Comment: Does the GCC need something 'brand' new?

Lifestyle and boutique still can't shake the chains, says Guy Wilkinson

Guy Wilkinson
Guy Wilkinson

The GCC is well known as a place obsessed with brands, whether it be fashion, hotels or restaurants. In the hospitality sector, brands mean chains, and chains generally mean uniformity.

Perhaps it is because we have now had 35 years of building conventional chain hotels at the luxury end, developers are finally thinking about boutique and ‘lifestyle’ hotels to ring the changes.

It was Ian Schrager, father of the boutique hotel movement, who stated: “You are where you stay.” In plagiarising similar phrases referring to food, clothes, etcetera, he emphasised his preference for individuality over homogeneity in modern lodging.

He went further in explaining the philosophy when launching Morgans in New York back in the 1980s, saying: “The hotels in the US are predicated on the mass-market model. There was a virtue in everything being the same. There was a virtue in coming up with an idea and ‘cookie-cutting’ it across the country. Those of us who are old enough may remember the Holiday Inn advertisement from a few years ago that said, ‘The best surprise is no surprise’.

“For me, there is nothing better than a good surprise when you go into a hotel and can have fun there. Treat a hotel as more than just a place to sleep; a place for somebody to have fun, a visual feast. Walk inside and see something you haven’t seen before. Something indefinable, the same kind of things that make you want to purchase a car or pick a mate.”

Ironically, the vast majority of Gulf developers who want some of this ‘electricity in the air’ are reluctant to actually roll up their sleeves and be the kind of hands-on, ever-present hospitality entrepreneur that boutique hotels really need. Instead, they want their operators to sell them a pre-packaged boutique or lifestyle brand.

Even though Schrager himself has now come full circle and is working with Marriott on their Edition brand, I still think that the phrases ‘boutique hotel’ and ‘hotel chain’ are uneasy bed-fellows.

However, that is the reason that the existing and future stock of boutique/lifestyle hotels in the Gulf is primarily comprised of chain hotel brands such as W and Aloft from Starwood, Vida from The Address, and in the future, Autograph and Bvlgari from Marriott, Hotel Indigo from IHG, Andaz from Hyatt, ME by Meliá, etcetera.

Even the hotels planned by the specialist boutique/lifestyle chains, such as Armani, Palazzo Versace, Baccarat, Nobu and Morgans itself, somehow fail to conjure up the image of a flamboyant owner or creator holding court in the lobby.

Has anyone seen Giorgio Armani in his Dubai hotel? I think he has been there once or twice, but his influence is primarily behind the scenes. I have a feeling the same will be true of Donatella Versace once the hotel that bears her family name in Dubai opens, and also of Robert De Niro and chef Nobu Matsuhisa when the Nobu Hotel opens in Riyadh.

An obvious point of comparison is the many restaurants that have grown over the past decade in the GCC that are connected to celebrity chefs, such as Nobu himself, Antonio Carluccio, Pierre Gagnaire, Sanjeev Kapoor, Jamie Oliver, Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes, Michel Rostang, Marco Pierre White and Richard Sandoval (to name but a few).

While it’s great that these renowned chefs have come to our region to do business, my question is, how often does anyone see them? I believe Gary Rhodes is the best of this bunch at flying down to cook and also support the local hospitality sector in many ways. But in general, you’ll be lucky to see any of these chefs on a typical day.

My point is that we need more local heroes! In the culinary world, we now have the likes of Gordon Ramsay alumni Nick Alvis and Scott Price, who made their Table 9 restaurant just as famous in Dubai as Ramsay’s Verre was before them. Who else would you vote for, in the Gulf hotel or restaurant sector, as a truly passionate hospitality entrepreneur?

About the Author:
Guy Wilkinson is a director of Viability, a hospitality and property consulting firm in Dubai. For more information, e-mail: guy@viability.ae

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