CEO interview: Abdulla bin Sulayem

Seven Tides CEO talks shaking and stirring up business with Dukes London, Seven Tides and a new Dubai project

Seven Tides CEO, Abdulla bin Sulayem
Seven Tides CEO, Abdulla bin Sulayem

A heavyweight in the competitive UK capital with Dukes London, Seven Tides CEO Abdulla Bin Sulayem tells Hotelier Middle East why he is ready to come out of his corner and take on the Dubai market with the firm’s first internationally-operated property, Dukes Oceana, Dubai

“Shaken, not stirred” is the line that made Dukes London famous. The signature outlet of the 90-room boutique hotel in London’s Mayfair was frequented by Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. Fleming was reportedly so inspired by the Dukes Bar Martini, that it became the drink of choice of his iconic protagonist.

The hotel was acquired by Emirati property developer and holding company Seven Tides in 2006, and in 2010 the firm withdrew from its management agreement with CampbellGray Hotels, to begin operating the hotel independently.

While Seven Tides owns Anantara Dubai The Palm Resort & Spa, Mövenpick Hotel Deira and Mövenpick Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel Dubai, Dukes London was up until now the only property both owned and managed by the company.

Today, CEO of the family business, Abdulla Bin Sulayem is ready to bring the ‘quintessentially British’ Dukes Collection brand to the Middle East with Dukes Oceana, Dubai, located on Palm Jumeirah. The five-star hotel is three times the size of the London property with 273 rooms, and another 227 keys are housed in the adjacent serviced apartment building.

Despite this, Bin Sulayem is adamant the hotel will preserve the boutique feel of Dukes London. “People walk into Dukes London and they think it’s a 30-room hotel when it’s actually 90 rooms and that’s exactly what we want people to feel in Dukes Oceana, so there are going to be lots of cosy areas.”

The hotel will feature a private beach, indoor pool, outdoor infinity pool, a gym, and a number of British-themed restaurants.

These will comprise the Great British Restaurant (GBR) serving modern British brasserie-style cuisine, a traditional fish and chips café located on the promenade with views across the ocean to Dubai Marina and JBR Walk, and an Asian restaurant on the top floor of the hotel, with the concept yet to be confirmed.

Additionally, the hotel will have its signature F&B outlets from Dukes London. These include Dukes Bar, the Champagne Lounge for afternoon tea or light dining, and the al fresco Cigar and Coffee Lounge.

The hotel’s four meeting rooms will also be London-themed; The St. James Suite, The Victoria, The Piccadilly, and The Chelsea. “We want to create the feeling when people come in that they’re not just walking into any hotel.
They will recognise that quintessentially British welcome and service detail,” says Bin Sulayem. Standing out amongst peers is, according to the young CEO, crucial when starting up in such a sought-after location as the trunk of Palm Jumeirah, next to Fairmont The Palm, and near other tough competitors.

“Being on The Palm means nothing if you don’t stand out,” he says.

“Today is a challenging market in hospitality or property. You need to be different, and we, in all of our projects need to ensure we stand out from our competitors in terms of design, in terms of service offering.”
Having already been successful in the cutthroat market of London, Bin Sulayem is confident Dukes will work in Dubai.

“If you’ve got quality in London, it’s well-known that you can deliver that anywhere around the world,” he asserts.

“It’s a platform for performance. They always say that London is a theatre; if you can break it in London, you can break it anywhere else in the world.

“London is a tough market; there are a lot of hotels, but if you have the right location that’s a big success — and then we also have a great team.”

At the helm of the operations of Dukes London is general manager Debrah Dhugga, who reports into Bin Sulayem directly. Having been in her GM role since 2009, Dhugga is now to oversee Dukes London and Dukes Oceana as managing director.

Part of her remit will involve ensuring the correct implementation of the Dukes brand at the Dubai property, while continuing to be very hands-on at the London location. Currently general managers for Dukes Oceana are being shortlisted and Bin Sulayem expects to have the full ExCom on board by October 2015, with the hotel to be up and running in quarter one of 2016.

With 500 staff to recruit across the hotel and serviced apartments, the team has a big job ahead, however with “CVs flowing in”, Bin Sulayem claims he is “well down the road now”.

