expecting a high calibre of guest, and are aligning their visions with that of Casson: “That the discerning international luxury traveller will see Four Seasons as the number one high-end option in Dubai”.

Stat Attack

- 1500 people Interviewed for jobs at Four Seasons Dubai
- 1961 Four Seasons established
- 83 years old founder Issy Sharp
- 237 rooms includes 49 suites
- 7000 staff Simon Casson oversees
- 2009 Four Seasons property in Festival City called off
- $999 nightly rate for Deluxe Room in April 2015



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