Celebrating 15 Years of Burj Al Arab
Landmark anniversary for what remains Dubai's most iconic hotel
The property that invented the notion of 'seven-star' luxury when it opened in December 1999 is arguably still Dubai’s most iconic hotel. This month, Burj Al Arab celebrates its 15th birthday and Hotelier Middle East pays a visit to congratulate the team, 43 of whom have been with the hotel since day one.
We ask not only how they plan to mark the occasion, but what their strategy is for continuing to uphold Jumeirah’s promise of delivering ‘the world’s most luxurious hotel’ as Dubai sees room numbers double in the lead up to the Dubai Expo 2020.
Sitting in the hotel’s Royal Suite, with spectacular views across Dubai’s skyline, the Arabian Sea and its ever-growing array of man-made islands, it’s easy to see why hotel manager Ammar Hilal insists it would be tough to move on from the epochal Burj Al Arab.
“I live it, I love it and it is very difficult to leave a hotel of this nature,” he comments. “It takes you a bit of time in the beginning to get used to the opulence of the hotel, but once you have really soaked it all in and absorbed it, it is very difficult to find something similar anywhere in the world.”
Hilal is now in his second spell at the iconic property, having re-joined in 2009 as hotel manager. Since the departure of former general manager Heinrich Morio in August, he has had overall responsibility for operations, and this will continue until a replacement is announced.
Hilal’s tenure at the top happens to coincide with an important landmark in the Burj Al Arab’s history; December 1 marks the 15th anniversary of its opening, and the team will be celebrating in a big way.
Aside from festivities on the day itself, including fireworks and a 3D display to be projected onto the side of the building, there will be a number of initiatives over the next 12 months.
A ‘Best of the Burj’ package will be offered to guests and this will feature a return airport transfer in a Rolls-Royce Phantom, a stay in a luxury suite, a six-course degustation menu at Al Mahara, the hotel’s signature restaurant, as well as a signature spa experience.
The team is also creating limited edition gift sets with long-term partner Hermès, and marking the anniversary with Make-a-Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses.
“Throughout 2015 we will grant 15 wishes to children from any country, whose dream is to visit and experience the Burj Al Arab,” explains Hilal.
“We will extend to them a two night stay for four guests, including breakfast and airport transportation.
“There are so many organisations and charities, but we thought that this was something that is very touching and
has emotional engagement.
“We all have dreams and some dreams come true and we want to make sure that for at least 15 kids who have life-threatening diseases that we can share some happiness with them and make sure they have a unique stay at our hotel.”
Hilal also discusses a project to mark the anniversary which would have a much more long-lasting impact.
“After 15 years of delivering the very finest in Arabian hospitality, we expect the anniversary year to bring a further major innovation, which may see the hotel develop an exclusive beach stretching out into the Arabian Gulf,” he says.
“In the meantime, our remarkable team of colleagues listen closely to what our guests are telling us and continue to design unforgettable experiences for them.”
Of those 1600 colleagues, 43 have been with the property since the opening day, and one of them is director of engineering Mounir Lakkis, who speaks emotionally about working at perhaps the most famous hotel in the world — and the kudos that comes with it.
“The moment you enter the building, crossing the bridge, it’s a new experience every day,” he explains. “It’s a memory, because when you come into this place, you feel the commitment you have on your shoulders. Working at the Burj is not just working; it becomes a lifestyle.”
“However you behave in the Burj, you automatically start behaving like that in the supermarket or on the street.
“You go to the traffic department or anywhere, and you can see people starting to smile. They appreciate that you work here — especially the Emiratis.
“For most of them it is a landmark for Dubai and they are proud of it. They look at you differently, which gives you more responsibility to behave to that standard.”
Of course, since the hotel first opened in 1999, the luxury hotel landscape has been completely transformed in Dubai, and the Burj Al Arab has an ever-increasing number of competitors ready to pry away its lucrative guests.
“Competition will always be there, and I always say that any hotel which has a suite that sells at our average suite rate is a competitor,” explains Hilal.
“That guest should be staying at this hotel if they can afford to pay the same amount in any other hotel in Dubai or anywhere in the world.
“We have a very dedicated team which is very focused on what the latest trends are. It’s not about copying; you can take a good idea from somebody, but you have to make it Burj Al Arab or Jumeirah.
“We watch our competition so that we can ensure that we stay ahead of it. You can learn a lot from your competitors and see how you can apply any greater idea or take it to the next level and make it fitting to the Burj Al Arab.
“It is important that you remain switched on and don’t lose the momentum for a single day at this hotel.
“Because if you do, the guests will notice. And your competition as well,” Hilal adds.
Riding the exponential growth of Dubai in its early years, Burj Al Arab had to weather the storm that was the global financial crisis.
Hilal returned to Dubai right in the middle of this period, and reflects on how it may have ultimately helped the hotel.
“During the recession a lot of our competitors dropped their prices and I will say that they dropped their quality,” he claims.
“Now when business gets better I think it is very difficult to justify suddenly increasing your prices while your quality pretty much remains the same. We very clearly took the decision that we would maintain our prices, as we compete on quality rather than price.
“We accepted a lower occupancy, but this was the right thing to do for the longevity of the hotel and for the type of guest that comes to this hotel,” he explains.
For the staff, there is an acceptance that a property claiming to be the most luxurious hotel in the world has to have services that live up to those standards.
On the frontline of delivering the ‘Burj experience’ is concierge manager Oscar Van Der Veen, who has in recent years become one of the public faces of the hotel and scooped up Concierge of the Year at the Hotelier Middle East Awards 2014 on October 29 (see p32 for the full report).
“Our guests expect something extraordinary from our hotel, be it the service of a butler, the smile of the doorman, or the Russian or Mandarin language assistance of our greeting hostess,” he says.
“Our guests also expect the highest quality and luxury — such as our Rolls-Royce Phantoms, the Hermès toiletries, the 24-karat gold dust on our cappuccinos or the 24-karat gold iPads. Our guests want the best in everything and it is our goal to deliver this each and every time.”
For Hilal, overseeing operations at the hotel, and for Lakkis, responsible for its upkeep aesthetically, their tasks would appear to pose significant challenges. However, both insist that they relish the need to continually strive for better to maintain the market position of the property.
“I take it as a challenge, not pressure,” comments Lakkis.
“I say it’s a positive challenge. Every single day we have to keep this momentum going,” he says.
“Being in such an incredible, fast-paced environment, this is what really makes you proud to be part of it. You feel as an individual that you are contributing to the success of this country, and this young nation, which has made an incredible achievement in the last 43 years.”
Lakkis goes even further, saying he doesn’t believe the huge tasks he faces are challenges, but rather something natural to the environment in which he works.
“A challenge is when you stop. This is the big challenge, the moment you stop thinking and stop creating something new.
“If you look at the growth of Dubai, you feel it is normal. We are expecting something new every day.”