People: The St Regis Doha's Tareq Derbas

The St Regis Doha celebrates its fifth anniversary with plans to soften the brand

Tareq Derbas, The St. Regis Doha GM and area GM, Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
Tareq Derbas, The St. Regis Doha GM and area GM, Starwood Hotels & Resorts.

A generational shift is causing a rethink among luxury hotel brands about the presentation of services, as traditionalists and baby boomers give way to generations X, Y (Millennials) and Z (Centennials).

What felt smart and sophisticated for yesteryear’s guests can feel stuffy and restrictive for today’s travellers.

It is a challenge being met head-on in Doha by the hotel that carries the 113-year-old St. Regis brand synonymous with high society, butlers, red carpets and rituals, including afternoon tea, Bloody Marys and champagne sabering.

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The GM at the 336-key The St. Regis Doha, Tareq Derbas (also area general manager for Starwood Hotels & Resorts covering Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq) recalls that the guest experience could often be daunting. “For our welcome in reception, we had the red carpet with three butlers on each side. It looked like we were waiting for a head of state,” he jokes. “So we’ve softened that.”

He adds that when he launched his GM cocktail reception on Wednesday evenings, formal invitations hand-delivered by the butlers would make guests think they needed to buy a tuxedo to attend. “So we have made that a more casual, personalised invite,” says Derbas.

“Some people think butlers are just for the rich and famous. But we ask our butlers to go off the script, to just be themselves and tell guests ‘I am here for you’, and explain the services they offer.”

Derbas says that the worldwide St. Regis brand advisory board, on which he sits, is planning to make changes to the butler uniform to make it more fresh and dynamic,“with a nice suit and tie, rather than appearing as a servant”.

“Our clientele is changing so we are injecting more lifestyle elements into the brand,” he adds. “It was very stiff St. Regis New York-style and some people were intimidated by that. So in the past two or three years, we have started to soften the brand and create lifestyle relevance.”

Regarding F&B, for example, (and with 12 outlets, including Hakkasan, Opal by Gordon Ramsay and Al Sultan Brahim, a 750-person brunch venue and a 50:50 rooms/food revenue split, Derbas claims The St. Regis Doha is second to none) he notes that people are not into fine dining anymore. Now it is about casual dining, even for the corporate CEOs who frequent the hotel.

That is not to say that the rituals for which St. Regis has become known are no longer important. It is simply about knowing your guests, insists Derbas. “From Sunday to Thursday, we have corporate guests, and they have no time. But on the weekend and during holidays, our guests have all the time in the world, and the rituals — the Bloody Marys, champagne sabering, afternoon tea — and stories of Doha are something they look forward to.”

He continues: “At any given time over the weekend, we have 4,000 guests inside the building. So on the weekend, we change the atmosphere, and the way we come across to the guests. You’ll see us in suits during the week, but on Thursday we take the ties and jackets off. We have a kids’ station in the lobby with candy; and activities on the beach for the kids and teenagers.

“We take it easy — people all come in their shorts, so if we are wearing suits it doesn’t mesh well.

“Luxury doesn’t have to be stuffy,” Derbas insists.

There is nothing stuffy about The Rooftop, the hotel’s ‘urban terrace and lounge’ that “brings to Doha the urban chic of New York, Beirut and London”.

With resident and visiting DJs from the Ibiza club scene, “it is definitely for generation Y”, says Derbas. “Last weekend. we had French DJ Bob Sinclar, and 450 people on The Rooftop. It was a great buzz and lots of our neighbours complained!” he adds with a sense of pride. “That’s how you soften the brand.

“You must not settle with what you have but always come up with new ideas and concepts. We do need to keep our fundamentals, principles and passion but we also need to soften the messaging.”

The hotel’s fifth anniversary is a gift in that regard. “We want to create a buzz,” says Derbas, “but it is even more important for me to reward the team members. Almost 100 have been here from the start, out of a total staff of around 700. The ones who opened the hotel are very close to my heart. We will have a gala dinner on 26 March for all the staff and reward one-, two-, three-, four- and five-year service. I have been selecting the gifts for them — we will give them watches with their names and ‘St Regis Five-Year Anniversary’ engraved.”

The next day, the hotel will host a gala dinner for 450 local dignitaries and business leaders, at which Derbas will no doubt remind his guests that St. Regis Doha was recently named among the Top 100 hotels in the world at the Condé Nast Traveller 2016 Readers’ Awards.

“That’s one of our biggest accomplishments,” gushes Derbas. “You work your whole career for that achievement, and we made it.”

But Derbas is refusing to rest on those laurels, saying: “You strive to get there, but it is just as challenging to stay there. People will benchmark you with the top hotels and that is the challenge I give to myself and my team on a daily basis.”

“We are going for a level of service and value that is not available in the comp set. A lot of international brands are coming into Doha and there are more luxury rooms in the market. But the winner will be the one who stays focused on their guests and their demands, provides more value for money, and provides a premium service for a premium price.”

Derbas admits that there is an impact on the business from discounting in the market, but insists the the solution for The St. Regis Doha is not to drop its own rates, but to stimulate demand. “If the demand is not there, you are just leaving money on the table,” he cautions.

He is equally dismissive of four- or five-star hotels posing as luxury brands. “If you are in the Champions League, play in the Champions League. If not, play in your own league.

“You should not position yourself as a luxury hotel but sell as a five-star. You are not doing yourself any favours. I’ve seen four- or five-star hotels in Doha offering butlers and Rolls Royce drop-off services. But you cannot put it to the market that you are offering the same facilities and services as me and then sell at half my rate.”

Although Derbas admits that 2016 was soft and 2017 is unlikely to improve until Q4, he says: “What is so great about the owners of The St. Regis Doha [Alfardan Group] is that they understand this is a long-term investment. They are building equity for the future. We are fortunate that our owners are the icon of luxury in Doha. They understand luxury more than we do, so it is a privilege dealing with them. The feedback we get from them is something you wouldn’t get from any other owner in the region.”

According to Derbas, creativity is encouraged in all areas of the hotel and from all levels of staff. He says: “I host a GM’s table every Monday — the staff, they come for lunch. They love it — they get to know me personally and we talk about our families. That brings us closer together, and then we talk about their ideas. They feed me with all their lovely ideas.

“I may have 25 years’ experience but they have 2,500 years’ experience.”

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