One of the world’s most famous golfers has teamed up with an experienced Dubai hotelier to set up a family hotel operator. Hotelier Middle East speaks to Ernie Els and Michael Scully about how they are looking to embrace a niche with First & Foremost Family Hotels.
Having a holiday with your family is still the best thing. It is such a special thing. I remember when I was 15 and had a good holiday. That sticks in your memory forever. So I know there’s a special bond you can have as a family, when you have a proper holiday, and you can have a proper resort or hotel for that. So that’s what we want to try and do.” – Ernie Els, co-founder, First & Foremost Family Hotels.
What links a four-time major championship-winning golf player, the former general manager of Westin and Le Méridien Mina Seyahi, and an Austrian hotel operator?
As guests invited to The Els Club Dubai recently discovered, the answer is a new hospitality venture: an operator which is looking to open hotels aimed at families — and particularly those with children aged 0-5 — first in the Middle East, then around the world.
First & Foremost Family Hotels is the brainchild of Michael Scully, a familiar name in the region’s hospitality scene, having headed up operations at the Mina Seyahi properties, and having been managing director hospitality at Seven Tides.
His latest venture is perhaps his most ambitious to date, and one that may mark a step-change in the hospitality landscape. Joining him in the venture are South African golfer Ernie Els and Leading Family Hotels & Resorts, which already operates family properties in Austria and Italy.
Speaking at the launch, Scully explained how, in the era of Airbnb and other peer-to-peer services, hotel operators needed to find a niche in order to stay competitive. He further argued that, by concentrating on the 0-5 age range, the hotels would not be at the mercy of school holidays, and would be able to maintain high levels of occupancy throughout the year.
“Your niche market is your key market,” he told Hotelier Middle East. “There are too many properties of the same ilk, offering the same product. Ultimately what we are always looking at is return on investment for our owners.
“We would be one of the safest bets for owners looking at investing in our types of properties, because we’re not at the risk of the likes of P2P buying, extra rooms coming up and the number of hotels coming online that are similar in kind of service.”
Readers of Hotelier Middle East may recognise the First & Foremost name and Scully’s idea of developing a family hotel, as he has been working on the concept now for at least the last two years.
It was never the plan to get a celebrity name on board, but rather the result of having a mutual riend. Nevertheless, he is already reaping the benefits of what he openly describes as “luck”.
“We just needed that one catalyst to take it off, and Ernie has been that catalyst,” Scully explains. “A tremendous amount of people follow and know him, and I’ve already had people contacting me saying they’ve worked with Ernie and they want to talk about the opportunity of working together.”
Els’ involvement is both financial and personal — the hotels will look to build on the work done by his foundation Els for Autism, with a number of rooms allocated in each property for families affected by autism.
Staff at the properties will be trained to understand the needs of children with autism, while the hotels will also aim to offer employment opportunities to adults on the autism spectrum.
Els explained to Hotelier how families like his — his son Ben is affected by the condition — often face problems on holidays and at hotels. “Parents of kids with autism have a real problem because the older the kids get, the louder they get, acting out becomes more of scene with big individuals. And people just think they are naughty children.
“For an autistic kid, who is severely affected by it, to get his point across to us normal folk, he feels he has to act out in a certain way.
“As people in the autism world we understand that, but people in the normal world don’t get it. In a hotel, restaurant, movie house, on the street, in a train, on a bus, public stuff, it’s tough for these people and they want to hide away.”
Having Els on board means there will be opportunities to leverage the power of his names and brands, including his golf design business, restaurants and wines. It is also already opening plenty of doors for Scully, who is the new company’s managing director.
“They don’t call him the ‘Big Easy’ for nothing. He’s humble and he’s got a true belief and reason for wanting to come on,” says Scully of Els.
“He’s not supporting this just because he thinks it’s a money-making venture. There’s a philanthropic side of it, which he is very involved in, and he realises we can provide the tools to spread the message for his foundation. He’s an absolute pleasure to have on board.”
Scully expects the first properties for the new brand to be in the Middle East, with the UAE and Egypt identified as markets where he is already seeing interest. “We are open to the region and we are already speaking to developers in these areas. We’ve got two prime plots in Dubai where owners are interested in coming on board with us,” adds Scully.
And, while five-star luxury will be the focus for the first few properties, mid-market options for families are already on the agenda.
“We’re initially starting with five-star, but we will be developing three- and four-star. [It’s] very much our objective. We just believe that our first prime and show-piece properties in the Middle East need to be five-star, but we will immediately be looking at three- and four-stars.”
A memorable stay in Dubai
While he may soon be coming up against them as a competitor, Els still had plenty of praise for the level of service at hotels in Dubai.
The event to launch the operator coincided with his visit to the emirate for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament, and the former world number one stayed at The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai.
It was a previous stay at this hotel in December, again coinciding with another important tournament, which left a particularly strong and lasting impression on Els.
“It was Thanksgiving in the US, and my daughter [Samantha] wanted to go to Key West and I wasn’t in the mood for that. So I said to her: ‘Why don’t you fly over here?’
“She flew over here to Dubai, [we] stayed another week and when we left everybody was in tears; the staff and us. It’s one of the best stays we’ve had, ever. Ben [his son, who has autism] was with us and the guys there are not trained for special needs stuff, but they just had this absolutely natural feeling for Ben, and Ben was very calm with them.
“It was the best holiday of his life, I believe. They took him down a slide and he just kept them busy all the time. On the beach, everywhere. These guys were basically running around. When I booked in this time, they asked ‘Where’s Ben? Where’s Samantha?’ That’s special.”