New Opening: Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay
We find out how the "urban resort" will compete in the Bahraini market
The Four Seasons Hotel Bahrain Bay opened its doors in March, marking the luxury operator’s entry in the Bahrain market.
Located within the Bahrain Bay development in Manama, the hotel is housed in a 68-storey H-shaped structure, which sits on its own private island.
Leading the team at the 273-key property is general manager Greg Pirkle, who joined the property from Four Seasons Riyadh. The Four Seasons veteran has been with the company for more than 23 years, and has helped open four properties during the time, but the Four Seasons Bahrain Bay marks his first opening as general manager.
“I already had some Middle East experience, so when they asked me if I was willing to come and open the Four Seasons in Bahrain as the opening GM, I was very excited about the opportunity. It’s only a 3.5 hour drive, but it’s a world apart in many respects. A much more liberal country and a getaway for a lot of Saudis for the weekend,” Pirkle enthuses.
Pirkle is hoping to capitalise on his Saudi Arabian experience to help drive guest satisfaction at the hotel. Saudis account for over 80% of the hotel’s market, he reveals, with the Kingdom only a short drive over the causeway that connects the two countries.
“Culturally, just understanding the type of needs and desires that Saudis have and being culturally sensitive to certain things is a big help. However, it’s also about being wary that people do come here because they want to get away from Saudi for the weekend and being able to provide some of those facilities they can’t enjoy in Saudi — men and women can go to the pool together for instance,” Pirkle says.
While Saudi Arabia will remain the primary market for the hotel, the team hopes to attract travellers from other GCC countries and western markets.
“We are looking at predominantly the GCC — business travellers during the week and families during the weekends. Predominantly from Saudi Arabia, but we are also seeing an awful lot of traffic coming in from Kuwait, Qatar, and even some Emiratis. People from the UAE always have Dubai and Abu Dhabi in their backyard, but they actually like the escape to our little island here.
“We’ve had some traffic from Russia now with the direct flights from Moscow to Manama. We’re hoping to see more of that. As Russians begin to venture away from vacation sites like Dubai and the Maldives, they might want to give Bahrain a try,” Pirkle explains.
Like any new hotel, Four Seasons Bahrain Bay will compete aggressively with new and existing hotels in the city. “I think our number one competitor is the Ritz-Carlton. They’ve been around for a long time, they do a very nice job, and they’ve got a very good facility. The other hotels I would consider competitors in the market are the new Art Rotana, the Sofitel Bahrain Zallaq Thalassa Sea & Spa — also a resort — and for a city property it would be the Westin, which is right next door in the Seef area,” Pirkle says.
The market is still dealing with the slowdown following the uprising in Bahrain in 2011. However, Pirkle is quick to dismiss the notion, saying “some of it may have been over-hyped”.
“There is a lot of security presence, which gives people an extra sense of safety. I can talk to anyone on my staff and I believe they all feel very safe here. Our guests feel safe here. I think as a country it’s a very safe place to live. The skirmishes they do have are few and far between. It doesn’t affect the travelling public and I think things are even getting better,” Pirkle states.
An urban resort
A key component of Four Seasons Bahrain Bay’s marketing strategy includes positioning the hotel as an “urban resort”. “We are a city hotel, but we have our own private island, only one way on or off, or access by boat. We have an incredible spa and recreational facility here — four pools, a kids camp. So, when you look at all the aspects of the hotel, it is like a resort on the weekends,” Pirkle explains.
“For the vacationing families over the weekends it is about looking at who comes to Bahrain, why they come to Bahrain, and what can we offer here that’s different to other hotels? We had to set up the facility as guests would want by turning it into an urban resort, which we feel we are with all the resort aspects — spa, pools and activities to do at night.”
F&B is a big part of the hotel’s strategy, and it offers seven venues, including three concepts from celeb chef Wolfgang Puck.
“Our partnership with Wolfgang Puck has been very positive, having two of his restaurants and one of his lounges here. We are the only hotel company in the world that has three Wolfgang Puck operations within it,” Pirkle says.
In addition to Puck’s restaurants, the hotel includes: Bay View Lounge, a lobby lounge which is popular in its own right as a poolside dining venue; Vento; the all-day dining restaurant Bahrain Bay Kitchen (BBK); and a pool lounge that is gaining in popularity in the evenings.
While most concepts were determined when the hotel was signed, it was director of food & beverage George S. Safi’s responsibility to ensure they were successful.
“We know that our clientele will be mainly from GCC countries. So having the BBK is in response to their needs and what they want in terms of live cooking during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lobby lounges are very popular as well. We are short of seats — on the weekend you have a waiting list of a lot of people.
“Originally, we didn’t have a shisha place, but now we have a setup by Vento. It all started when a guest requested it, and now we do about 100 shisha covers every weekend. It’s a really nice set up,” Safi reveals.
The outlets have attracted a lot of Bahrain residents during the week, but particularly on the weekends.
“In Bahrain we have a lot of expats, so especially during midweek we really count on the corporate guests and the expats who dine out. At the end of the day, it’s a small country, but it’s good, healthy competition. In Bahrain you have the ability to open standalone restaurants and serve alcohol, so the competition is different to Dubai and Doha and other cities.
"We are lucky — we are the Four Seasons, and Bahrain is a small country. So people will come to us, and the task that we have is to make them keep coming back. When they feel they have value for what they are paying, they will continue to come back,” Safi explains.
For now, Safi says he is focused on keeping guests happy and tweaking concepts and menus to ensure the hotel builds a roster of repeat guests when it comes to the hotel's F&B venues.
