New Opening: Sheraton Grand Hotel, Dubai
How will Starwood's new flagship property in the region stand out?
Hotelier Middle East visits the newly-opened Sheraton Grand Hotel, Dubai to speak to the team about how Starwood’s Middle East flagship property will stand out from the crowd on the busiest street in the UAE
Starwood Hotels and Resorts opened the company’s regional flagship property — Sheraton Grand Hotel, Dubai — on Sheikh Zayed Road in November 2014. The five-star 654-key hotel includes 180 branded apartments, and an additional 510 residences, and part of the complex is an office tower. Initially just 180 of the units were open, and 450 more went online by the end of 2014, with the remaining 24 to open this year.
Leading the team through the pre-opening and soft-opening process is general manager Heinz F. Grub, who was previously general manager at Sheraton Dubai Creek Hotel. The hotel shut down for renovation in July 2013, and Grub joined Sheraton Grand in December 2013.
Given its Sheikh Zayed Road location, and proximity to Dubai World Trade Centre, the hotel’s target market is clear, director of sales Ramon Von Schukkmann says. “Predominantly, our guests will be corporate and business travellers.
We think the major part of our business will be individual corporate travel and within that, we have a niche market, which is the long-stay segment. We have 180 apartments — fully serviced, with 100 one-bedroom apartments. So we specifically target corporate customers who want to stay a bit longer — anything between one month and a year,” he explains.
MICE and groups will also be a focus for the hotel, especially during trade shows and conferences at the convention centre, Schuckmann explains, referring to the two-storey ballroom and six meeting rooms.
“This is the first Starwood property within walking distance from the Trade Centre, so there is a big target on groups,” he explains.
The hotel will also appeal to a small number of leisure travellers, in particular those with short stopovers in the city who do not require a beach or mall location, but would still prefer to be in close proximity to the city’s major attractions.
Being one of the larger properties in Dubai, especially along the already busy Sheikh Zayed Road strip, Grub acknowledges the team has quite a task ahead to fill rooms, however he thinks the hotel won’t be far behind its competitors by the end of the year.
“We believe we will have about 93% of our comp set by year-end 2015. Because you’re ramping up, you won’t be having a full hotel right off the bat; you’re establishing yourself in the market, and the market share is your ultimate measurement in any marketplace.”
The comp set Grub refers to includes several other five-star business hotels quite literally down the road, including Conrad Dubai, Fairmont Dubai, Radisson Royal Hotel, and Shangri-La Hotel, Dubai.
Sheraton Grand’s quiet opening in the middle of the busy season has not gone unnoticed, but Grub insists the team did not launch any marketing campaigns until they were certain that “we have the right opening date, or we have an opening date we can meet”.
When asked about the possibility of missing out on capturing guests due to this low profile, Grub seems unfazed, stating: “In order to do this, we would have had to have the hotel open in July. But we did not feel it was ready to open in July; the product and the service weren’t ready. I think we did the right thing by opening in the middle of Q4, when you still capture the first quarter  market — you still have an upward trend until the beginning of May.”
“This project has been around for a while. Construction started four-and-a-half years ago, so to then delay the opening even longer for the sake of it being a better time to start in February or in September doesn’t make any sense,” he explains.
Saying this, Schukkmann admits it would have been easier for his team if the hotel had opened at a different time.
“I would have preferred to open the hotel in August or September because a lot of the RFP of corporate contracts are done in September or October and a lot of the corporate accounts don’t accept any offers if you’re not open yet.
“So you lose a year of being on the hotel programme list of Barclay’s for instance, if they have 5000 room nights to give, but that’s the way it is.”
Schukkmann remains optimistic, however, pointing to the New Year and upcoming trade shows, namely Gulfood and Arabian Travel Market, both of which run for a week and are among the biggest shows DWTC hosts.
“So yes, we do add 33% to the inventory, but let’s not forget there is an influx of visitors coming into Dubai as well. The Trade Centre is showing a double-digit increase year-on-year, so having another luxury or five-star hotel on this strip, I think, is a plus for the city.”
To ensure a successful launch, the team has mapped out an aggressive sales strategy. Tactical offers have been launched, with discounts on rooms based on advanced purchase. Offers tag on free Wi-Fi, welcome cocktails, and upgrades, in addition to rates promotions.
“We are going literally from having 20 occupied rooms today, which is a very low percentage, to in a year’s time what our comp set is doing on average. Our concept and target market is similar to others on this strip and we are adding 33% more rooms to that comp set. So there will be a shockwave, and this will again stabilise,” Schukkmann says.
