Morocco's riad market soars

Independent owners are cashing in on the Moroccan market's love-affair with the Riad, discovers Jennifer Evans - and the sudden influx of big name brands is only serving to increase business

Cultural decorative elements such as calligraphy have been employed throughout Riad Ana Yela
Cultural decorative elements such as calligraphy have been employed throughout Riad Ana Yela

Independent owners are cashing in on the Moroccan market's love-affair with the Riad, discovers Jennifer Evans - and the sudden influx of big name brands is only serving to increase business.

Despite large investment by industry behemoths such as Kingdom Hotel Investments, Dubai Holdings and Qatari Diar, the Moroccan independent hotel market is flourishing due to a boom in the popularity of riads.

Investors in these traditional Moroccan houses include Germans, French, Spanish and American owners, with estimates that an initial investment of 80,000 to 1.5 million Euros (US $115,000 - $2.1 million) can return a 15% to 20% profit margin within 12 months of purchase.

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The trend has caught on like wildfire and riads located in the country's imperial cities of Marrakech, Fes, Meknes and Essaouira now number in the thousands.

These boutique 'resort alternatives', comprising from around five to 25 rooms, have proved an attractive alternative to larger mass-booked luxury hotel chains that are more often than not inconveniently located.

New York-based interior designer Thomas Hays purchased Riad Meriem - an art deco-inspired 18th Century riad located in Marrakech's old walled city - in 2006.

"It was clear to me that if you're going to build and develop the medina is what it's all about," he explained.

"The only way to experience Marrakech is in a riad in the medina.

"You're in the maelstrom of the medina, with the storytellers and snakecharmers. You can still feel at home [in a riad] but part of the vibe. It's an evocative, organic escapist experience."

Riad Ana Yela manager and host Sandra Wittlinger said the success of the 300-year-old riad - owned by German designer Bernd Kolb - was a product of the one-of-a-kind experience available, and the excitement it offered guests.

"People love that the riad feels like a home," she added. "It's a special kind of place that gives you goosebumps."

And with guests spending between 150-500 Euros ($216-$722) for the high-end riad product, tourists have backed their enthusiasm for the riad with increased bookings.

With Morocco's tourism and hotel sectors flourishing thanks to King Mohammed VI's Vision 2010 which aims to attract 10 million visitors by 2010, the region's big hotel industry players have arrived to stake their claim.

And despite the influx of foreign investment capital for mega-projects in Morocco, riad owners are welcoming their new neighbours as a source of much-needed publicity and friendly competition.

Riad Meriem manager Cyrus Bozorgmehr said projects with international operators were unlikely to decrease demand for riad-style products. "The kind of people that riads attract will continue to come," he said.

"Actually it's great [international operators are coming] because the larger corporations are doing the [PR campaigns] for Marrakech.

"The key word with us is intimacy. Hotels are impersonal. However great it is, you'll never really feel it's a home away from home."

Kolb agreed: "The big hotels outside the medina are sometimes beautiful but [they] are too far away from the heart of Marrakech - [and] you can find these places all over the world".

While the international operators may be attracting greater visitor numbers to the destination, riad owners are also ensuring their property stands out from the crowd.

Bozorgmehr said each riad needed a website "that sets you apart from the pack", with features such as full-colour photography, virtual tours and music.

But despite advances in technology, the best marketing remains word-of-mouth from satisfied guests, according to Bozorgmehr.

"When you are this small, reputation is key," he said. "I want [guests] to leave happy."

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