SNEAK PEEK: Zaya Retreats, Nurai Island

What does the home-grown boutique concept in Abu Dhabi have to offer

Operators, Nurai island, Zaya retreats

Ahead of its opening, Hotelier Middle East heads to Zaya Retreats, the luxury villa complex on Nurai Island, just off the coast of Saadiyat Island, to find out more about what the home-grown boutique concept has to offer

“Nurai Island has been Abu Dhabi’s worst kept secret for years,” Stephen Gee, Zaya Retreats director of operations laughs, during Hotelier’s visit. And he’s quite right. The private island off the capital’s Saadiyat Island has been common knowledge in the community; however, little has been known about the development, work on which first began in 2008.

“Everybody has an opinion of what goes on here, but nobody quite knows. So it’s this mystical place. Some people have no comprehension of where the space is, others have a veiled understanding, and others have a detailed idea of what it is,” Gee states.

Nurai Island, he explains, comprises two concepts. It features a selection of water villas and beach estates that belong to private owners, and 32 one-bedroom hotel villas that make up Zaya Retreats, the island’s luxury hotel offering.

“We are boutique, we are not mainstream. You could argue that we are luxurious without the badges and the bells and the whistles. We have all the services that we would like to provide as a luxury property, and one of the ideas we have worked towards is what we call ‘barefoot chic’.

“The residential estates have their own concierge team. The estate owners paid a premium for a full-service island — everything from groceries to housekeeping to chefs on call. They’re buying into a luxury hotel operator on an island,” explains Gee.

While Nurai Island has been in the works for a while now, with all residential properties ready and sold out, the hotel concept was only developed in December 2013, when Gee was appointed by Emirati entrepreneur Nadia Zaal, founder of Zaya Retreats and CEO of Zaya.

“In the initial study for the property, there was always a hotel concept that was sketched on. It’s a 3.5mn ft2 property, so it’s substantial. We’ve also gone through this period of creation and development over a lot of years.

The hotel operating company’s formation was December 1 last year. So we started really working with the Zaya concept and looking at branding and all of that then, and it has been a very rapid acceleration of the development of the concept and the brand at the same time,” Gee clarifies.

Located a 10-minute boat ride away from Saadiyat Island, Zaya Retreats is hoping to cash in on the destination retreat concept, similar to those in the Maldives and the Seychelles.

“The rates are going to be up there with destination and resort properties in the UAE, Maldives and Seychelles. So the competitive set and the property position is high,” says Gee.

With a net rate of AED 4000–5000++ (US $1089–1361) per night for a one-bedroom villa, the full-suite property makes no bones about its bespoke proposition.

“It’s a great space and it’s great value for money; there are a lot of touch points that we think are going to be fun. From hotel rooms having their own time capsules to bury a memory so you can come back and discover it, to complimentary picnic hampers that we fill up for you while you’re here; all the properties have their own individual butlers. It’s quirky luxury — very bespoke,” he adds.

With its boutique offering, Zaya Retreats hopes to cater to the destination tourism market, which Gee believes is looking for a private island concept.

“Talking to Abu Dhabi Tourism, the feeder markets that we have been identifying — China, Russia, and Germany — are very excited about activating a private island concept in the UAE as a hotel. I know there are a couple, but this one is the first that’s going at a very high level and a mixed use set-up. Even from a MICE point of view, and corporate travel, it’s very exciting.”

Zaya Retreats also hopes to draw day visitors who wish to spend time on the island, including families, with a kids club on-site as well as mini day beds for children.

“The Saadiyat Beach Residences master development [which is under construction] is very important to us; that’s one aspect we want to focus on for our target market — F&B, destination, coming out and spending the day with your family, and being on the beach for brunch,” Gee adds.

When it comes to picking its comp-set, Gee says the hotel will benchmark itself against other beach or destination properties in the country, including Four Seasons Dubai at Jumeirah Beach (see p.50), set to open this month as well.

“As a destination property, I think the beach is important and the locality is important to us. So our local neighbours, such as St. Regis Saadiyat Island are important, but then we would go much further afield.

“One property I’ve got my eye on in the UAE as somewhere to go spend time on the beach, is Four Seasons Dubai. A different property altogether, but when I think destination tourism out of the region at a high level, I think it’s important, and I think that beach offering is something people want. Further afield, in the Maldives, Cheval Blanc is one of my favourite properties.

“In the UAE, Al Maha is something we would have our eye on, because you are making a conscious decision to go to a venue; you’re not looking for proximity. With Zaya Retreats, the beauty of it is you can go away somewhere secluded, and you can get back on the boat to go and watch a movie,” Gee explains.

While the hotel’s comp-set features well-established global brands, the identity for Zaya Retreats was created by the team as it went along.

“I’ve done a number of openings before, and what’s interesting about this is we’ve also written the brand while going through the process of the pre-opening phase. Normally you would take a brand framework and apply it to a space or build a space around it. We’ve almost done the reverse on this. We’ve had the space, and we’ve looked at how the space can be used in conjunction with the brand — what works, etc,” he says.

To create a hotel brand from scratch, Gee explains that the first order of business was building the team, and when choosing the hotel’s executive team, he looked for “structure, balance, and people that can make things happen. Also people that are quirky, that do things a little differently”.