While he does not reveal the hotel’s introductory offer, a quick scan of rates shows how it will compete with its neighbours initially.
Rooms at Sheraton Grand currently start at AED 738 (US $200) per night for the week beginning January 4, compared to Conrad Dubai’s AED 1200 ($326), Shangri-La’s AED 1145 ($311) and Fairmont Dubai’s AED 1199 ($326).
Sheraton Grand is also turning to digital marketing and social media to promote the hotel. “Today, from a Starwood perspective, we place a tremendous emphasis on digital marketing. What we do at Starwood is ‘owning’ the guests. We have developed apps and other digital media campaigns and activities to ‘own’ the customer and drive that customer into our hotels,” Grub says.
Equally important is Starwood’s loyalty programme, Starwood Preferred Guest, which continues to evolve.
“We have a loyalty programme not just for stays but also guests that make bookings with us. There’s already a very big database of very engaged bookers that are loyal to Starwood,” Schukkmann explains. In October, the company introduced SPG Pro, an extension and consolidation of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) scheme, which adds value to corporate bookers.
With SPG Pro, corporate and leisure guests can accumulate points and benefit from rewards for every type of visit under the same umbrella.
The team is also preparing for the inevitable downturn in business over the summer months, and is working with other Starwood properties to package holidays and target long-stay guests.
“We’ll have exactly the right number of rooms during Big 5, Gulfood… no problem! But after May to the middle of September, how well we do then will be the challenge,” Schukkmann states.
To combat the summer slump, the team at the hotel is working with sister properties in Ajman and other emirates to package deals that bring in guests during low periods in both emirates.
The team is also focusing on the long-stay segment, specifically bookings for stays of up to a year.
“Maybe in the future there will be an airline crew… the airport is 15 minutes away. So when the corporate club rooms are not used anymore and the group business is not there anymore from the World Trade Centre, our focus goes more on using the apartments, using the rooms for leisure guests on a stopover. We are making arrangements with some of the operators who do the pre- and the post-date bookings for cruise ships here as well,” he says.
To hire staff for the hotel, Grub explains the team had to use a recruitment strategy adapted to the large size of the operation.
“It’s a 654-room hotel, which is different from a 350-room hotel. So you need different skill sets and that is how we picked the team — based on the concept and the skill set needed,” he says.
Grub reveals 90% of the executive team came from within Starwood Hotels & Resorts, and once on board, the team moved on to hiring the remaining 420 associates, a number that will increase to 580 when the hotel is fully open.
While 25-30% of the staff came from the UAE from within Starwood or other hotels in the country, the rest were hired via Skype interviews and some during international recruitment trips.
Candidates were then required to run through tests to assess their skills and attitudes before signing an employment contract.
Once associates began arriving at the hotel, they went through a three-day ‘on-boarding’ process, where they were taught the hotel’s philosophy and what the management expects from them. Associates also received social ‘on-boarding’ on life in the UAE, and its culture and laws. Training then moved on to job-specific issues and testing.
“For all these steps we had tests, and I was very proud when I saw that over 50% of our associates scored 95 or higher out of a 100. So we must have done a really good job selecting people,” Grub says.
Every individual has a training passport that shows which subjects they have been trained in and what their score was. And all that training and development and measurement will then be used to further develop the individual.
“After three months, we have a chat with the associate and show them where they came from, how well they did and the areas that still need work. After five-and-a-half months, we then see whether we still want to work together.
“After nine months of positive performance, we sit down with the individual and tell them we think they have great potential, we explain the next step and how we are going to help them further their career in a specific field,” he explains.
Staff empowerment is also an important area of focus during the training process.
“You cannot ‘own’ a guest in Starwood without staff empowerment. The worst thing you can do when you talk about empowerment is say, ‘you are a waiter; if a guest complains, you can only offer her a glass of wine’, or say the same to a restaurant manager for two glasses of wine,” Grub explains.
As such, the associates are given free rein to respond to guest complaints within measure, to ensure customer satisfaction.
“How many guests do you have that complain? I read a statistic that said if you run a good operation, you have maybe 1.5-2% complaints.
“So if you have 1000 guests, and 2% complaints, you have 20 complaints. If these 20 people walk away happily, and you give each one of them a night free, that’s AED 20,000 ($5444). If they come back, you have made your money back.”