While British candidates have shown interest, he expects the workforce to be international, just as with most properties in the region. However, being Emirati himself, he is keen to see more UAE locals enter the hospitality side of the company.

“I would obviously prefer to promote and encourage Emiratis in terms of recruitment, but at the same time I would not risk delaying anything for the sake of that.”

The training process will combine staff from the London property coming to Dubai to share their knowledge with new recruits, as well as familiarisation trips to Dukes London so that Dubai staff can “see and feel what the Dukes delivery is all about”.

The team is looking to attract a similar market mix on Palm Jumeirah as it does to London’s Mayfair property, this being largely North American, German and Russian high-end leisure and corporate guests. However, with Palm Jumeirah being typically a leisure destination, the team will have to implement some extra measures to ensure the hotel doesn’t lose its classic British feel by becoming purely a beach resort.

“It will be a very chic hotel, not an on-trend hotel. We want it to be classic; a hotel for grown-ups. When they go to Dukes Bar we will have dress codes, people won’t be in beach wear. It will be a place to go out in the evening,” says Bin Sulayem.

Being close to Sheikh Zayed Road and Dubai Media City will help to attract a share of corporate guests he believes, while the meeting rooms and terrace area will be suitable for small weddings and corporate events, and so the MICE market will be targeted to an extent.

While still in his early thirties, Bin Sulayem has endured his share of challenges as CEO of Seven Tides, and is conscious that controlling the financials was imperative to his family’s first hotel venture; Mövenpick Ibn Battuta Gate Hotel Dubai, which opened in 2010.

“We were fortunate enough to have the right team to advise us so that everything went smoothly, but I have other friends and colleagues who have opened hotels and I know what they faced,” he states, asserting that for new hoteliers to the region, the most important advice he would offer would be to “really study the costs”, while at the same time taking “calculated risks”.

“You don’t have to be emotionally attached to things at the hotel; if something isn’t working you have to have the flexibility to change it and adapt to generate further business,” he adds.

Having joined Seven Tides as CEO in 2011 in the midst of the global recession, Bin Sulayem faced uncertainties regarding the management of Royal Amwaj Resort, which was completed in 2010 and is now Anantara Dubai The Palm Resort & Spa.

A management agreement with Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts came to an amicable end in 2012, and it wasn’t until early 2013 that Seven Tides signed a deal with Minor Hotel Group, the CEO of which is named as one of Bin Sulayem’s top five inspirations (see box).

The 293-room hotel was flagged Anantara Dubai The Palm Resort & Spa soon thereafter in September 2013, along with the 456-key Anantara Apartments. Having the resort open on time is something Bin Sulayem considers one of his key achievements to date. “During the crisis, we changed our strategy,” he explains.

“We focused on what was quicker to open and run, and we kept the rest on hold. My strategy was ‘let’s finish Anantara, then focus on starting with the Oceana property’.”

The Anantara Apartments were released just after the hotel in 2013, and marked the first operated serviced apartment property for Seven Tides.

In February of this year, the company achieved one of the highest rates so far for the apartments, selling one for AED 3980 (US $1083) per ft2. The serviced apartment element is now something Bin Sulayem vowes will be part of all Dukes properties.

“We’ve noticed it’s a very successful way of doing [serviced apartments]. You cater to a different market; people that want an investment rather than just a piece of real estate. It becomes a more attractive income-generating asset for the investor, and also being associated with a hotel and hotel brand offers additional facilities you wouldn’t get in normal residential apartments,” he says.

Dukes Oceana one- and two-bed apartments are targeted at the regional and international investment community, with Seven Tides guaranteeing a return on investment (ROI) of 10% per annum for the first five years. Sold as fully-furnished freehold residences, the 185 studios and 42 one-bedroom apartments range in size from 256-656 ft2 (studios) and 782-834 ft2 (one-bedroom apartments).

Prices start from AED 760,000 ($206,906.90) for a studio, with a one-bedroom apartment commanding up to AED 2.5 million ($680,614.80).

And while Bin Sulayem is very positive about Seven Tides’ relationship with Minor Hotel Group, he is confident that all future properties will be self-managed.

“We are running a very successful relationship that we’re extremely comfortable with,” he explains.

