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Hotelier visits the first Anantara property in Qatar to find out what the fuss is about

One of the region’s most hotly anticipated properties - Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara - finally opened at the beginning of the year, marking the Minor Hotel Group’s debut in Qatar. Hotelier Middle East was among the first to visit the resort, to find out from its management team how they will create a landmark destination

From its exclusive location — 10km off the coast of Doha on a banana-shaped island accessible only by ferry — to its wide range of leisure facilities, including a bowling alley, cinema and diving centre, there is nothing generic about Banana Island Resort Doha by Anantara.

The subject of plenty of speculation in recent years, both around how it would turn out and when it would finally open, the resort has in many ways been emblematic of the intense ambition of the Qatari state, and accompanying doubts around its ability to become a tourism and hospitality powerhouse.

So, when speaking to the property’s resident manager, Amir Golbarg, one might think he would attempt to dampen the hype. Instead, his words only add weight to the expectations on the resort.

“This is a sacred property for the Emir [Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani]. I used to work in the Burj Al Arab, and this is the Burj Al Arab of Doha. And in terms of expense, there has been nothing spared to make this the best,” he says.

That expense — which Golbarg remains resolutely tight-lipped about — has yielded a property, covering all 120,000m2 of the island, which is more like a village.

Hotelier’s visit to the island came just weeks after the resort’s official January 1 opening, yet already Golbarg reports strong demand. Indeed, he insists that were the hotel to release all of its rooms, he could easily get 100% occupancy every day.

“There is so much demand for this property,” he enthuses. “That is obviously a good problem to have. But from our angle we drive on rate, not on occupancies. I want to deliver the best service. There is no hotel in the world geared up to run at a high percentage.

“They are always geared up for running at a certain percentage, but delivering exceptional service. That’s what this property wants. This property was not built just to maximise revenue streams. It was to create experiences for every guest.”

For the year, Golbarg is targeting an occupancy level of 50% and is also looking to build on a strong average daily rate, which he says is “way above the QR2000 (US $549) mark already”.

“From that angle I am looking at more villa and butler experiences. For a lot of the guests that come here, it is not about taking the standard room, it is about wanting the best, and equally we need to deliver the best. Most of the larger villas, especially with the private pools, are sold out,” he adds.

For many people looking at the island, it may well be defined by one fact: it does not serve alcohol. While that may fit in with the resort’s target market, which is predominantly GCC guests, it was nevertheless a concern for Golbarg when he joined.

“Before coming we all had a question mark,” he says. “But when you come you see the facilities and services, the last thing you need is a drink. Because you offer everything else that supplements it. So from my angle it makes perfect sense.

“A lot of the traditional form of hospitality is that you maximise profit streams through alcohol sales; it is a strong profit maker. However, if you want to cater to families and for other elements, alcohol doesn’t necessarily fit in. And if you look at how wealth is sitting in this part of the world, and the needs of the clientele, it makes sense to do it.”

And he insists that the resort is already seeing plenty of business from beyond that core GCC market, with visitors from Europe, as well as expats within Qatar.

“The mind-set would be that you would not attract westerners. However since we’ve opened our doors, we’ve received a lot of western guests. Why? Because it is not necessary that you need alcohol. This is a different type of getaway. This is a family style, or a wellbeing getaway.”

Responsibility for attracting those guests, wherever they come from, falls on director of sales and marketing Elias El Khoury. He will look to focus on promoting the resort as a family-friendly destination, while also supporting Qatar’s aim of becoming a world-class hub, with deep cultural roots.

“Our marketing strategy incorporates all key mediums from above the line to PR and social media activation to connect with our audiences,” he adds. “The campaigns highlight our USP and key distinguishing features that help position us with all members of the community, from young adventure enthusiasts to food connoisseurs and the relaxed holiday goers looking for tranquillity.”

Social media will certainly be a critical weapon in his marketing armoury, especially since the region has particularly high online penetration levels.

El Khoury comments: “Social media is one of our main channels for communicating with our target audience and it is part of our DNA for engaging both existing and new consumers. The sheer volume of engaged eyeballs with commercial intent cannot be ignored.”

And as food and beverage become increasingly important to hotels and resorts across the region, executive chef Muneir Al Sallaq’s role will be to make sure the F&B at Banana Island lives up to the expectations of both guests and walk-in customers.

Having joined during the construction phase, he details what stage the concepts were at and how they evolved once he was on board.

“When I joined I developed these concepts to an action, where I can put together the menu according to the
concept, according to the market availability from products. [The owner and Anantara] only told me the concept. Based on that I developed the menu, studying the market, finding out from suppliers what product they have. I also visited colleagues from other hotels here and saw what they have in terms of product challenges.”

Having himself previously worked in the Maldives, Golbarg sees similarities between that and Banana Island in terms of location, something which came into play during recruitment for the property.

“Most of our leaders, department heads and above, have worked in remote locations, in an island environment. Those are some of the prerequisites I look at. It’s very different operating in the Maldives than in a city.