“During an opening, when we talk about creating value, we let the guests tell us what they really want and what we are doing right and wrong. I can’t say we don’t look at the numbers in the first year, but this is not our main focus – that is to keep the guests happy and have them come back.”
Safi reveals the hotel is also looking at creating a rooftop bar concept, which is only in the planning stage at the moment.
“We have a nice space, but this is a longer- term project. I’ve just returned from the Four Seasons in Beirut and the rooftop they have is beautiful. I think we’ll be close to finalising it by the end of 2016 but I’m not sure whether we’ll open next year. It’s still just an idea we’d like to introduce,” he explains.
It’s clear when it comes to the team, the focus is entirely on guest satisfaction and offering a different experience.
“We have a very good property here. It’s a very small competitive set and I think the country was ready for another five-star hotel. I certainly believe it was. I think we opened at the right time. If you see the country year over year, occupancy is growing — growth is coming back since the 2011 drop in business. The airport is expanding right now, other hotels also developing, and there’s a lot of investment going on in the country.
"So, I think we opened at the right time, and I believe we added the right hotel offering the right service level,” Pirkle states.
“Bahrain Bay is a fantastic location. We are going to be a figurehead for this development, which is very nice. When other buildings and hotels get built around us, we will still be the focal point,” he adds.
George S. Safi, director of food & beverage: “In the gym we have some beautiful features. You can sync the equipment with a phone app to register all your activity on every machine so you can have a target for the week or the month, and use the app every time you use the gym. The Azure pool lounge is also a favourite — there’s a real difference between day and night. During the day it has very relaxing ambience for adults with no kids and in the evening it turns into kind of a nightclub.”
Greg Pirkle, general manager: “We are an iconic tower, and the quality of the finishing on the inside and the outside puts us on the map as one of the best Four Seasons, I believe. I’m happy that the owners were willing to really invest in the nicer things — from high-tech features in the guest rooms, to a wonderful ballroom space for weddings and corporate events.”
Mohammad Barakat, director of marketing: The infinity pool, because when you sit out there and look at the skyline, it’s very relaxing. I also really like the artwork around the hotel, and enjoy the Cut Lounge.
Cut by Wolfgang Puck: The American steakhouse from celeb chef Wolfgang Puck offers the widest and best selection of beef available. From prime dry- and wet-aged beef to shellfish and sautéed and roasted whole fresh fish, Cut’s menu provides broad appeal.
Re Asian Cuisine/Wolfgang Puck: Located on the 50th floor of the hotel, the restaurant offers Asian cuisine in an elegant, art deco-inspired setting, with beautiful views of the Manama skyline.
Bahrain Bay Kitchen: Located in the lower lobby, the hotel’s all-day dining restaurant features an international buffet for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. An open kitchen, active cooking stations and a sushi station add to the market-like atmosphere.
Vento: The poolside grill offers Mediterranean light fare prepared by the native Italian chef. A pool deck table offers cocktails prepared by mixologists, while a DJ plays lounge music in the evenings.
Bay View Lounge: The hotel’s lobby lounge serves light international fare or afternoon tea, with live piano music to set the atmosphere. An outdoor terrace and private Majlis can accommodate a business meeting or pre-dinner cocktails.
Blue Moon Lounge / Wolfgang Puck: The Morrocan design-inspired bar and lounge offers a bar menu of Asian nibbles complemented by a wide selection of custom-crafted cocktails.
Quality is of paramount importance for the F&B team at the hotel.
However, while the chefs all work on creating dishes that match international standards, George S. Safi says the team has struggled with supplier issues. “We feel when it comes to procurement, Bahrain is an island. I’ve always worked in big cities in the middle of Europe, where everything was available… and it’s difficult to get things over here. It’s complicated to shift things here. There’s a period during summer when you can’t ship things here because it’s very hot,” Safi says.
However, Safi is quick to defend his suppliers, “Since we entered the Bahrain market, suppliers have all been willing to listen, since this would be a big account for them.
“They’re flexible and want to help, but it’s still an island and they suffer as well. But luckily Dubai has everything and Saudi too, and they’re not too far so it’s easy to move things around.”
The lack of availability also increases food costs for the hotel. However, Safi is confident the team will manage this a lot better as time goes on.
He explains: “First, we just buy everything based on what the supplier offers, but we will tweak things eventually. We buy certain things in bulk, because the shipments are expensive.
“For example, when you do a pre-opening, you don’t have the resources or feel comfortable making your own products, like smoked salmon, for instance. We used to buy it smoked, but now we do it ourselves and that has cut the price significantly.”
The Four Seasons App
Developed based on guest insight and extensive testing, the app will provide services that guests have told Four Seasons they want. Some of those features include checking in and out with the app, negating the need to queue at reception, as well as reservation management and special requests. The app is a sort of catch-all travel and hotel app, and combines practical functions that guests consistently need, such as the ability to make and manage reservations in multiple cities and properties at the same time, special requests such as extra pillows, toiletries and more, room service orders straight from the app plus easy-to-book restaurant and spa reservations, golf tee times and leisure activities.
While some guests prefer a traditional hotel service, increasingly, guests want to use their mobile to do everything, especially in the GCC, which is one of the most mobile-saturated markets in the world.
Four Seasons also has plans to provide the app in additional languages in time, starting with Arabic.
At the Four Seasons Bahrain Bay, the app had been downloaded at least 100 times within the first two weeks of opening.