“But moving forward with all of our hotels, we’ll start to operate them ourselves. You can efficiently manage the hotel, you have more flexibility with doing things, trying things.”

In fact, Seven Tides already has another property on the horizon for Dubai, and Bin Sulayem admits this will “most likely” be another Dukes project.

In addition to this, an international property is being considered. “We’re looking at different options. It will probably be the Maldives or Seychelles or somewhere like that,” he unveils.

Meanwhile, he isn’t ruling out further European projects, and even another one in London. “For the long-term future of the company, I’d like to develop more resorts in Dubai and internationally,” he reveals.

“Our mid-term plans include expanding our hospitality sector in Europe. We’ve had Dukes since 2010. We always thought that maybe in other major cities in Europe we would have another Dukes.

“But that’s not to say we might not have a different property in London. London to me is the safest and most dominant market in all of Europe — I believe that. That is why values always go up there; it’s confidence.”

While the company’s luxury portfolio will always be under the Dukes brand going forward, Bin Sulayem hints that Seven Tides would also look into developing a three- or four- star brand, or even a two-star if there was scope for this.

“I’m going to push on the three-star,” heasserts. “We have existing properties that we’ll convert in the future to three-star hotels. There’s a big market and the government is promoting this by waiving fees, offering pre-approved designs. I see there is big potential,” he asserts.

Bin Sulayem currently doesn’t have any targets in terms of operating portfolio by 2017, or indeed 2020, claiming “once I build my machine, we’ll start talking about that”.

Grateful for the support offered by the Dubai government, to investors in particular, Bin Sulayem expresses his admiration for the work of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

“We have faith in the government, it’s always supporting us and we have full respect for our leaders,” he comments, adding, “I’m not saying that just because I’m Emirati!”

“Sheikh Mohammed has an excellent vision. The airport has been expanding even since the peak of the crisis, they’ve managed to deliver other terminals, they’ve opened Al Maktoum International Airport.

“So we have full confidence in our leaders; they will break any boundaries to achieve the vision, and this is to the benefit of all investors in Dubai,” he remarks, candidly.

And while many have voiced concerns over whether there is too much supply coming onto the market in preparation for Expo 2020, Bin Sulayem expresses quiet confidence about the future of Dubai's hospitality landscape.

“The government is already thinking of different activities beyond Expo 2020 to keep up the momentum,” he says.
“Dubai is a trading hub, it is well known for its hospitality and will continue to grow, to push, and to come up with ideas.

“Everyone asks me what happens after Expo 2020. I say: ‘this is Dubai!’”

The people who inspire me

Abdulla Bin Sulayem is an inspiration to many in the industry, but who has spurred him to success?
H.H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum: You have other countries and cities that are trying to do what Dubai is doing and with all honesty, that one man with his team created something out of nothing.

He gave so much support to the people he put in place, creating Emirates airline, a brand that competes internationally, and Jumeirah Group, which offers high-end luxury hospitality. Having the courage to achieve that, he’s done an excellent job. I’m really inspired — I don’t see that happening anywhere in the future in any other city.

Elon Musk, founder, CEO, Space Exploration Technologies Corp: Musk is the creator of Tesla Motors, an American company that designs, manufactures, and sells electric cars. They are very popular in the US and have changed the way people approach cars.

They’re not so popular [in the Middle East] but once they have a presence this might change. He created a brand of car that never existed and is competing with the major cars that took years of design to reach where they are today.

Bill Heinecke, chairman and CEO, Minor International: Minor has achieved a lot so far, it’s just mind blowing to see what they can achieve in one year, and I don’t think that’s easy.

Bill started the company from scratch, and Minor today owns Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, Thailand, St. Regis Bangkok etc. They also created the Anantara brand, which became a high-end resort brand in such a short period of time.

Steve Jobs, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc,: He really changed the way people see things and you could have consultants saying ‘this is the right way to do things’ and then he’ll find a more convenient way with a totally different approach.

Warren Buffet, business magnate: One person that has inspired me during my career in business is US investor Warren Buffet. He was ranked the world’s wealthiest person in 2008 and was named by Time magazine in 2012 as one of the world’s most influential people. However, despite being a self-made billionaire, he still lives in the same house he bought for $31,500 in 1957 and has pledged to give away 99% of his fortune to charity.

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