GM interview: Ayman Gharib, Raffles Dubai

The GM of the seven-uear-old property tells Hotelier what it takes to create a classic

General manager, Ayman Gharib
General manager, Ayman Gharib

With 38% repeat guests, Raffles Dubai has tapped into a success story that has taken a lot of staff training, and a keen eye for changing trends. General manager of the seven-year-old property, Ayman Gharib, speaks to Hotelier Middle East about what it takes to create a classic

Visitors often wonder what the 19-storey pyramid-shaped property is as they pass it on their right during a taxi ride from Dubai International Airport towards Downtown Dubai. Raffles Dubai is still one of the most discernable hotels in the emirate, and that is saying something.

The interiors of the 2007-built property are immaculate. Gushing waters can be heard in the lobby, and well-dressed guests wander from behind pillars on their phones, or talk quietly in corners.

Ayman Gharib, the hotel’s young general manager welcomes me to the hotel for our interview, and looks uncertain when Hotelier’s photographer asks to take photos of him in the lobby. Gharib is reluctant, asserting that the hotel guests require privacy.

At first I’m taken aback by this, but a few minutes into our discussion, his reasoning becomes clear.

“What our guests look for is confidentiality, being discreet,” the Lebanese national explains.

“Sometimes I can have cousins staying here for a week not knowing they are both here.

“Firstly, the architecture of the hotel helps because it has three wings. So unless you really, by coincidence, meet in the lobby or the elevator, none of our colleagues are going to disclose any information, and that really has been an asset to this hotel, and is a reason for our repeat business.”

In 2014, 38% of business to the hotel was generated by repeat visitors, and this percentage has grown year-on-year from 33% in 2013, and 27% in 2012. Catering to the needs of regular guests is tantamount to ensuring their continued loyalty, and according to Gharib the regulars are crucial in an ever-competitive market.

While UK visitors make up a large proportion of guests, the US and France is growing, and business is also starting to come from the emerging markets of Nigeria and China. That said, 55% of guests are from the GCC, mostly coming from Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

“In the GCC, just like any other market, you have a certain niche of the market that is really up there and requires confidentiality, either because of their social status or because of security reasons,” explains Gharib.

“They want to spend time with their families when they come here and I think that’s one of the elements they keep in mind when they come back — that they’re going to have this time with their families.”

To ensure the high levels of service and discretion required by the hotel’s clientele, very particular staff training is required. For example, female guests require female butlers, and the waking habits of GCC guests during weekends, are among the first lessons taught.

Keeping in touch after a guest’s visit is also essential, and within the hotel’s third-party outlets, this is the responsibility of the restaurant manager, who coordinates with the hotel’s marketing team. Gharib explains that the restaurant manager will pick up the phone if a guest hasn’t been to the outlet in the past few weeks, and staff will always know the birthdays of regulars.

“One time a regular guest was in hospital and the restaurant manager and a couple of team members went along with flowers. We receive letters about these things, I think it’s very successful,” he explains.

Gharib, who has been working at the property since 2009 — first as EAM F&B, then hotel manager, before taking on the GM role in January 2014 — speaks very highly of his team, humbly attributing his success to them.

“You should always surround yourself with great people,” he says.

“I’m not a great GM, but I have a great team. I’m a first-time GM who would expect a lot of challenges.”

With a successful first year under his belt — averaging 75.3% occupancy and maintaining rates — Gharib is most proud of achieving 97% colleague satisfaction, which he says is the highest percentage for FRHI Hotels & Resorts in the region and one of the highest worldwide.

Gharib’s modesty with regards to his own achievements within the hotel, extends to his outlook regarding the Dubai hospitality landscape, which has changed considerably since Raffles Dubai opened eight years ago.

The hotel’s comp set is increasing each year, with the emergence of ultra-luxury properties such as Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, which opened last November, Starwood’s St. Regis coming in early 2016, and Mandarin Oriental’s first Middle East property, to open in 2017.

“I think these are great additions to the landscape of the city, and it’s great Dubai has a Four Seasons now — I hope that we learn from them. I do hope they catch some of the things we do well too, so that overall Dubai as a destination benefits.”

Another FRHI Hotels & Resorts luxury property, the 280-key Swissotel, is set to open in 2017 in the Al Jadaf district of the city. Gharib admits the hotel is likely to attract the same clientele as its sister property, Raffles Dubai.