“The key difference for me is with the team,” Gee says. “Everything that we do is geared around the ‘host’ [Zaya Retreats’ term for its staff]. We chose that word very specifically because we think it has resonance. We want people to feel welcome.”

Furthermore, Gee reveals that the company hasn’t advertised a single position. “There have been no advertisements for any positions on Nurai. Every person we’ve hired has been on personal recommendation and previous experience.

“This means there is an assumed skill set. We’ve tried where possible not to take people that have been too conditioned. We want people to be able to come and learn all over again. It’s important for us. We are a young team and there are a lot of young leaders on the team,” says Gee.

In keeping with building a new brand, the team is also betting on fresh graduates and young hoteliers, working with hotel schools such as Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management, Les Roches and Glion Institute to recruit interns.

Explaining the strategy, Zaya Retreats director of wellbeing Teresa Chandler says: “The strategy is to work with hotel schools, work with youngsters — they have great new ideas. We have interns from Emirates Academy, somebody from Glion and another person from Paris. So it’s interesting to see completely different styles and what they’ve been taught; we are really looking for people who are ready to just jump in and do something different.”

Gee says that the company currently has 12 interns making up nearly 20% of the team. “At that level, these are very talented individuals that have not yet been branded, they’ve not gone through this cookie cutter approach to hospitality that a lot of places provide, where they lose their perspective I think.

“We’ve encouraged them to come with a very open mind and we’ve given them tools. The results that they have come back with have been phenomenal. I’ve been very impressed with their abilities.”

Staff empowerment is also a practice the team promotes, with hosts having free reign to offer personal touches to make a guest’s stay memorable.

“It’s a sense of humour and a kind of liberalism that you wouldn’t get normally. We have a lot of structure behind that, in terms of process and systems and set up, but it allows the team to freestyle and interact with guests,” he asserts.

The team is also provided with tools to enhance skills across various departments. The internal Facebook page provides details on free e-books and courses as well as posts related to personal development.

Chandler explains how early on, Zaal initiated a monthly allowance of $15 per employee to purchase books to help develop their talents, saying: “You can choose something from self-development; the kitchen guys usually have a cooking book, and get to really explore. It has to be something everyone can benefit from, and so far we’ve got 100 books.”

Additionally, as director of wellbeing for the Zaya team, Chandler has introduced a number of initiatives, from morning tai chi and kickboxing classes, to green committees, bi-annual wellness days and monthly fitness challenges.

“Right now I’m doing one-on-one coaching with them. Every new employee gets a wellbeing session — talking about them, their families back home, their careers and personal goals, following up on them, setting smart goals,” she says.

The personal care approach to staff is also aimed at encouraging retention.

“The turnover in the UAE in particular is so high — companies I’ve worked in previously, it was as much as 25-30%. We don’t want that here,” Chandler explains.

“The family feeling that we have here is only going to get stronger. This brand I’m hoping is going to go global. And if we can actually sustain it, which I think we can, because the mindset of the people that come here… this culture has staying power because it doesn’t exist anywhere else and it resonates with people,” she enthuses.

Operating on an island, however, does offer certain challenges and it has been a learning process for the team, Gee admits.

“One issue is transport. Not for the guests — that’s the fun bit. But there’s a logistical opportunity. We need to bring a refrigerated van onto the island for produce. So we need to find a way to make that happen.

“And then it’s about building that relationship with suppliers where actually that can happen. Carl (Carl Stockenstrom, executive assistant manager — culinary, F&B) has been working very hard on building relationships with local producers.

“Power, water, the heat are all challenges. The layout of the island has been quite fun. I completely underestimated how many buggies we would need!” Gee laughs.

The company is also in the process of moving a team of 52 ‘hosts’ to live on the island. In the past, when Hotelier has spoken to island properties, one of the main challenges teams have had is keeping people interested and motivated to stay.

It’s an issue Chandler acknowledges, saying: “We’ll have lots of activities. We are only a 10-minute boat ride away from Saadiyat as well. There’s so much happening on Yas Island with the massive mall. Abu Dhabi is 20-25 minutes away. I’ve got a great budget to look after those things because we want to make sure [staff] are happy here,” he says.

Gee insists the team will enjoy a taste of island life, similar to how guests might, and this will come down to some extent, to staff accommodation. The island will include a mini version of a hotel for the residences along with a restaurant, floor-to-ceiling glass windows, hammocks, and palm trees.

With the property now in its final stages of pre-opening, Gee’s next priority is working on Zaya Retreats’ marketing strategy.

“One of the things that all stakeholders agree on, is that we are going to be singular in the messages that we go out with: quality, clean, barefoot luxury. We are no in no hurry to have people climbing over the walls to get in. We want to grow the experience.”

And Gee is certain the concept will resonate with its target audience as well as day visitors. “I really believe in the product: a boutique hotel brand, home-grown, not shy about using its locality as a huge USP. Brands come into the area and their positioning is their brand. For us it’s the other way around; we are here now and this is what we want to do,” he concludes.

Stat Attack

- 2 Speedboats to transport guests
- 700 Palm trees on the island
- 3.5mn ft2 Total size of Nurai Island
- 32 Berths in the marina
- 32 One-bedroom hotel villas
- 30 Nationalities employed by the hotel
- 12 Interns appointed by Zaya Retreats

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