Site Visit: Reinvention in Ras Al Khaimah

Hilton Garden Inn Ras Al Khaimah's rebranding narrative goes beyond a surface make-over

Hilton Garden Inn Ras Al Khaimah.
Hilton Garden Inn Ras Al Khaimah.

On the eve of pre-opening simulations and a full eight days before opening on 15 May, Hilton Garden Inn general manager Remmie de Graaf is projecting unbridled optimism and nervous excitement when Hotelier Express catches up for a chat with the Dutch hotelier in the measured calm of his hotel lobby.

“We’re now moving from pre-opening mode to having an actual operations mindset; as of tomorrow, everyone will start working in shifts, getting into the rhythm of things. And when you get into the rhythm, you’ll find that there might be some challenges that you’ll encounter in the operating procedures, which looked fine on paper but the reality sometimes shows a difference, so this is the time to be addressing them,” he says.

He enthuses about Hilton Garden Inn’s timely entry into Ras Al Khaimah, which, as a destination, has been better known to favour luxury product offerings.

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“Ras Al Khaimah as a destination is very well covered when it comes to the five-star and five-star plus segment. If you also look at Hilton’s growth here, we’ve got two Hilton hotels and the Waldorf Astoria – it’s been in the luxury, upper upscale segment. Now, with the Hilton Garden Inn, we’re going to enter the mid-scale segment which will allow us, from the Hilton perspective, to cover all the markets, from a four-star, four-star plus segment to the really exclusive, top luxury market.”

Hilton’s latest shrewd move is also aligned with the authorities’ recent thrust into growing the emirate’s mid-scale offerings. De Graaf says: “The focus as well from the Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Authority is to enter the four-star, mid-scale segment, in order to offer guests to the emirate a bigger variety of hotels.”

De Graaf narrates how the hotel’s building structure has been existing since the 1970s, with Hilton operating a very successful hotel on the site from 2001. Along the way, Hilton had also operated a beach club so guests staying in downtown Ras Al Khaimah could have beach access. The site of the former beach club is now the present-day Hilton Ras Al Khaimah Resort & Spa. On January 2015, the old Hilton closed its doors.

“This hotel has always played a vital role in the local community and also in the establishment of the emirate. So this hotel is still very close to the hearts of the locals, it still holds a lot of meaning to them,” de Graaf discloses.

As to why the hotel went through a rebranding and transition from a Hilton to a Hilton Garden Inn, de Graaf says that although the old Hilton had been performing well, both operator and owners had concurred that the hotel was in need of a refurbishment. Both parties subsequently realised that market conditions was calling for more than just a refurbushment; it was calling for a rethink in strategy and that meant a rebrand.

“We needed to do something to stay up to date and start competing with new products from other brands coming into the market. It was decided  to follow the emirate’s strategy and also the strategy of Hilton to enter the mid-scale segment,” de Graaf says.

“We’ve got the luxury, we’ve got the upper upscale covered but there was a gap,” he points out.

De Graaf declares: “Hilton is always a pioneer. Back then, people were asking us, why were we entering Ras Al Khaimah? We believed in this destination and we knew we could start building it up and that’s the same approach we have here. The mid-scale segment is not that strong yet in the Northern Emirates but we are pioneers and we believe we can make it work so together, with Hilton and our owning company, we decided to make this hotel a Hilton Garden Inn to cover the market but also as a strategic positioning for the brand.”

De Graaf reveals that discussions between Hilton and the owning company over the new strategy commenced three years ago. “It was quite forward thinking, for which Hilton as a company is known for. Entering Ras Al Khaimah is a prime example. Now you see a lot of competitors following in our footsteps here.”

Speaking of competitors, the mid-scale landscape in the Northern Emirates is poised to heat up, with a newly opened Tulip Inn Ras Al Khaimah and brands such as Four Points by Sheraton and Citymax due to come online. Nevertheless, de Graaf feels confident about the Hilton Garden Inn’s competitive advantages.

“Among that group of hotels, we will play a crucial role and we will be the leading hotel in that segment. The key reasons why I say that is our location and our product as we have it. It’s a unique setting here – the arrival experience with the garden and the creek in front of us, the mall next to us. We’ve created a little oasis in the city centre of Ras Al Khaimah, which none of our competitors as we speak will be able to offer. This is what will differentiate us in the end from any of our competitors,” he remarks.

However, none of its competitors have to contend with a particularly daunting challenge facing the Hilton Garden Inn, that of persuading a public, who may still harbour emotional  attachments to its previous incarnation, to welcome and embrace its new, mid-scale identity.

When questioned, de Graaf says he and his team are up  to the task at hand.

“We start the education process from our end and one crucial part is our team. Our team members are the heart of the hotel and they, of course, are the ones facing the hotel guests on a daily basis. So they are the ambassadors to convey the message that we want to achieve. So for me, the team is the most important. I can invest a lot of money in marketing and PR and e-commerce but in the end, the guest comes in and it’s our team members who will be conveying that message,” he says.

How do they intend to achieve this, to convey the message that whilst the hotel stays within the Hilton family, it nonethless has acquired a new identity and is an altogether different product with different service platforms?

De Graaf elaborates further on the preparation that goes on behind the scenes of a reinvention, saying: “The management team came together a week ago and worked on a message which we’re all now memorising and taking to heart. We basically established a vision for the hotel, which we are now starting to live and bring to our teams and our daily operations. That vision is ‘promising to deliver consistent and bright experiences through a passionate and empowered team’ and this is something we want to bring across to our guests.”

In comparison to the previous Hilton, de Graaf reveals that the Hilton Garden Inn will operate with a much leaner manning structure. “For the opening, we’ve now got 82 team members on board, a mixture of fresh recruits and Hilton transfers. With a lean structure, we will need to help each other during peak periods    and support each other to make sure we cover all the guests.”

He explains: “It’s a crucial part of the brand when we say, ‘I serve’, where we  focus on empowerment and multi-tasking. This means that a front office manager could be serving breakfast in the restaurant at peak times or if there are lots of arrivals on Thursday afternoons,  a F&B team member could be helping out with suitcases. The brand philosophy also means that me as a general manager, during peak times, could be helping out at the front desk, doing check-ins or helping with the luggage, to make sure we’ve got a seamless operation.”

De Graaf cites that an austere operating model poses an advantage, opening up more guest contact opportunities for management and staff.

“By building those relationships, we can talk about who we are, that we are Hilton Garden Inn, and we can collect feedback from our guests. This is the vision that we spent two days on as a team, developing and making sure that we are all aligned with what we are going to do. This vision is something we are sharing with all our teams to make sure that we are all going in the same direction.”

It remains to be seen how the message will be received by the public. De Graaf affirms: “The biggest challenge is still ahead – the opening. As soon as we are open, the challenge of transforming the people’s former mindset of the hotel and replacing that old perception with its new identity, really begins. I think that will be our biggest challenge.”

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