“You have so many elements involved in a property like this; it’s not just geared towards the family. You have the family, then the spa experience, the wellness experience, the kids’ experience, the teens’ experience.

“So you want a team that can multi[task] and a team of specialists. What is the guest coming here for? You will have so many scenarios for guest experience here. So equally you need to have associates that are well quipped to cater for those individual needs.”

When Hotelier visited, the resort had 500 staff already, however Golbarg says he expects that figure to eventually rise to 700, or “nearly a Burj Al Arab ratio” [eight staff to one suite].

The comparison to the Dubai hotel speaks to the confidence Golbarg and the rest of the Banana Island team have; something that enables him to insist that the hotel will be peerless.

“Yes, you can say everyone has nice restaurants, et cetera, but nobody can deliver the facilities and services we have here, together with the recreational facilities.

“Not many properties have bowling alleys, cinemas, surf pools, golf courses and tennis courts. From that angle we’ve been blessed. We’ve been given a Rolls-Royce. The best of the best. Now it is about delivering.”

18 Anantara Suites, 85m²
34 SEA VIEW POOL VILLAS, 100-170 m²

Fact box
OWNER: Al Rayyan Hospitality
NUMBER OF KEYS: 141 units, including 26 suites and 45 villas

Holistic wellness centre
and indoor botanical garden
Anantara Signature Spa
Tennis court
800 metre-long private beach
Library and business centre
Four swimming pools totalling 10,000m²
Fully-equipped diving centre
Juzur Reef Conservation Centre
Private marina for up to 30 boats
Nine-hole golf putting course
Cool Mint Kids Club and Pepper Mint Teens Club
Entertainment centre including an eight-pin bowling alley and cinema
Fitness centre
Helicopter pad

The resort’s all-day dining outlet, with indoor and outdoor seating areas and offering a range of western, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines and chef’s signature dishes, with fresh fruit and vegetable juices, mocktails and gourmet coffees and teas.

A contemporary Italian trattoria offering lunches of pastas, salads and paninis and afternoon treats from the gelato and dolce display. Dinner features antipasti, fresh seafood and meat dishes, followed by imported cheeses and desserts.

Al Nahham
Arabic-Mediterranean cuisine, with views of the Doha skyline, and already proving to be the resort’s most popular outlet. Guests can relax on a water balcony and enjoy shisha.
A wellness and organic café located within the resort's Balance Wellness Centre, offering a selection of nutritious cuisine and drinks.

Q Lounge & Restaurant
The key feature of this outlet is a floating platform, which extends into the Arabian Sea. The menu features signature international tapas and mezze creations.
An American-style diner, located by the resort’s children’s and teens’ clubs. The menu features a 1kg burger challenge, which has already been attempted by a number of guests.

Lagoon Pool Bar
& Tanzerin Beach Grill
Both located on the beach and offering cool beverages and light snacks, such as burgers and salads.

F&B Focus
For many visitors to the island, its eight F&B outlets will be the only point of contact, and the resort is already getting up to 200 bookings a day from non-residents.

Director of food & beverage Max Loaiza insists the key element to the success of the operations will be front- and back-of-house working together closely, and communicating as one team, with the example being set at the top.
“It is a bit like marriage, the relationship between the executive chef and the F&B director,” he says.

“And you project that towards all your associates. So they understand that the exec chef and F&B director are getting along well, and they must do the same as chef de cuisine and restaurant manager for example.”
In terms of bringing in those chefs, executive chef Muneir Al Sallaq admits it was a challenge finding the talent with both the necessary skills and the experience.

“For opening you need people that are really experienced, that can help you to drive it fast,” he says. “You
don’t have time to teach people here during opening. You need people who are skilled and knowledgeable.

“After a year, you can start to do training with a different line of chefs. But at the beginning it is very important to select the right team.”

Once fully staffed, Loaiza expects to have 130 front-of-house and 110 back-of-house staff. And while he will have the flexibility to move staff around, he does not expect any issues with some restaurants becoming more popular than others. “At the moment, people don’t care where they come and eat, as long as they come and eat on the island,” he reveals.

“The first restaurant that gets booked up is Al Nahham. A lot of guests say, 'if it is fully booked, book me somewhere else'. That gives them the chance to try something else.”

As for remaining profitable, he insists the key is recognising what locals want. “In Qatar, I still have my favourite places I like to eat at, and some of those places have not changed their menus for four or five years,” he explains.

“That’s an indicator that the crowd here doesn’t like to see too many changes. If you have the right product, people will continue coming to you.” Al Sallaq remains confident that filling up the F&B outlets will not be an issue, also citing the excitement for the island among the local population.

“It is now our responsibility to make every restaurant, for every diner, an experience.”

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Published Date: 
Wednesday, March 18, 2015 - 11:11
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Modified Date: 
Wednesday, March 18, 2015 - 15:06
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