“I could make the answer short and say it’s a different market, but it’s not. Supply is growing, you lose some, and you gain some. Dubai is very active, vibrant and ever-changing. Demand is still growing, albeit not to the same degree. Every year for the last 10 years, people have put question marks on Dubai’s growth and it still grew. In the middle of the crisis it was the fastest market to recover.

“They opened Dubai Mall and launched the metro and opened Burj Khalifa in the middle of the crisis, so this city is here to stay. A lot of professionals are still to come and stay before Expo 2020 so we’re about to see a burst of expertise coming, and it’s survival of the fittest.”

With this in mind, during his yearlong tenure as GM of the hotel, Gharib has spearheaded the overhaul two of the hotel’s F&B outlets. Fire & Ice steakhouse, an in-house concept, became third-party managed Solo Italian restaurant in December 2014, and so far the outlet has been receiving two-and-a-half times the volume of guests that it previously welcomed.

“If you look at the number of steakhouses in Dubai, it’s a lot — I counted around 47. How many of those are full? I wouldn’t say none, but it’s competitive,” says Gharib, explaining Italian food is generally more female-friendly and more widely popular.

Heading up the kitchen is chef and owning partner, Corrado Pani, an Italian national who has been in the region for more than 15 years and has Starwood, Marriott and Rotana on his CV.

“We didn’t want a celebrity chef coming from outside because it’s not a guaranteed formula for success as we’ve seen in other restaurants in Dubai. I wanted someone with local expertise, so that’s why we chose Corrado,” explains Gharib.

Raffles Garden was also refurbished and now features 10 cabanas that can each accommodate eight to 10 guests. The restaurant serves an Arabic menu and shisha and the large lawn has the capacity to host events for up to 600 guests for parties, or banquet set-ups seating up to 350 guests, which Gharbib describes as “a major revenue stream”.

Technological upgrades to the hotel’s 252 rooms have also recently been completed, and renovation plans are being discussed for the spa.

Outside of the property, Gharib is also confident that Healthcare City will re-emerge again in the future, and with recent additions to the area such as trendy Arabic eater Qbara and another French outlet La Residence opening soon, he is seeing the area evolve into a destination. The hotel’s night venue People by Crystal also attracts up to 1500 people each Friday night.

“Having more restaurants open in the Wafi area is better for us. Today it’s about having a destination and competition is always healthy. It’s not purely dollar-related and capturing dollar within this premises; Dubai is pretty dynamic.”

The hotel shares it database with Wafi Mall and vice-versa, and the hotel promotes some of the mall’s activities. “We’re not shy about telling people what’s happening in the complex because that makes us richer,” he says.

Additionally there are a number of hospital spas rumoured for the Healthcare City area, reflecting a burgeoning medical tourism sector. However Gharib believes it will take government support to make this happen.

“We will definitely need the support of different government bodies. It should be tempting for those entities to come from abroad and invest in Dubai.

“If that happens, we’re all going to benefit from it. You’re not going to travel alone to do a surgery, so that’s what we’re counting on.”

Gharib adds that Raffles Dubai’s location is in line with its offer.

“Being discreet you cannot be at the centre of it all and that has worked to our advantage.”

While the future of the area is uncertain, Gharib is confident he has tapped into the secret to a successful future — nurturing guest loyalty. This, he says, will require a focus on back-to-basics service, while keeping up with trends.

“If you combine these things, it will lead to one outcome — a high repeat guest ratio,” he states.

“Our goals is that Raffles Dubai ages to become a grande dame, like Raffles Singapore, or The Dorchester in London.

“We cannot say that now because Dubai is still a young city, but 25 years from now we want to continue the journey of privacy, taking care of the guests, discretion and top-level service, while at the same time making sure we invest in our product to guarantee this hotel ages nicely — that’s the long-term vision,” Gharib concludes.

Stat attack
2014 performance
75.3% Occupancy
AED 1450 ($394.76) Average Daily Rate / ARR
2.9 nights Average length of stay
AED 140 Million (US $38.11mn) Turnover (revenue)
AED 57.8 Million ($15.74) GOP (Gross operating profit)
69.6% % of turnover as room revenue
21.5% % of turnover as F&B revenue

2015 performance
77.3% Occupancy
AED 1590 ($432.87) Average Daily Rate / ARR
1.9 nights Average length of stay
AED 158 Million ($43.01mn) Turnover (revenue)
AED 65 Million ($17.7mn) GOP (Gross operating profit)
71.4% % of turnover as room revenue
19.4% % of turnover as F&B revenue

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